ABOARD THE BENSON FORD — It's 12:30 a.m. on an overcast December night and a frozen stillness enfolds Duluth's ice-packed and almost empty harbor.
Duluth, perched above the harbor on steep, snow-covered cliffs at the northwestern tip of the Great Lakes, stares quietly down. The Minnesota city's lights glare from empty streets, reflecting off the broken harbor ice that extends from Duluth's wide piers to the steel aerial lift bridge that separates the port from the slate gray waters of Lake Superior beyond.
The only sign of life on this night here at the northern edge of the United States is aboard the Benson Ford. Members of the 767-foot freighter's crew are padding about its flood-lit deck, making ready for one last run down the lakes before the winds, waves and ice of winter close the Great Lakes to shipping from Christmas until spring.
Tries to Beat Winter
The Benson Ford, a hulking ore freighter that has been chugging up and down the Great Lakes for 34 seasons, is now ready to try to beat winter--and the ruthless laws of economics that are destroying American flag shipping on the largest freshwater lakes in the world--one last time before the end of the 1986 season.
Bundled in weather-worn overalls, work coats and hard hats, the crewmen watch as huge dockside loading machines fill the boat's cargo hold with nearly 25,000 tons of iron ore pellets from Minnesota's Iron Range, bound for a steel mill outside Detroit.
After the pellets are poured and evenly distributed in the hold so the boat will remain stable in rough seas, the deckhands move quickly to close the hatches and make ready to sail.
At last, Capt. Patrick Owens eases the boat out of its moorings. Owens barks orders at Robert McLain, a silver-maned wheelsman with a syrupy Alabama accent, as they work to turn the Benson around and pull out into the harbor delicately, avoiding the thickest and most dangerous sections of ice.
'Like Parallel Parking'
"This is like parallel parking an 800-foot station wagon in an ice flow," Owens jokes.
Finally, the Benson, crunching loose ice as it goes, begins to slip out of the harbor and into the Lake Superior darkness. As it passes under the raised harbor bridge, the Benson's foghorn blasts away, echoing off the city's cliffs.
"This is the Benson Ford, leaving Duluth harbor," Owens radios to the bridge operator.
"We'll see you next year."
That was perhaps the most optimistic statement Owens would make the entire voyage. For Owens, a rotund, third-generation Great Lakes sailor in his first year as captain of the Benson Ford, knows that he and the rest of the crew are part of an endangered industry, and survival from one shipping season to the next is far from certain.
In fact, Great Lakes sailing, which has long held a strong romantic allure for boys and men all over the northern Midwest, is a rapidly disappearing bit of Americana.
Indeed, faced with worsening economic conditions that have gutted demand for their cargoes, the men aboard the Benson now wonder whether they are the last of a breed of freshwater sailors who for generations have braved the ruthless weather on the Great Lakes to haul the mundane but crucial raw materials needed to keep America's industrial heartland humming.
"This is a dying profession," said Jim Nuzzo, the Benson's first mate, with a sigh. "It used to be every college kid in the Great Lakes area could sail on the lakes for the summer. Today, with all the ships laid up, all the young sailors are gone. You have to have 20 years of seniority to get a job.
Never the Brothers
"Now, when I travel around the Lakes and I tell people what I do, they say: 'Oh yeah, my uncle sailed, or my grandfather sailed.' But it's never my brother is a sailor now."
All signs point to even less employment on the lakes in the future. Every year, fewer and fewer freighters flying the American flag ply the waters of the Great Lakes, and they carry fewer and fewer American sailors. In 1986, the American fleet operating on the lakes shrank to its second-lowest level since the Great Depression of the 1930s. Near the end of the 1986 shipping season, there were just 45 American flag bulk freighters and tankers on the lakes. By contrast, 120 were operating a decade ago, and there were more than 500 vessels in the American Great Lakes fleet just after World War II.
The 16 American shipping lines still operating on the lakes are caught in a tightening vise of international economics that has drastically reduced the demand for two of their prime bulk cargoes: iron ore and Midwestern grain. The rising tide of imported steel has decimated the American steel industry and, with it, the domestic demand for iron ore, a basic ingredient in steel-making. At the same time, the worldwide glut of grain has sent the volume of grain shipped through the Great Lakes into a tailspin.
Unfortunately, the American-flag fleet is completely dependent on carrying such bulk cargoes.
Wide Hulls Carry More