Box-shaped cargo hold among new ship's unique traits

Mark W. Barker will sail with a safer lifeboat, gender-specific changing rooms, and private staterooms for each crew member.

Mark W. Barker.
Two men walk near a partially open hatch on the Mark W. Barker on March 15. The vessel has fewer but larger hatch openings than a typical laker with a type of cover more commonly found on ocean-going vessels to give it more flexibility to carry cargos other than bulk materials.
Steve Kuchera / Duluth News Tribune
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STURGEON BAY, Wis. — At 639 feet long, the Mark W. Barker may be the smallest vessel in the Interlake Steamship Co.’s fleet, but it’ll have the same or better cargo capacity than some of its fleet mates.

That’s because of its unique box-shaped cargo hold — one of many singular qualities belonging to the Great Lake’s newest freighter.

Instead of walls sloping into grates, like typical bulk cargo holds, the walls are square and take up more of the void space between the cargo holds and hull. It gives the vessel a total capacity of 26,000 tons, more than the 767-foot fleet mate Kaye E. Barker.

The first U.S.-built lake freighter in almost 40 years nears completion at a shipyard in Sturgeon Bay, Wisconsin.

“It doesn’t have the typical slopes that ore carriers have,” said Justin Slater, Fincantieri Bay Shipbuilding’s director of sales and marketing. “It opens up what options Interlake has for cargo. They can put different things in there.”

Standing inside the ship during a tour in March, one felt dwarfed by the canyon-size of the cargo hold. Giant box girders atop the hold, and heavy steel hatch framing along the edges are key components in the longitudinal and latitudinal strength of the boat.


The Wisconsin city's history with boat-building began almost 200 years ago.

"If you think about the boat, it's just a U-shape," Bay Shipbuilding project manager Amelia Ott said. "All the pressure of the water on the outside wants to fold the boat in on itself, so we have these box girders that support, and the rails and hatch coaming (a raised frame) that the hatch covers ride on are also structurally important to the vessel."

But the cargo hold's box shape also creates an inefficiency, and a new job for the crew. At either end of the cargo hold, which can be separated into two by an adjustable bulkhead, are two garages several hundred feet apart each containing a front-end loader.

The Mark W. Barker.
A visitor on the Mark W. Barker walks into one of two garages for front-end loaders in the ship’s holds. Rather than the traditional V-shaped hold many bulk carriers have, the Barker’s holds are flat-bottomed with vertical walls. This gives the ship the versatility to carry different types of cargo. The tradeoff is front-end loaders will have to help move bulk cargos such as iron ore or limestone to the conveyor belt for unloading.
Steve Kuchera / Duluth News Tribune

When unloading bulk cargo, like taconite, crew members will use the loaders to collect and push bulk materials into one of 34 sets of gates located in the floor that deposit onto the self-unloading conveyor belt below.

“When the cargo reaches that point where it’s not flowing freely any more, they’ll open the garage doors and the front-end loaders will come out,” said Ott, who led a tour of the new boat in March.

The box-shaped holds will allow for cargoes such as wind blades.

Mark W. Barker.
The Mark W. Barker’s enclosed lifeboat. When completed, the Barker will carry the boat on a ramp at its stern, from where it will slide and fall into the water if ever needed.
Steve Kuchera / Duluth News Tribune

Among other key attributes of the new Mark W. Barker:

  • The flat, load-bearing hatch covers on the weather deck are designed to hold container cargoes. More commonly found on ocean-going vessels, the hatch covers are fewer in number than normal lakers, and each one features far fewer manual clamps for deckhands to open and close. The hatch covers also move hydraulically via remote control and stack in pairs, moving along steel rails. “The cargo hatch arrangement is unique, that’s for sure,” Slater said. “It allows you to open up much larger sections of the cargo hold.”
  • In case the crew ever needs to abandon ship, it’ll be the first U.S.-flagged Great Lakes boat to feature a fully enclosed, free-falling lifeboat, located on a platform near the top of the five-level deck house. “This boat comes with all kinds of boats,” Ott said, describing an additional fast rescue boat for person-overboard scenarios, and a work boat for open-water chores around the vessel. 
  • There are roughly two dozen single-mariner staterooms, and two owners’ staterooms, all with mounted televisions, and beds and dressers built into the design. There’s a private shower and bath in every room. 
  • Male and female engineers changing rooms in the engine room. So, before a person goes out of the engine room in their dirty boiler suit they can change in private instead of taking that up to their room. 
  • Increased steel thickness at the bow of the boat, bolstering the hull plating for ice conditions. 
  • A galley that runs the full width of the deck house, featuring stainless steel commercial kitchen appliances and a cafeteria-style serving window.
  • Twin, first-of-their-kind EMD-brand engines. “We have basically serial No. 1 and serial No. 2 for these engines,” Ott said, describing them as capable of 8,000 horsepower and the first 16-cylinder, Tier 4-compliant diesel engines ever put into service. 

Tier 4 status means the Mark W. Barker meets the strictest federal emissions standards.
“There are some different systems … to make it Tier 4,” Ott said, describing “selective catalytic reduction.”

“Basically, it’s a fancy way to say they spray a bunch of stuff into the exhaust that knocks the harmful stuff out of it,” she added.


Ott came upon the engine control room.

Mark W. Barker.
Construction workers examine plans in the Mark W. Barker’s engine control room. The ship’s engine room can be largely controlled by one person in this room.
Steve Kuchera / Duluth News Tribune

“This is the brains of the operation,” she said, describing 400,000 feet of cable used to wire the boat and how everything from ballast levels to automated valves can be controlled by a single person in the room. The engine control room is located several narrow staircases below the pilot house, where the captain works and navigation is handled.

Nearing completion, the construction crew will have to go through and tighten every bolt again to account for thermal expansion and contraction after the engines are fired for the first time later this spring.

“We’ll knock every bolt to make sure it’s all good and tight,” said Ott, who was eager to feel the rumble of the ship in operation.

Bay Shipbuilding General Manager Craig Perciavalle fielded the question on everybody’s mind: Is it too soon to call the Mark W. Barker a success?

“Oh, I have a lot of faith,” Perciavalle said. “There’s no doubt when you walk the vessel it’s going to be great and do wonderful things for the customer for decades to come.”

Mark W. Barker.
A worker paints draft marks at the stern of the Mark W. Barker before the ship’s propeller and rudder are installed. The ship’s hull design optimizes the flow of water through the propeller.
Contributed / Interlake Steamship Co.
The Mark W. Barker.
The trailing edge of the Mark W. Barker’s rudder can move, giving the ship increased maneuverability. The ship was designed to navigate the tight bends of the Cuyahoga River in Cleveland.
Steve Kuchera / Duluth News Tribune
The Mark W. Barker.
Fincantieri Bay Shipbuilding program manager Amelia Ott gestures toward the two exhaust pipes for the Mark W. Barker’s two 16-cylinder diesel engines. The ship meets EPS Tier 4 emission standards.
Steve Kuchera / Duluth News Tribune

Brady Slater is a former reporter for the Duluth News Tribune.
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