The Duluth Seaway Port Authority didn’t set out to coin a new maritime term last week, but officials may have started the process anyway.
In talking about how ore freighters have been stacking up on Lake Superior, including in the port of Duluth-Superior, they described it alternately as “bunching” or ship “clumping.”
Spokesman Jayson Hron favored “late-season clumping” and called it fairly typical for this time of year.
“I call it bunching,” said Kate Ferguson, the Port Authority's director of trade and business development. “I don't believe there is a specific term for it.”
With the 2020-21 shipping campaign drawing to an end when the Soo Locks close for the winter on Jan. 15, lake freighters are carrying the season’s final loads of taconite iron ore from ports on Lake Superior to steelmaking facilities on the lower Great Lakes.
But ships aren’t “bunching” because shipping companies are redoubling efforts to make up for a trying year. Cargoes dropped 27% in the local port through the end of November during a pandemic-addled season. But there’s no making up for lost time or tonnage, Ferguson said.
Instead, the bunching and clumping is attributed to other factors.
“At this time of year you have groups of vessels that have weathered storms together, and then they transit the lake together, and they’re waiting for the same loading docks,” Ferguson said.
A clumping of ships was expected this weekend in Two Harbors, where several lake freighters were scheduled to arrive.
The stormy weather that begins with November’s gales slows shipping movements on the lakes.
When that happens, the ore boats don’t sail through the middle of the lake as the ships might in summer. Instead, the boats move along closer to the shores of Lake Superior. The captains will duck into places such as the Whitefish and Keweenaw bays when the lake is frenzied. The ships will all move out in unison when it clears.
“They’ll kind of tuck into different protected shelters and ride out the storms, so they’ll get into groups,” Ferguson said. "These vessels only have so many places on the Great Lakes to hide from weather."
The other factor that leads to bunches of ships at lake ports: By this time of the season, the diversity of cargoes falls off, leaving mostly ore and coal to be loaded. Fewer cargoes means more ships lining up for the same docks. That's why so many ore carriers have been seen at anchor of late in Lake Superior, outside the Duluth ship canal.
It presents a picturesque view, but it's not ideal.
“The companies’ traffic departments work hard to get a separation,” Ferguson said. “You want to come to an empty dock that’s prepared for you. That means you get a really fast load.”
Blast furnace usage rates at U.S. steel mills were trending forcefully upward last week, according to the Port Authority — a positive sign for iron ore demand.
So while there is no way to make up for lost time or tonnage on the Great Lakes, there is hope for a better tomorrow.
“We’re seeing iron ore going strong into 2021," Ferguson said. "With all the mines in operation on the Iron Range, we’re very hopeful for a positive 2021 shipping season."
As far as the bunching or clumping goes, Ferguson reminded: It's mostly about the weather.
"Unless another storm hits, you see them naturally begin to separate," she said, describing each departing boat getting a head start on the next one yet to load. "It's when you have weather that has them sheltering they all tend to bunch into clumps."