Captain fought to keep freighter on course in Duluth ship canal as storm blew in

In a file photo, the Algoma Guardian nears the Superior entry to pick up a load of iron ore in May 2016. On Thursday, the ship encountered severe storms as it entered the Duluth ship canal. (Photo by Paul Scinocca)

A 729-foot freighter was making its way through the Duluth ship canal when the winds began to howl early Thursday.

As the strong straight-line winds from severe storms began to quickly turn the Algoma Guardian sideways in the canal, Capt. Monford Organ's main concern was getting the freighter into the Duluth Harbor Basin without any damage.

"I gave her lots of engine and steered her in the opposite way of the wind and got her in fast enough before she set in too much in the wind," Organ, who has captained the Algoma Guardian for five years, recounted Friday.

With the Aerial Lift Bridge up to allow for the Algoma Guardian's entry at 3:30 a.m. Thursday, bridge operator Mark Nyman realized there was nothing he could do except wait it out at the top of the span while the wind sounded like a freight train around him.

"I kind of wondered if the bridge would actually hold and it did. I'm sure it's designed for severe conditions and the bridge did fine," he said. "But the bridge deck itself was shaking quite a bit, back and forth in an east-to-west motion due to the wind. It was a little spooky and she was shaking really good, more so than I've ever felt it shake."


Organ, who hails from Newfoundland, is a veteran of steering a freighter through the Duluth entry and has experienced a lot of storms in his 24 years as a Great Lakes mariner - but none as extreme as trying to navigate through the ship canal on Thursday.

Three times during the storm, the lift bridge's gauge clocked the wind at 70 knots, or 80 miles per hour - but the gauge is in a place where it's not directly in the wind, Nyman said. The Algoma Guardian's wind gauge measured the gusts at 90 knots, or 103 mph.

Up on the lift bridge, "it was shaking pretty gosh darn good," Nyman said. He knew severe weather was predicted, but the wind accelerated to severe levels within seconds of starting. He said he could hear the wind coming like a freight train and "that's when I knew there was going to be trouble," he said.

Although Nyman has worked in the Duluth harbor and as a mariner for years, he's new to the lift bridge operator job - he began in March of this year. He said he's proud to work for the city and a wild ride on the lift bridge in a windstorm comes with the territory.

Nyman gave Organ credit for his skill in guiding the Algoma Guardian safely into the harbor basin, because the freighter going into the side of the canal was a possibility, he said.

"The captain on the Algoma Guardian did a very good job of straightening the ship out and making it through the canal safely," he said. "He should be commended for that because he did an excellent job."

Heading toward the Duluth entry before the storms hit, Lake Superior's calm water was like a mirror, Organ said. He knew thunderstorms were predicted and was hoping to dock before they hit. The freighter was coming into Duluth with a crew of 23 to pick up a load of grain destined for Quebec.

"As soon as I started to come through the piers, bang, she just hit - 80, 85 knots of wind, rain, couldn't see nothing. The ship started to go sideways. ... We got her in, we got her in OK, but it was quite interesting," he said.


The Algoma Guardian has state-of-the-art equipment on board to help with navigation, but radar isn't very dependable when the freighter is in close quarters with the sides of the canal and the wind is acting up, he explained.

"You just gotta go by good judgment and hope for the best," he said.

Entering the canal was the "the point of no return" and his only option was to give the Algoma Guardian "full engine" to move quickly out of the canal, he said. He then turned the freighter as best he could once inside the Duluth Harbor Basin.

"We weren't expecting it, but with quick thoughts and good judgment, we got her in. No damage to ship or property or crew, that was our goal," he said.

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