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Shipping industry contends with Lake Superior gale warning

he American Integrity steams in to the Duluth Superior harbor in 2013. On Thursday, the Integrity was tucked behind Sand Island on the South Shore, just west of the Apostle Islands, expecting to wait out the waves caused by northeasterly winds predicted to sustain between 23-40 mph with gusts up to 70 mph midlake near the Keweenaw Peninsula. (file / News Tribune)

The Lake Superior shipping industry braced for a long overnight of gale-force winds — and was doing so without the network of weather buoys which have already been swept up for the season by the U.S. Coast Guard buoy tenders.

Gale warnings were scheduled to start at 10 p.m. Thursday and last until noon Friday.

The American Integrity tucked behind Sand Island on the South Shore, just west of the Apostle Islands, expecting to wait out the waves caused by northeasterly winds predicted to sustain between 23-40 mph with gusts up to 70 mph midlake near the Keweenaw Peninsula.

The thousand footer, one of the New York-based American Steamship fleet of lakers, figured to wait until midday Friday for an ore dock to open up in Two Harbors, where the Joseph L. Block was loading.

The jaunt across the nose of the lake to Two Harbors is a short hour-and-a-half under reasonable conditions. But the gale warning portended something more wicked and was worth settling down for, said Ron Williams.

As is his usual, Williams, the port meteorological officer for the National Weather Service in Duluth, was in communication with most of the ships out on the lake.

"I spend a lot of time with captains on decisions. It's all part of the job," he said. "I'll get calls in the middle of night. I try to give good information and keep them safe."

Quiet conditions in recent weeks on the lake were giving way to the storm system that Williams said shot out of Colorado holding a lot of moisture. The center of the storm is expected to arrive roughly over Sault Ste. Marie at the eastern edge of Lake Superior, with pinwheeling winds driving waves north across the lake.

A shipboard network of weather spotting has solely taken over the weather monitoring on the lakes. The buoys come out early and go back in around May — well after the March 25 reopening of the shipping season. In short, the vessels are used to working together to understand what they're getting into weather-wise. The National Weather Service has instruments aboard most of the U.S.- and Canadian-flagged ships, Williams said. He spends a lot of his time aboard ships, training crews on how to read instruments and record the data.

"I have over 100 ships taking part in the Voluntary Observing Ship program," Williams said, giving the official name. "We get weather data from the ships to include in the model for forecast purposes — wind speed, barometric pressure, water temperature."

Ships, such as the American Integrity, can anchor on the South Shore, but the deep waters and strong current on the North Shore will force ships to either stay in harbor or test the shoreline — which can be risky for the way the current and deep water can make for rough going along the rugged coastline.

Williams noted a ship that took off in a storm earlier this year, leaving Two Harbors to get beaten up by 25-foot waves and 50-70 mph winds. It was bad enough to need repairs, he said.

"There are some of the salties that will blast through everything," he said, of the ocean-goers who've already ended their season locally. "You can go north, hug all the way to Thunder Bay, Marathon (Canada) right on the northern edge and follow the coast down. It adds a full day onto travel. But they like to keep moving, that's for sure."

The Soo Locks figure to be conducting business as usual for ships reaching the locks at the calm center of the storm, Williams said. The locks close for the season at 11:59 p.m., on Jan. 15.

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