Saltie season steams to a close

If you expected the usual three-blast salute from the saltwater freighter Nogat as it steamed under the Aerial Lift Bridge on Wednesday afternoon, Capt. Dariusz Nowicki apologizes for the unusual quiet.

Saltie comes into port
The saltwater freighter the Nogat enters the Duluth Ship Canal from Lake Superior on Wednesday afternoon. The 492-foot vessel is the last saltie into port for what has been an unusually busy shipping season for grain traffic. (Clint Austin /

If you expected the usual three-blast salute from the saltwater freighter Nogat as it steamed under the Aerial Lift Bridge on Wednesday afternoon, Capt. Dariusz Nowicki apologizes for the unusual quiet.

The horn was frozen shut.

"Everything was covered in ice crossing Lake Superior," Nowicki said. "The crew worked all day today getting the ice off the hatch covers."

The crew estimated 100 metric tons of ice was on the 492-foot ship. That's what happens to Lake Superior spray when the temperature hits 10 below zero.

Beyond the cold and early harbor ice, it's been an uneventful ending to a hectic 2010 saltwater shipping season for the Twin Ports harbor.


Tugboats nudged the Nogat into the CHS Elevator in Superior at dusk Wednesday to take on about 12,000 tons of flax and wheat bound for Amsterdam. It was the last saltie into the Twin Ports and probably will be the last to leave, probably on Friday. The Welland Canal closes the day after Christmas. (Great Lakes freighters will keep going to mid-January.)

"We'll be celebrating Christmas on the North Atlantic if all goes well,'' Nowicki said.

The Nogat visit caps the busiest season for the harbor in many years, with overall traffic up 25 percent and grain shipments up 60 percent over last year, according to the Seaway Port Authority of Duluth, with well over 2 million tons of grain shipped out. That's thanks to a bumper crop across America's bread basket farms and a crippling drought and wildfire season in Russia.

With no Russian grain on the market, the world has turned to the U.S. to fill the need, and bushels of it have moved through the Twin Ports. More salties have meant more work for everyone around the port, from tugboats, stevedores and longshoremen to pilots and suppliers.

"It's been an incredible year, especially compared to 2008 and 2009 which were really down," said Don Willecke, a 21-year veteran Great Lakes ship pilot who guides freighters in and out of the harbor. "It's a shame someone else has to have a tragedy for us to have a good year. But it's really helped business around here."

That includes Ed and Jeanne Montgomery's Sea Service LLC. They run the pilot boat Sea Bear, a husky 55-foot mini-tugboat that shuttles pilots like Willecke back and forth to salties anchored outside the harbor.

"It's not like the big years of the late 1990s. But it's been a very good year," said Ed Montgomery, a fourth- generation skipper who has been a pilot boat captain since 1993.

On Wednesday the Sea Bear made its 108th trip of the season when it brought Willecke from Lakehead Boat Basin out to the Nogat to guide the saltie into harbor. About six inches of harbor ice cracked into jagged shards as the Sea Bear motored out onto Lake Superior.


"Blessed calm seas. You guys lucked out," Montgomery said as he throttled-back the big 500 horsepower diesel engine and touched the Sea Bear's bow to the Nogat's port side. "Trying to do this in 10 foot seas and ice is like a trapeze high wire act."

Willecke wasn't so lucky back in December 1999, when he slipped off an icy gangway and into the frigid waters of the big lake. It took 10 minutes for the Sea Bear crew to fish him out, and he was hypothermic when he arrived at the hospital.

"It's usually a pretty calm job. But this time of year can be interesting with the ice on the lake," Willecke said.

Willecke's home is in Traverse City, Mich., but this year he's spent most of the season in Superior thanks to the increased saltie traffic. But as the salties head east and the Sea Bear and tugs hold up for winter, Willecke can go home, likely to return in late March or early April, depending on when the Great Lakes lose their ice.

But on Wednesday, Willecke was still busy doing his job, keeping foreign ships on the straight and narrow in the Twin Ports harbor. He was calling the shots as the Nogat was about halfway up the harbor channel on its way in as it approached the oncoming Croation saltie Orsula on its way out of port. The Coast Guard Cutter Alder had just passed by as well. The tugs North Dakota and North Carolina were busy pushing ice and pulling the salties in and out.

Then suddenly, without warning, the Nogat's frozen horn, which failed to sound under the Aerial Bridge, let loose. It didn't stop for about 60 seconds, possibly the longest continuous ship's horn blast in recent Twin Ports history.

An obviously embarrassed Nowicki frantically pushed buttons and radioed for technical support, but the deafening horn kept blasting until it seemed to slowly grow weak and finally die.

"Special entry for us!" Nowicki said with a smile. "The last ship in your port this year!"

John Myers reports on the outdoors, natural resources and the environment for the Duluth News Tribune. You can reach him at
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