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The Steel Sailors

A ride-along with the men who move the raw materials that make the world go round



Friday, 1 PM, Indiana Harbor, East Chicago, Indiana: The Mittal steelworks sits at the bottom of the southern curve of Lake Michigan. In its industrial heyday, this strip, stretching from South Chicago to Gary, was part of the Ruhr of America. All night, the sky glowed like a bonfire; all day, the air glittered like mica. Today Mittal is the biggest steelmaking complex on the continent. It's a steaming, rusting city, miles long and miles deep. Monolithic chimneys force out thunderheads of smoke, so that even on bright days the mill labors under dingy clouds and its tanks, towers, and filigreed bridges always appear in silhouette. Long chutes crisscross the vista, and heaps of crushed stone fill the foreground.

The lakefront is crannied with concrete-walled channels, admitting the freighters that deliver iron ore to Mittal's five blast furnaces. All year round, some 300 boats--as the sailors call them--make endless relays between Indiana and the ports that service the north country mines. One of the newest, the Joseph L. Block, built in 1975, has just arrived from Escanaba, Michigan, and is disgorging 30,000 tons of taconite, a low-grade ore mined in Michigan's Upper Peninsula and reduced to pellets, about an inch in diameter, for shipping. Up close, a taconite pellet looks like a miniature asteroid; on the pocked surface, iron glistens like graphite.

The rust-colored rock climbs a conveyor belt and tumbles off the tip of a cranelike boom onto a reddish dune that looks like a mountain on Mars. Operating the boom from a glassed-in booth is Michael Van Kuiken, a wheelsman on the Block. When the boat is sailing he works in the pilothouse, steering the freighter. The rest of the day he's in his berth, fiddling with his computer. In fact, right now Michael would rather be shopping for a motherboard.

Keeping a computer in good repair isn't so easy when you live on a boat. About five years ago, Michael smashed a laptop while boarding the J.W. Westcott, a boat that sidles alongside ships to drop off packages and pick up sailors, on the Detroit River. The river was rough, but he was desperate to get home and see his girlfriend. If he didn't get off in Detroit he'd have to wait until Cleveland--and after months on the boat, he couldn't endure another night. The Westcott raised a ladder. As Michael edged down the rungs, a swell pitched the smaller boat toward the Block and his laptop slammed into the hull.

There's no place for him to get what he needs in Escanaba, he says. "Up there it's like, 'What's a computer?' People tell me to go to Staples. Why, so I can buy a chair?" There's a Comp USA in northwest Indiana, but there's never enough time while the Block is docked to get to the store. The sailor is a captive of his vessel.

Michael would love to find a job on land. He trained as a telephone lineman but didn't like climbing poles. So he sails. Fifteen years now. Earns $15 an hour manning the wheel, 8 AM to noon and 8 PM to midnight, seven days a week. He never sleeps eight hours at a stretch and never gets a weekend. Every morning on a boat, Michael says, feels like Monday.

Friday, 4:30 PM, Indiana Harbor: The Block's captain, Thomas Martineau, is a gruff, gray stub of a man. When he ascends to the pilothouse to guide his boat out of harbor, a cone of silence settles over the room. No one speaks to "the Old Man" unless spoken to first. First mate Jim Bremer edges toward the port-side window. Wheelsman Alan "Flash" Seagar grips the left horn of his crescent-shaped helm.

Martineau makes a few profane remarks about last night's dinner ("You really liked that fuckin' chicken, didn't you?"), then lights a cigarette, rests an elbow on the sill, and stares out the window, studying the lake with the same absorption as a gambler transfixed by a slot machine. It's a captain's responsibility to pilot his boat in and out of port, and it's a captain's ass if something goes wrong. That's why captains earn over $100,000 a year.

The Block's bow is aimed inland, toward the mill. To reach the lake, this 728-foot-long boat will have to back up, then turn 90 degrees, like a car escaping a curbside parking space. Martineau grunts commands at his wheelsman.

"28 even."




"Right wheel."

Flash tilts his wheel left, then right. On smooth waters, at low speeds, you can't feel the boat move. You have to trust your eyes. On the pixelated computer map, the boat always points to the top of the screen; the land revolves around it.

The Block straightens and heads for the narrow passage in the breakwall. Once she hits open water, Captain Martineau turns her over to the first mate and retires to his cabin. Jim waits until he hears the cat's bell jingle at the bottom of the stairs, then turns on the satellite radio.

"Have you ever been to Manistique?" he asks me. It's a town on the Upper Peninsula.

"Once," I tell him.

"Do you know Indian Lake?"

"Yeah, I know it."

"There's a chapel behind the lake; I carved the statue of Bishop Frederick Baraga there. I used to be an artist. I did scrimshaw, carving, but there was no money in it. One winter, I was living in a cabin, boiling melted snow for water, eating soup. Then I got married, so I had to get a job. My stepfather sailed for 40 years, so I got a seaman's card. They say it's like prison, except you get paid."

As first mate, Jim's seldom on board longer than 60 days. For every two months on the water, he gets a month at home. It's the only time he sees his wife. She used to follow his boat all over the Lakes, meeting him at ports, but now she has night blindness and can only drive during the day.

"As soon as I retire from this," he says, "I'm going back to art."

According to the computer, we are 4.21 miles east of Chicago, running at 15 miles an hour--top speed. The skyline looks like a bar graph of its developers' egos, and the evening sun is an ocher glow in the gaps between buildings.

"This is pretty magnificent," I say.

Jim snorts.

"To you. To me, it's old hat. You get boat nerds, they think it's the greatest thing in the world. They've always wanted to work on one. After a week they turn into the biggest bitches in the world."

Friday, 11:30 PM, engine room: Mike Warren isn't like the other sailors. He's a troll. Dressed in a blue boiler suit, he sits below deck with his shift partner on the 8-to-12, Bill Hance, reading the gauges that monitor the Block's two 3,500-horsepower engines. Mike lives in a world with no land, water, or sky. He doesn't quite understand how people in the other world get along.

"You people are different," he says. "People on shore, they slow things down too much. I remember one time I got off the boat and had to have a tooth looked at. The dentist's office said it would take two weeks to get an appointment. Two weeks! I said, 'I don't have two weeks. I have to be back on the boat in a week.' I ended up losing the tooth."

Like Jim Bremer, Mike is from the U.P. Yoopers make up a third of the crew. Ever since the mines were emptied and the forests logged off--about 100 years ago--there hasn't been much work in the U.P. But the peninsula also just produces--and attracts--a breed of antisocial loner well suited for sailing.

Mike grew up in lower Michigan. He moved to the north after abandoning careers as a stockbroker and a taxi driver. "I got tired of dealing with people not being responsible for their mistakes," he says. Mike put in for his Z card--the Coast Guard certification for a merchant seaman--and called a shipping company. They asked if he could board the Edward L. Ryerson that night. He's rarely slept on land since.

"I feel like I live here, not there," Mike says. "One year I spent 360 days on this boat. I've got two kids. Sometimes, when we go through the Soo Locks, my wife'll bring 'em down and wave. Last year I made a sign that said 'Happy Birthday Ryan' and held it up. The Old Man saw the sign and blew the horn.

"If you like it here, you're not like normal people. You've gotta be someone who's confident with yourself: you like to read, you're an introvert. When I do get off the boat, the first week, I don't want to see anybody. I don't like being around crowds."

Before I leave, Mike and Bill open their binders and give me some statistics on the Block. It burns 1,200 gallons of diesel fuel a day. One gallon propels the boat approximately 528 feet. Its fuel efficiency rating is 1/10 of a mile per gallon. It carries the same amount of cargo as 520 semitrailers. If that convoy were to drive from Escanaba to Indiana, a trip that takes the boat about 19 hours, it would consume 15,600 gallons of fuel. Sailing, Mike notes, is "a little economical."

Saturday, 7 AM, galley: On a boat, food is abundant, free, and way, way better than anything the truckers are eating at Denny's. The dinner entrees last night were stuffed flounder and shrimp bisque. This morning the menu board lists eggs to order, omelet "w/choice," buttermilk pancakes, French toast, bacon, sausage links, and grilled Spam. Between meals the refrigerator and the cafeteria are stocked with cakes, pies, salads, pudding, and cookies. It's necessary, given the 24-hour schedule, but cooped-up sailors often eat out of boredom.

"When I first started sailing I gained 60 pounds in eight months," says steward's assistant George Orem. "I started out as a deckhand, and I was really kind of scrawny. Then I started eatin' a lot of cookies."

In the little cafeteria the sailors sit alone or in cliques of two or three: the 8-to-12 engine crew, the 12-to-4 deckhands, and so on. Breakfast is a quick refueling between sleep and work, or between work and sleep.

Back in the kitchen, steward Tom Anderson is breaking eggs over a grill. He cooked for 20 years at Sambo's in Escanaba before his uncle, a captain, encouraged him to work on the boats. "He said I was wasting my talent," Tom says. After breakfast he'll start preparing supper: chicken with Rice Krispies coating. "I've got 90 recipes, so they don't see anything more than once a month," he says. "Coming up with a good menu is real important, because everything else on a boat is the same. The only thing that changes is the food."

Saturday, 10:15 AM, off Door County, Wisconsin: The strait between Plum Island and the Door Peninsula is known as Porte des Morts--death's door. The Fleetwing, the A.P. Nichols, the Forest, the J.E. Gilmore, the Louisiana--they all sank in this channel. But the name reputedly comes from an earlier disaster, when dozens of native warriors drowned in a storm after a rival tribe lured their canoes by building campfires on the ice.

The Porte des Morts is the quickest route to Escanaba, so the Block is cutting through. Up in the pilothouse, second mate Moishe Tzalel is watching the strait with binoculars, looking for pleasure boats. On the radio, weekend captains are calling to each other: "Foolish Pleasure, Foolish Pleasure, this is Slapshot."

Moishe and his wheelsman, John Griffith, crack up. Little boats have the silliest names. "When they name their boats they don't think about talking on the radio," Moishe says.

The Block heads straight for Plum Island, while John waits for the buoy--or "range"--that tells him to swing northwest. Lounging in the wheelsman's chair, long-haired and tan, he looks less like a Rust Belt sailor than a Florida Keys charter captain. He's already plotting his party strategy for Escanaba.

"As soon as we get in, I'm going to this place called Hereford & Hops," he tells me. "They've got great beer. You should come along."

"Yeah, I'll come," I say. I love drinking with sailors. They know how to make the most of their bar time.

With the Plum Island range in view, John makes a sharp left, spinning the compass 25 degrees. The faint blue ridge of the Upper Peninsula lies straight ahead. The smokestacks of a paper mill bristle on the horizon.

"It's more fun to line up at night," John says. "It's more like a video game, because you're lining up lights. There's not as many distractions to the eye."

There are also fewer sailboats at night. Sailboats are a pain.

"Chicago is just littered with boats in the summer. It gets pretty hairy. Once, on our way back to Chicago, we altered course for a charter fishing boat. At some point you decide to alter course for their own good."

Saturday, 2:30 PM, Escanaba, Michigan: There are no longshoremen in Escanaba--since the boats unload themselves, you hardly find them anywhere--so the deckhands have to tie up the Block. To reach the dock they ride the bosun's chair, a wooden seat that swings from a jib. Grabbing the rope and balancing on the seat, they're soon dangling over 30 feet of empty space. The third mate lets out the slack; the deckhands crash to the pebbled dirt in a paratrooper's landing, then run to loop ropes over the dock's metal pegs. The Block is in port.

Saturday, 3 PM, Escanaba: Moishe lives in Ann Arbor, but his car is parked in Escanaba, so he gives John and me a lift to Hereford & Hops. "Esky" is far removed from its Wild North logging days, when the red-light strip was jammed with brothels and saloons. But the town is still set up for those who need to get in, get drunk, and get out. On the road out of the docks I count five bars: Wheat's, Harborlite, Jobber's, Stropich's, and Ollie's. "You hit all of them in one night if you're good," John says. "Wheat's is the first and last stop. It's been serving sailors forever."

Moishe drops us off on Ludington Street, the main drag to the lake, and heads to the waterfront, where he'll walk for two hours. It's his only exercise: the Block's steel deck is too hard on his knees.

I've been to crusty sailing taverns: scuffed plank floors, three bags of pretzels behind the bar, and two taps, one for Bud, one for Lite. That ain't Hereford & Hops. It's a polished microbrewery with award-winning ales and stouts. "You gotta have the Whitetail Ale," John says. "That's all I ever drink here."

Bill from the engine room joins us at the bar. Soon, Mike comes looking for him. Then the two engineers leave to hit another tavern. "They're kind of each other's work husband, aren't they?" I say to John.

"Exactly," he says. "You get to really depend on guys out here. More so than anywhere else I've ever worked. More so than the tugboats. Definitely more than the navy."

Saturday, 11:30 PM, Escanaba:Taconite arrives by rail from the mines of the U.P., piling up on the dock until a ship arrives. A reclaimer scoops pellets from the dockside heaps and drops them onto the conveyor belt, which pours them into the Block's holds. By now the pellets have been rushing in for hours, like gravel from an open tap. As the mate on duty, Moishe paces the deck in a boiler suit and a hard hat, overseeing the loading. The boom skips from one end of the boat to the other, to ensure the weight is distributed evenly among the holds.

Around midnight the tap shuts off. The boom operator climbs down from his cab. There's a problem: the reclaimer is broken. A train is arriving at 6 AM and can load directly onto the boat, but the Block isn't scheduled to stay in Escanaba that long. The loading was supposed to last eight hours; it's already going on nine. On the other hand, the holds only contain 23,700 tons of taconite. They can take 7,000 more.

"They're gonna have to decide whether to sail with a short load or wait for a full load," Moishe says. "I'm gonna talk to the captain, but the decision may have to be made in Indiana. There's no one in the office. Some people may have to get out of their warm beds."

Sunday, 4 AM, Escanaba: The reclaimer is working again. The holds are full. Through the window of my cabin I hear the ladder scraping up the hull. Further below the engines are whirring, a profound bass thrum like a hundred idling trucks. The Block won't rest the night and neither will its passenger. Jim told me not to miss a sunrise on the lake, so I pull on a pair of pants, a shirt, and a ball cap and climb to the pilothouse. Jim and Flash are sitting in the dark, watching the Block steam through the final hour of night. The moon lights a glittering path to the horizon. As Lake Michigan wheels toward the sun, the sky turns the color of bleached denim.

Jim whiles away part of the morning by telling me the story of the worst storm he ever endured. "I was sailing on the Willard Sykes," he says, "and I was on deck during the storm. The spray was flying up over the pilothouse. It was like being on a motorcycle at 70 miles an hour. We were jamming towels around portholes. The water was swirling around like in a washer. TVs fell off stands and smashed. Even a first mate who'd been sailing for years got sick."

"Did you worry about sinking?" I ask.

"If you think to yourself that the boat's gonna sink, you're always going to be uncomfortable. There are people, whenever there's rolling, they're in their room in a survival suit. It's terrible to think that way. I always tell my wife, 'If my boat goes down, I'll be one of the survivors,' because that's what I am. A survivor.

"But that's the only way people would hear about us," he adds. "The only thing people know about is the Edmund Fitzgerald," the boat that sank on Lake Superior but lives on in a Gordon Lightfoot ballad.

"Other than that," says Flash, "nobody knows who we are or what we do."

Sunday, 2:15 PM, off the coast of Wisconsin: Lakshmi Mittal, the Anglo-Indian steelmaker whose last name is all over this boat, from the smokestack to the boiler suits, is the fifth-richest man in the world. He lives in the world's most expensive house, a $120 million London mansion, and spent $60 million on his daughter's wedding. So the man can't buy his sailors a decent couch? The break room furniture is brown vinyl, patched with duct tape. There is satellite TV, which is bringing the crew a Pistons-Cavaliers basketball game, but the video selection would embarrass a rural convenience store: Knight Moves, City Slickers II, Milk Money, A Killing in a Small Town.

"On the deep-sea boats, they had swimming pools, saunas, modern wooden furniture," Moishe says. "I was shocked when I got on this one. It's like a museum."

Sunday, 6:30 PM, off the coast of Wisconsin: The Mesabi Miner has just tied up at Indiana Harbor and will be unloading all night. The Block, running ahead of schedule, will have to wait its turn. We're so close I can see the towers of Chicago, sprouting from the lake at one o'clock. To delay our arrival, the captain orders the boat to "check back" to eight miles an hour.

In my cabin the rocking causes the bathroom door to swing open and slam shut. I latch the door to the dresser. That night I sleep like a real sailor. The slow boat swings my bed like a bassinet.

"When I woke up," an engineer will tell me later, "I knew we weren't running full speed. I knew it wasn't working as hard. I could feel it and hear it."

Monday, 5:30 AM, off the Chicago coast: The sun bronzes the glass skyscrapers. Below us, the smooth blue waves are painted with an orange blush.

"Mesabi Miner will be departing Indiana Harbor in about five minutes," the radio announces.

Jim sends Flash downstairs to wake the deckhands. He calls the captain himself. Soon Thomas Martineau is in his spot by the window, eyes fixed on the steel mill. Its chimneys are sending out smoke signals as if to guide the Block home. Once the boat breaches the breakwater, the captain orders a full revolution so the boat's starboard side will sidle to the dock.

In the break room, the deckhands are watching CNN. On deck John sits in the control booth, waiting to swing the boom. After unloading, the Block will head down the Calumet River for a load of coal. That means John can visit his apartment in East Chicago.

"I'll just have time to check my PO box, write my rent check," he says. "I should just call it my storage fee. I hardly live there enough to make it worth it. I was on this boat eight and a half months last year. This'll probably be my last season. The money's not worth all you give up.

Monday, 11 AM, Indiana Harbor: To understand how the Block unloads, you have to go below deck to the tunnel. A long corridor running the length of the boat, the tunnel is the empty space between the hull and the holds. It's as dark as the caverns where the taconite was mined. In sickly vapor light, deckhands Richard Mauna and Derreck Wittipan watch the pellets rush through chutes and to the conveyor belt that runs all the way to the end of the boom. If anything goes wrong, a red light at the end of the tunnel will flash.

"You pretty much have to spend four or five hours watching the conveyor belt, watching the light," Derreck explains. "It's pretty tedious. But when my uncle was on the Sykes, they overloaded the conveyor belt and the taconite spilled over into the tunnel. It was ten feet deep. They had to spend a week digging out."

Derreck isn't a lifer; he's a student at Northern Michigan University in Marquette. "I'm just doing this as a summer job," he says. "No way I'm making a career of this."

Monday, 5:15 PM, Calumet Park, Chicago: I'm among grass and trees for the first time since Friday. There's no green on a boat. Only three colors: the rust of the hull and the taconite, the white of the clouds, and the blue of the lake and the sky. After spending a weekend in that trichromatic world, the beach looks like HDTV.

I move to the 95th Street bridge and watch the Block revolve toward the river mouth, then fill the channel between the Calumet's concrete banks. It moves as slowly as a barge pulled by mules. Eventually I can identify the sailors sitting on the hatches, enjoying the novelty of an urban view, even one as utilitarian as South Chicago, a landscape of black Erector-set railroad bridges, salt piles pinned to the ground by tarps, empty barges moored in the riverbanks, and scrap yards snarled with metal. First I see Jim Bremer. Then Derreck Wittipan. Then Lovro Milos, a Hungarian who calls himself Old Sailor. I wave. Lovro waves back. Then the Block passes under the bridge, undertaking another errand on its endless journey.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Edward McClelland.

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