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Viking ship faces uncertain fate; will go port-to-port based on ability to pay fees

Some crew members aboard the Draken Harald Hårfagre take part in a meal while the Viking ship sails on Lake Huron on Thursday. (Photo courtesy of Draken Harald Hårfagre)

The crew of a Norwegian Viking ship was sweating out an uncertain fate Friday, unable for now to afford to move on from a tall ships festival this weekend in Bay City, Mich., despite festival commitments in Chicago, Green Bay and Duluth next on the docket.

"In my personal opinion everything should work itself out, but it's not without extreme amounts of stress and headaches," said Woody Wiest, part of the senior leadership aboard the Draken Harald Hårfagre, a one-of-a-kind replica at the center of a week-long controversy involving the U.S. Coast Guard and a heretofore little-known practice called pilotage.

"It's taken a lot of energy for all of us to push through when it's definitely not in the budget to do so," said Wiest, citing pilotage rates of $9,100 per day.

The storm of controversy began to swirl this week when the operators of the Draken Harald said in a news release that the vessel may turn back for home for having to pay the hefty pilotage fees the operators had previously believed they were exempt from paying.

The plight of the Draken Harald hit news outlets across the Great Lakes and became a cause célèbre for social media commentators who appeared outraged that the Coast Guard wouldn't waive the pilotage fees it governs.

The vessel is scheduled to appear at Tall Ships Duluth from Aug. 18-21. For now, Wiest said it will go port-to-port based on its ability to raise money to pay pilotage rates.

"I've talked with the New York Times and Wall Street Journal," said Lorne Thomas, chief of external affairs for the 9th Coast Guard District in Cleveland, as a way of defining the scope of the controversy. "Social media has been very active, too, but this really isn't something new to the Coast Guard."

Pilotage law has been in place since 1960, and requires that foreign vessels welcome aboard local pilots to help guide ships and non-recreational sailing vessels through unfamiliar waters on the Great Lakes.

Before the 3-year-old vessel made its first Great Lakes voyage, Wiest said the operators worked diligently in an effort to understand both the American and Canadian rules regulating the Great Lakes, even flying to Canada before the expedition to gain further understanding.

"If there was miscommunication or misunderstanding," he said, "we worked really hard to make sure there wasn't."

But something changed after the ship entered the St. Lawrence Seaway and the boat was told to take on a pilot somewhere between Quebec City and Toronto.

"You don't argue with the Coast Guard," Wiest said.

The plight of the Draken Harald has cast a spotlight on the practice and cost of piloting foreign vessels through the Great Lakes.

"Probably this will be the last time we sail into the lakes with our replicas until things change," said Eduardo Almagro Blanco, in an email to the News Tribune.

Blanco is the general manager for another foreign tall ship, the Spanish El Galeón Andalucía. While the El Galeón has made multiple voyages across the Great Lakes over the past several years, Blanco said the rising costs associated with pilotage would likely be a future deterrent that keeps the ship from entering the Saint Lawrence Seaway.

"We really respect (the pilots) and appreciate their help for safe sailings and we will fully pay their fees," Blanco said. "However, we think it is an unfair situation for non-commercial foreign tall ships."

Both Blanco and the operators of the Draken Harald argue that their missions are educational in nature and note that they do not leave the lakes with millions of dollars' worth of heavy cargos like the more common sea freighters.

"Tall ships have been coming for a couple decades and they've all been told the same thing and they've all been able to comply," the Coast Guard's Thomas said.

But even freighter operators — long familiar with building pilotage rates into their business models — are taking umbrage with the fees of late. Multiple shipping associations and foreign ship operators filed suit against the Coast Guard in U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia on May 31.

The suit alleges substantial and unlawful increases in pilotage rates, calling them "the largest single cost items for foreign-flag vessels" that enter the system. The lawsuit asks for the Coast Guard's most recent ruling on pilotage rates, which includes a 58 percent increase by the end of 2017, to be declared unlawful and calls for a rate reduction of at least 21 percent. The Coast Guard has yet to respond to the lawsuit and is being defended by the U.S. Attorney's Office.

For now, the Draken Harald carries the banner for pilotage reform. And it's garnering support to its cause. As of Friday, the charitable foundation for Sons of Norway, a Minneapolis-based financial services and cultural organization, had raised almost $25,000 in a campaign aimed at raising the $430,000 estimated for the Draken Harald to complete its summer-long odyssey through the Great Lakes.

A petition calling for relief for the Draken Harald from the Coast Guard had more than 10,000 signatures on Friday. Festival organizers around the Great Lakes, too, told the News Tribune earlier this week they were open to increasing appearance fees paid to the vessel in an effort to help with the pilotage costs.

"Everybody wants to see the ship," Wiest said.

Wiest explained that the journey from Bay City, Mich., to Draken Harald's next stop in Chicago could be up to a six-day sail. In order to trim costs, the ship's leadership agreed it would run the Draken Harald to Chicago under engine power, a three-day endeavor.

"If we have to, we'll do it," Wiest said.

But even with a change in strategy, the ship doesn't yet have enough money to make it to Chicago.

"We're going to pay our bills — that's the idea," Wiest said. "We know we can't leave Bay City yet. It's a really hard place to be in."