Watch the Waters
A Great Lakes freighter-spotting primer for boat-nerds-to-be
By Kristi Kates | July 7, 2018
Roger LeLievre was practically born a boat nerd.
The editor and publisher of the Know Your Ships field guide to spotting freighters on the Great Lakes got a very early start in the hobby that would become his authorship.
“My grandfather, early on, worked on the coal docks, putting coal on the freighters,” LeLievre said. “And I used to spend my summers up at my grandparents’ cabin on the water, up in the U.P., between Lake Huron and Lake Superior.”
KNOW YOUR SHIPS
Watching the freighters pass by quickly became a favorite pursuit.
And one of the tools LeLievre eventually found to help him with his hobby was the earlier edition of the Know Your Ships guide, which he actually took over from the original publisher.
The book was started in 1959 by Tom Manse, who had set a goal for himself of capturing at least one photo of all the big ships sailing the Great Lakes. Manse would later publish the original Know Your Ships, and he updated the book every single year for his fellow freighter watchers. LeLievre took over the book updates when Manse passed away in 1995.
Freighter-watchers are a tight knit bunch, and this book is an invaluable tool for identifying and enjoying freighters. It includes the essential statistics, including length, capacity, owner, and former names, for hundreds of ships plying the Great Lakes, as well as additional trivia like what the various boat whistles mean and how to follow the freighters as they travel from port to port.
“Lake Michigan is a little tricky for freighter-watching, as there aren’t really narrow channels near shore for the boats to pass through, so most of the ships are much farther out in the water,” LeLievre said. “But there are plenty of places to see the ships further downstate if you know where to look.”
Grand Haven, Ludington, and Port Huron are hot destinations LeLievre suggested for Up North watchers to check out, especially Port Huron: “You’ll often find a bunch of boat nerds parked under the Blue Water Bridge there, taking photos as the freighters go by,” he said.
Freighter-watchers are primarily looking for two kinds of ships: Boats from the Great Lakes fleets are American and Canadian vessels transporting to all the Great Lakes ports; many are too big to go out into the ocean via the St. Lawrence Seaway, so they only work on the Great Lakes, and their shipping career never extends beyond the freshwater seas and rivers.
The others are the saltwater ships, which LeLievre said are nicknamed simply “salties.” These boats are coming in from overseas, and generally only deal in a couple of specific types of cargo.
“We say ‘steel in, grain out,’ because the salties usually bring in finished steel, and take out grain,” LeLievre said. “There’s also a brisk trade in windmill parts on the salties.”
While it might sound like those two types of ships are doing quite the bustling trade on the Great Lakes, LeLievre pointed out that there are actually only a few companies left, and that most of the independent shipping companies are gone.
“A couple of the most familiar sights are the Interlake Steamship Company and the American Steamship Company,” he said.
“But right now, there are only about 50 large freighters working the Great Lakes, primarily hauling raw materials: iron ore pellets, coal, limestone, wheat, soybeans, other grains, sometimes cement, and sometimes oil and other chemicals used in industry.”
Once you get to know the boats, since there are so few, they become “like family,” LeLievre said.
“You end up remembering the ship names, their routes, what they typically carry,” he explained. “You even get to ‘know’ the captains, so you’ll see a ship passing by and you’ll be able to say, ‘Well, there’s Captain Joe — he’s going to Detroit bringing down more iron ore for the auto industry.”
Most of the 50 or so freighters on the Great Lakes are all diesel now, although a couple of steamships remain. All of the ships have a smokestack (exhaust) where viewers can see the ship’s logo and other markings, and then refer back to a guidebook or online website (see sidebar for suggestions) to decipher what they’re seeing.
Photography might just be the second biggest hobby among freighter-watchers; getting a majestic shot of a big ship on a sunny day, or a backlit silhouette of a passing one, is an accomplishment all on its own.
As is getting the freighters to acknowledge their “fans.”
“Sometimes, the freighters will see us standing there watching them as they go by, and they’ll blow their horn for us,” LeLievre said. “That’s the best. Then we get to jump around like schoolkids.”
- Binoculars, even an inexpensive low-power pair, are essential for reading ship markings and getting a closer look at what’s going on above deck; the zoom lens of a camera can work as well.
- LaLievre’s book has its own website at knowyourships.com. Both are a great place to start when looking for information on how to make freighter spotting your favorite new pursuit.
- The community website boatnerd.com is the other online resource suggested most often when inquiring about freighter-spotting — and for good reason: The site offers a plethora of details on the hobby and passing ships.
- There are often a number of flags on a freighter, but you can tell where each ship hails from by looking at the single flag flying at the very back of the ship.