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Online Extra
May 2003

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ZipUSA: 48222

By Andrew Cockburn
Out on the Detroit River, halfway between the U.S. and Canada, Capt. Leonard Tanner turns the helm and nudges the mail boat J. W. Westcott II tight against the 730-foot side of the Great Lakes freighter Canadian Miner powering smoothly along at six miles an hour. A crewman on the freighter's deck lowers a bucket on the end of a rope and then hoists up the bag of U.S. mail that has been swiftly attached by the crew of the Westcott. So goes one more postal delivery in 48222, the zip code reserved for freighter crews on the Great Lakes, who pick up their mail as they pass this spot.

Accelerating so that he can break free from the wash pushing us against the giant hull, Tanner toots his whistle, which seems louder than the boat is big, and gets a mighty roar in response. "The Roger Blough [a 49,000-ton behemoth] has a great whistle," he remarks to deckhand David "Toby" Tozer. "I think she's the best."

"Yeah, you can feel that one down in your toenails," says Tozer, cocking an appreciative ear as the Miner's answering blast reverberates across the water between Windsor, Ontario, and the Detroit shoreline. "This one is pretty good though." Like the rest of the mail boat staff, Tanner and Tozer know their "lakers," the bulk cargo freighters, sometimes a thousand feet long, passing day and night in front of the J. W. Westcott Company office, a low whitewashed building with blue marine trim on the edge of Riverside Park, just across the railroad tracks at the bottom of Detroit's 24th Street.

On a fall day in early October, the sun is glinting off the silver towers of the Renaissance Center a couple of miles upriver, and it feels almost warm enough to light up the barbecue on the neatly trimmed lawn between office and dockside. "It's different in November," says Tanner, a veteran of the U.S. Marines and the Detroit police force. "If the wind is out of the southwest, pushing against the current, you can get water going over the boat."

Even in less severe weather, maneuvering beside the big ships can be lethally dangerous, especially if the small boat falls back, cannot pull away, and gets dragged in under the stern, close to the propeller. On October 23, 2001, just before dawn, the Westcott was headed for an oceangoing tanker—a "salty"—moving upriver. But the tanker did not slow down, and, in circumstances that are still unclear, the Westcott was suddenly flipped over. It sank in seconds, drowning the crew of two—Cathy Nasiatka, the experienced captain, and deckhand Dave Lewis. (The Westcott has since been refloated and repaired.)

"When Cathy and Dave were drowned, we had a tremendous wave of sympathy from around the lakes, messages, calls, visits," says company head Jim Hogan, whose great-grandfather started the business in 1874, using a rowboat to meet ships midstream. "It really showed how close people feel to this operation, even though e-mail and cell phones have cut down on the amount of mail."

Not surprisingly, relationships with the addressees on the mail in the sorting room are relatively informal. "Can you please forward any mail going to the Buckeye for me to the Reserve?" reads a crewman's note pinned on the wall. "I'm on the Reserve for a few weeks and I'll let you know when I go back to the Buckeye." Another room is filled with stocks of coffee, toilet paper, lightbulbs, and other necessities kept handy for customers, who spend two months on board their ships, one month off, and have little opportunity to stop a 40,000-ton freighter to go ashore or to take time off when loading or unloading in port.

This is the hub of a community of about 5,000 sailors in continual motion. From April through mid-December they shuttle back and forth across the Great Lakes, from tiny remote iron ore ports on the coast of western Lake Superior, to Lake Michigan or Lake Huron for cargoes of construction stone or gravel, to Lake Erie's historic industrial ports like Toledo and Cleveland or even, especially on the Canadian grain boats, out to the oceans via the St. Lawrence Seaway. Sooner or later they all pass by here and look for the little mail boat to dart out from the dockside.

It is a community that is slowly shrinking. "This is the rust belt, a forgotten part of the country," reflects Hogan, sitting behind what had once been his great-grandfather's desk. "I guess its heyday was in the forties and fifties, when everything ran on steel. There are so many fewer ships now [about 60 in the U.S. laker fleet, with another 80 Canadian ships], although they have gotten a lot bigger."

I heard a similar lament one evening high above the water in the pilothouse of the Buckeye, a 698-footer laden with 23,500 tons of iron ore pellets headed for Toledo. "Every time you look round, they've cut more men from the crews," grumbled Capt. Edward "Bud" Tamborski, as he eased the huge vessel down the river to Lake Erie. "This industry," he concluded, referring to lake shipping, "is dying."

The captain's gloomy mood became more understandable when I found out that earlier, as I was climbing aboard from the Westcott, the freighter's steering mechanism had momentarily failed. The Buckeye, with me halfway up the ladder, had come within a few seconds of plowing into downtown Detroit when the helmsman regained control. Blissfully ignorant of the near disaster, I had wondered why Tamborski seemed a little distracted when we met. Now, in the fading glow of a pink sunset, we were slipping silently along at just under 12 miles an hour, past the dramatic metal towers of the steel plants, refineries, and power stations lining the shore of what still looks like the industrial heartland of America. In the darkened pilothouse, lit only by the glow from the instruments, the quiet conversation was of storms on Lake Superior—25-foot waves—and the trickiness of navigating up the river to the ore docks in Cleveland‚ "like a snake," and how, working two months on and one month off, laker crews don't have weekends like most people, and whether the items they ordered from that catalog will be in the mailbag the next time they pass that way.

No one sounded like they'd rather be living somewhere else.


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