It’s getting cooler up here in Wisconsin and the other night I threw on the Squall jacket I wore last year during a work trip.
Wearing it got me thinking about that trip and the adventure four of us from Lands’ End had on the largest lake in the world aboard the biggest ship on the lake.
This wasn’t your run-of-the-mill work trip. This trip took us across Lake Superior. It squeezed us between the US and Canada via the Soo Locks. Then it pushed us down Lake Huron to the port of St. Clair (just north of Detroit). Through rain, wind, fog, temps in the 30s and the rigors of life in the middle of the Great Lakes, 22 ore ship mariners helped us put our Squall Jackets through the ultimate wear test. And just as we hoped, our Squall Jackets lived up to challenge.
For 4 days we lived aboard the Paul R. Tregurtha – the largest ship in all the Great Lakes that has held the title “Queen of the Lakes” since 1981. At 1013 feet she’s almost as long as a Nimitz Class Aircraft Carrier. In layman’s terms, that’s three football fields long and approximately eight stories tall. She hauls coal and iron ore nonstop for 10 months out of the year – 63,000 tons at a time.
During the trip I got to know a few veteran and greenhorn mariners.
While up in the wheelhouse with the Captain and his Mates waiting for 22 million gallons of water to drain from the lock we were wedged in, I met Tim, the 1st Mate.
A calm, collected and weathered man, Tim and I passed the time sharing stories. At one point, Tim referred to himself as a “House Pipe.” Confused and curious I cautiously asked what that meant. He explained that a House Pipe was someone who started out down in the belly of the ship (in the engine room or cargo hold) and worked his way up the ranks to Mate.
His explanation was humble and I loved the symbolism. A pipe that meanders its way through the ship that ends in the wheelhouse.
But it wasn’t until I met other crewmembers that I realized how honorable it was to have the title House Pipe. Tim literally worked his way up from the bottom. And during his climb up to the wheelhouse, he not only became an expert on the ship’s inner workings but a role model and mentor for the new guys with ambitions to rise to the top.
Down in the guts of the Tregurtha while I was shooting pictures I met Dave, the ship’s 1st Engineer. Even amongst all the noise, flashing lights and moving parts & pieces it was easy to spot him. He had just as much energy and life as the twin 8,560 horse-power engines pushing us through the lakes.
An engineering grad from the Massachusetts Maritime Academy, Dave was one of the younger crewmembers and had only been working on ore ships for a few years. He had recently been promoted to 1st Engineer and I immediately knew why. He was as smart as he was energetic.
Dave’s the guy you look forward to talking with at parties because he always has a funny story to share. One that he shared with me was not only funny – it was also pretty clever.
Dave’s classes at the academy occasionally took him off campus. One time he and his classmates had an out of state seminar that required a hotel stay. The professor chaperoning made arrangements with the hotel staff to alert him if any students tried to leave after their 9pm curfew. Good thinking, Teach.
What his professor didn’t take into account was that these were engineering students trained to problem solve. So Dave and a couple others figured out how to disassemble the security windows without triggering the alarm or causing any damage. Then they snuck out, bought the necessary provisions to throw a party in their room and the next morning they snuck out again to dump the evidence before re-installing the windows. After all was said and done neither the professor nor the hotel staff ever found out.
And then there was Jerry.
This was Jerry’s second to last trip. He was retiring after spending his entire life working on ships in the Great Lakes. He wasn’t a House Pipe and I think that was by choice. I could tell he loved working with all the guys on the deck and living a less complicated life. I’m willing to bet that if he didn’t work on ore ships he’d be a cruise director for Carnival.
Jerry reminded me of a character on The Sopranos. . .only happier and selfless. He was big and lively and his deep, scratchy voice filled rooms when he spoke. The whole crew respected him because he had experienced everything a mariner could on the lakes. Including the worst experience.
The only time I ever saw Jerry’s upbeat personality retreat was when he briefly spoke about losing friends on the Edmund Fitzgerald. But that’s not my story to share.
Listening to Jerry talk about life on the Tregurtha was awesome. His stories were vivid, funny, dramatic and delightfully inappropriate. But I don’t think he was sharing his stories to entertain us. I think he was telling them to himself and reminiscing on his life as a mariner before saying goodbye to the only job he’s ever known.
Living aboard the Tregurtha was by far the best work trip I’ve ever been on.
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