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Off the Boat

A Brief Layover for the Merchant Marines of the Neva Trader

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By Ted Kleine

Olegs Mitirevs looks trim and businesslike in his military sweater and navy trousers; his bald head lends him a dignity beyond his 38 years. The master of the Neva Trader brought his vessel into Calumet Harbor an hour ago. It's been 25 days since the ship steamed out of Goteborg, Sweden, loaded with 5,900 tons of steel and a mountain of silicon rock. Now, after crossing the stormy North Atlantic and threading the maze of rivers and locks between Quebec and Chicago, the Neva Trader has come to rest, in nautical terms, at 41¡43'N, 87¡31'W. That's the Ceres Terminal, 9301 S. Kreiter, directly across the Calumet River from the ruins of U.S. Steel's South Works, 800 miles from the sea.

The Neva Trader is a splinter of Europe tethered to Chicago. The 15 crewmen, all Slavs, shout at each other in gruff Russian. At the top of the gangway is a sponge soaked in disinfectant, to prevent foot-and-mouth disease from entering the United States.

The cargo is in the hands of the longshoremen, so Mitirevs has spare hours to lead a tour of his ship. Narrow enough for the Saint Lawrence Seaway but sturdy enough for the ocean, it looks like a barge supporting a white Bauhaus apartment block.

"Not many seamens visit Chicago," he notes. "These vessels should be specially designed."

The Neva Trader is one of the oldest cargo ships on the seas--it was commissioned in Norway in 1977--and corrosive salt water has turned its decks auburn with rust. From the poop deck to the bridge is a journey up five ladderlike flights of stairs. Mitirevs ascends them at a lanky jog.

The middle decks are occupied by the sailors' cabins, with their girlie pinups, and the rec center--a windowless room containing a dart board and a ping-pong table with ropes on each leg, so it can be lashed to the wall during a storm.

At the pinnacle is the bridge. The ship faces east, so the bridge's wraparound windows offer this hemispheric view: a long cornmeal-colored wall, remnant of the steel mill, standing alone on the scrubby grounds; chalky riprap piled at the mouth of the river; the horizon, a blurry seam between two planes of blue. The lake looks like a gentle ocean.

The equipment on the bridge is outdated: the knobs on the lime-and-chrome-colored control panel appear stolen from Sears ovens. The helm is a pair of chrome wands tipped with black knobs. On the desk: a depth chart of the harbor, and a sextant, the instrument Magellan used to find his way around the world. If the global positioning system breaks down, a sailor must know how to navigate by the stars. Tucked into cubbyholes are the flags of countries the Neva Trader has visited: Algeria, Albania, Bahamas, Canada, Cyprus, Denmark, Estonia. All ships fly the banners of their hosts.

This is Mitirevs's first call in Chicago. He prepared the crew by playing the Richard Gere film No Mercy in the TV lounge.

"We happened to have this film about Chicago, so we watched. It shows some streets. Richard Gere, he acts like a cop in Chicago, and some scenes are shot here."

Mitirevs first glimpsed the sea as a cadet in Riga: "It was very amazing." As a boy in Moscow, he had decided sailing was the best escape from the confinement of the Soviet Union.

"Those times in Russia, nobody could go abroad, but seaman had this privilege. A lot of people join just for this reason. When I was growing up, I read books about the sea, about pirates, sailing vessels of the 18th and 19th century. I'm never thinking about how much money I could make. I could see the world, go to different countries. The position here as master is pretty much what I imagined as a child. It's still pretty romantic."

Foreign steel is unloaded on the southeast side, an area once known as the Ruhr of America. The dockside cranes dip into the cargo holds, where a longshoreman attaches the hooks, or "dogs," to the steel plates, which are then swung ashore. Forklifts pile the steel on the weed-scored lot to await trucks that will carry it all over North America.

"A lot of it's used for construction, bridge building and all that," says Ron Jasper, Great Lakes logistic manager for Ceres Terminal. "It's going to go back east. It's going to Canada."

The longshoremen are black men, mostly over 60, the remnants of International Longshoreman's Association Local 19. Chicago, which became great because it linked the Great Lakes and the Mississippi, has become a decrepit port. Now most ships go to Burns Harbor, Indiana. It's cheaper.

"Used to be a lot of cargo coming in," says Ervin James, who has worked on the docks for 42 years. "Ships lined up next to ships. Used to have a hundred men in the warehouse, 15 gangs. Now we have two."

A slender man with a handlebar mustache only tinged with gray, James is proud of practicing what he calls the world's second most dangerous occupation. Only coal miners, he says, are more likely to be killed on the job. James once broke his ankle when a sack of cornmeal fell on it. Four years ago, a man drowned.

"Everything's overhead. There's nowhere to go but down, and that's where you are. Just like when the mine caves in, there's nowhere to go."

Anatoly Kucers sits at a stool in his galley, peeling potatoes. Kucers went to marine school so he could do this, cook for sailors 12 hours a day. The fare is Russian: one night at dinner, he serves a buffet of herring, cold beet soup, sliced onions, apples. Another night it's smoked pork and cauliflower.

The food doesn't come from home. "In all the ports, there's people named ship chandler who provides this kind of provision for the ship--food, cigarettes, beer," says Olegs Mitirevs.

The local chandler--Chicago Steamship Supply--arrived on the second day in port. All the men were called to unload the van and carry cartons up the gangway. The boxes are loaded with fruits and vegetables, refrigerants for the freezer, charts of the harbor in Edinburgh, one of the Neva Trader's upcoming ports.

Martin Eagan, who manages the business, is a valet for sailors--he does their laundry, he buys their groceries.

"A ship is like a small city, contained in itself, that obviously needs help," Eagan explains. "Once they get to shore, it's kind of a rush."

The provisions should last until Duluth, the ship's next stop. Then the Neva Trader will buy enough food to make it to Montreal, the last great port before the open sea.

Navies have a reputation for wenching, but when the seamen on the Neva Trader get shore leave, they go shopping. Foreign sailors see America as a giant mall. Video cameras, cell phones, pants, athletic shoes, PlayStations, jewelry, perfume--they all cost half as much as they would in Latvia. Fjodorovs Jurijs, known to shipmates as Yuri, has a family back in Riga, so he wants to take home bags full of gifts. Every chance he gets, he goes ashore. Some of the older, jaded sailors spend the evenings watching videos or reading in their cabins, but Yuri's motto is "five day port, five day city." On Monday, the Neva Trader's first day in Chicago, he took Metra downtown (after wandering for two hours in search of the 91st Street station) and went to the Gap.

"Very small price, shirt, jeans," proclaims Yuri, a pink, robust young man with a thinning crew cut. "My country, very big price."

On Tuesday, Yuri appears in the ship's office in full resort wear: tropical shirt, baggy chinos, sandals, and a knapsack from the Gap. This time he wants to go to the closest shopping, the strip of stores on Commercial Avenue in South Chicago. His first stop is an electronics boutique. The second officer, Olegs Marovs, bought a cell phone there this morning and wants to find out if he can use it back home. Yuri offers to find out.

"Where's he from?" asks the boutique's manager.

"Latvia."

"What's the Latvia?"

"It's near Russia."

"I don't know, man." He produces a brochure. "He'll have to call this number."

Yuri wants to buy some shoes for his wife, Ludmilla, and his sons, Denis and Karoll. "New Nike," he declares, pronouncing the name as one syllable. Stepping out into the street, he starts discussing his knowledge of Chicago, which he obtained when he ran a video store in Riga.

"Russian movie, Brothers Two. Downtown Chicago, Mafia, gangsters."

He forms a gun with his finger and laughs. Yuri's English is limited, but he knows enough to discuss his favorite topics: food, women, movies, and consumer products.

Inside the Foot Locker at 91st and Commercial, Yuri is admiring a pair of workout pants. He'd like to buy them for his wife, but he wants to make sure they're the right size. He summons one of the clerks, who are dressed like basketball referees.

"I want 103 centimeters," he explains. "How many centimeters is this?"

"I don't know centimeters," she says. "It's 32 inches."

Yuri doesn't know inches, so he opens his knapsack and pulls out an electronic Russian-English dictionary he bought in New York, and punches up the metric conversion function. A security guard appears.

"They want to know what the purpose of measuring this is," the guard says flatly. "This is the women's section."

"Is for my wife."

Yuri finally finds the proper size by holding his hand up to his eyebrows to indicate his wife's height. The clerk recommends medium. That settled, he needs some shoes for Ludmilla. He grabs a cross trainer.

"You have European size 39?"

The clerk sags in exasperation. Her forehead drops to her arm.

"You don't know the American?"

Yuri consults his dictionary again.

"I'm gonna be here all day measuring shoes. Hold on, let me go in the back and see if I can find out. Shirley, help me out here!"

They determine that 39 is a 61/2 in the United States, but there's another hitch.

"This shoe is for kids only," the clerk explains.

Confused, Yuri holds up the shoe.

"This?" he asks.

"No, that's for kids."

Yuri settles on the pants and a shirt, paying for them from a sheaf of $20 bills. He's spending money like--you can complete the cliche.

"Latvia, no problem shop," he concludes, heading out the door. "Very quick. Here, very slow. No size."

Yuri has to get back to the ship for his afternoon shift, but by evening he's on Commercial Avenue again, racing from store to store, trying to beat closing time. Some shops have already pulled the grates across their glass doors. At a dollar store, he picks up two ceramic lighthouses. He collects them, just as he collects mugs from all his ports. Then he spots another piece of nautical kitsch--a statuette of a pipe-smoking sailor in a striped shirt.

"My bosun!" he shouts, laughing at the resemblance to his boss, Boris Golubev, who always has a pipe curling from his hard, incurious face. "Present bosun."

Then Yuri grabs a tape measure off the wall. He's tired of using his metric computer to buy shoes.

"How much is this?" he wants to know.

"Everything's a dollar."

Still desperate for Nikes, he visits a hip-hop clothing store, then a Mexican leather emporium, before finally finding a shoe store that sells suspicious-looking "Nikes" with backward swooshes and "Made in China" printed on the tongues. After checking the lengths with his tape measure, he buys three pairs. In Latvia, people might think they're the real thing.

Sailors spend four months at sea, working 10 or 12 hours a day, then four months at home with their families. By Latvian standards, their pay is extravagant. Yuri earns $1,500 a month, enough to afford a three-bedroom condo in a fashionable Riga neighborhood. The average Latvian laborer makes $200.

"My country, sailor, seaman--big money," he says.

It's not a life he wants to continue forever. He is philosophical about the long stretches at sea--"men work," he says with a shrug--but he admits it's not good for a family man. Besides the time away from home, there's the danger of shipwreck, which is greater on small vessels like the Neva Trader. On his last voyage, a storm swamped the decks. "This not cargo ship," he thought. "This submarine." He wants to save up enough money to start a business with his wife.

"I work, work, work, open a bar. My wife barmaid, experienced."

A ship's days at rest are used for repair. While the Neva Trader is in port, Yuri, a member of the deck crew, works in the cargo hold, renewing the rubber packing on the accordion-like hatches to make sure they're airtight. After the last bag of silicon is lifted ashore, the hold has to be scoured clean of dust. One of the deck crew stands in a crate dangling from a crane and blasts the walls with an air hose. Yuri, wearing his seaman's outfit of blue coveralls, a bandana, and sunglasses, holds the rope that guides and steadies his shipmate.

Latvia is a seafaring nation. The Gulf of Riga is an excellent harbor, so Latvians were traditionally fishermen. Later, they filled the ranks of the Soviet navy. Now, says second officer Olegs Marovs, Latvians are in demand as merchant seamen.

"It is a post-Soviet republic, and there a lot of shipping company," Marovs says as he smokes a Camel on a break from work. "There been a lot of sailors. We have many crewing companies, and people work all over the world."

Marovs speaks decent English. As an officer, he's required to be fluent in the international maritime language. He's been a sailor since 1987 and traveled to Saudi Arabia, New Zealand, Ecuador, Canada, Sweden, and Norway. But this year he turned 30, and his son turned five. Now he longs for the stability of terra firma.

"It was romantic at first," he says, "but now I have my wife and son. It's better for me to be closer to my wife. I think I want to do something else. Maybe in computers."

The Neva Trader can get out of port "half an hour" after the last steel plate is unloaded, its master boasts. At three o'clock on Wednesday afternoon, that moment is approaching. Steel is stacked all around the warehouse. A forklift is already loading plates onto a truck from Minnesota. Master Mitirevs walks the dock in Bermuda shorts, inspecting his ship's hull. Relieved of its cargo, the vessel rides so high on the water it seems to be balancing on edge.

A minivan with Wisconsin plates pulls to the side of the ship, and a bald, burly man emerges, carrying a suitcase and a backpack. Every oceangoing ship needs a pilot to guide it through the Great Lakes. Jeff Curtis became one because "I can't do nine-to-five." His business card bears a photo of Buster Keaton in a sailor suit and the slogan "Trust Me...No, Really." He brought the Neva Trader into Chicago, and now he's about to take it out.

"The Great Lakes are all piloted waters," Curtis explains. "They're like a harbor. On these foreign ships, these guys are navigators, and I am a ship handler. I have local knowledge of the lakes and the harbors."

Curtis will guide the Neva Trader on its 50-hour journey to Duluth, where the ship will pick up a load of grain bound for Scotland. He'll have to weave through the Straits of Mackinac and the Soo Locks, but he expects a placid journey--even on Lake Superior, whose westerly storms sank the Edmund Fitzgerald in 1975. That was a "laker," a lighter, narrower ship. The deep-sea vessels are far sturdier, so "rarely do we have to stop for a storm."

Curtis ascends to the bridge. The red-and-white "pilot on board" flag is run up a pole. The ship quivers as the engine rumbles again after three days dormant. The smokestack exhales rags of steam. A pipe spits ballast onto the deck.

Yuri Jurijs and his bosun begin climbing down the metal gangway, gathering up its rope railings. They wrap it into coils, carry it on deck, and then the gangway is raised and lashed to the hull. The propeller, spun by 5,600 horses, is churning the water to white lace. One by one, the mooring ropes slacken. Longshoremen slip the nooses off the stays, and the ropes are spooled on board, flopping and spraying water like trophy fish.

The Neva Trader was hauled into port stern first, so it doesn't need a tugboat to pull it back into open water. It edges to the center of the river, then floats forward, as though freedom alone were propelling it. Four crewmen stand on deck. Their ship is shrinking in the estimation of Chicago, but we are shrinking in theirs. As restless as a tern, or a dolphin, or any other creature not bound to the earth, they migrate from port to port.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Jim Newberry.

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