On board the Paul R. Tregurtha: The Great Ship of the Great Lakes

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Monroe, MI (WTVG) - Freighters are a big part of our local history and economy. The shipping industry has a more than one billion dollar economic impact on the region.

The Paul R. Tregurtha is the crown jewel of her fleet, and she makes a lot of trips through our area. 13abc's Lissa Guyton and videographer Todd Gaertner had a rare opportunity to go along for the ride as the ship unloaded coal in the Detroit area and Monroe.
It's a story you'll only see here. Tonight we take you on board and introduce you to the men and women who keep the big ship on course.

The Paul R. Tregurtha is known as the "Queen of the Lakes." It is the biggest ship sailing the lakes today. She is more than 1,000 feet long and more than 100 feet wide and these cargo holds can carry tens of thousands of tons of cargo in a single trip. She is truly an engineering marvel.

The Great Ship of the Great Lakes moves quietly and efficiently through the water. At more than three football fields long, not only is the ship's size impressive, but so is her workload. She is truly a workhorse out on the water. Chrissy Kadleck is with Interlake Steamship, the owner of the Tregurtha, "She can hold up to 70,000 tons in one trip which over a season adds up to millions and millions of tons of cargo."

Kadleck says it would take 700 train cars or 2,800 trucks to move the same amount the Tregurtha carries in a single trip. Captain Dave Johnson says it is hard for many to imagine just what all that coal looks like, "You were out this morning as we were unloading, so you got an idea of the volume here. It's truly a mountain of coal."

And there's a lot of engineering that goes into moving the cargo from ship to shore. Dustin Darby is a First Mate, "There are gates at the bottom of the cargo holds, hydraulic gates, and they put the cargo on to a conveyor system. That system moves through the ship and out onto the boom . Once you start unloading, the ship will rise so we have to counter balance it with ballast to keep the draft straight and keep the boat from bending too much. It is a complex process."

It takes a lot to get the Paul R. Tregurtha from Point A to point B.
The ship and crew work around the clock, running day and night. Captain Johnson says life on the lakes is not for everyone, but most of the people on board the PRT have been sailing for a long time, "Everybody has a vital role whether you are a deckhand, an engineer, cook,mates, we're a big team. It is certainly a team sport out here."

And it's not just cargo the crew takes care of, there are often VIP passengers on board. The guests have a private area on the ship that you might not expect to see on a freighter. Captain Johnson says the ship is a floating city, "We're our own village, we're self-contained. We're just like a big family on a boat."

The men and women can work 60 days on and then have 30 days off.
Of course they have a couple months off in the winter. The ships usually run from March into December or January. Depending on their seniority, the crew works an average of 6-8 months a year. When they are on board, they work seven days a week.

The Tregurtha is one of nine ships owned by Interlake Steamship, the largest privately held fleet on the Great Lakes. Kadleck says the company moves cargo for a number of different industries, "In any given season, all of our ships move about 20 million tons of iron ore, coal and stone. We move those cargo for industries like construction, steel and power generation."

Captain Johnson has worked on the lakes for decades. He started as a deckhand and worked his way up. A lot has changed since the captain's first days on the job. The biggest shift is in the pilot house, where there are now things like electronic navigation and satellite weather forecasts, "We didn't have all these fancy electronics in the early days , it was mostly visual then. My hat goes off to the old time captains . It was certainly a lot more challenging in the early days. We had a trip earlier this month in zero visibility through a narrow river channel. That kind of trip is a lot easier because of the technology we now have on board."

Our trip took us through the St. Clair River, to Lake St. Clair, then through the Detroit River and finally into the western basin of Lake Erie. Our travels took us by beautiful waterfront homes, through downtown Detroit. We also went under the Ambassador Bridge, where we were met by the J.W. Westcott II, a boat that among other things, picks up and delivers mail to sailors.

This was on a gorgeous late August day, but of course Darby says life on the lakes is not always like this, "Summer sailing is nice and easy. There aren't too many waves, but come October and November then it gets nasty. That's when you earn your money in the winter time."

In addition to bad weather, the ship's can also be affected by what;s in the lake. As we entered the western basin of Lake Erie, there was algae in the water Captain Johnson says the algae causes problems for more than just our drinking water, "It creates quite a drag. It can slow you down quite a bit. Half a mile an hour or more, which has an economic impact. We've been having guys scrape the sides of the ships, and it seems to be making quite a difference."

When it comes to the environment, Kadleck says it's a big priority for Interlake Steamship, "We are always looking for ways to protect the water ways and reduce our emissions. We've been a leader since 2006 investing more than 100 million in re-powering and installing exhaust gas scrubbers. The scrubbers clean the environment and give us a signature steam plume."

While a lot of the work is done outside, there's one place inside everyone likes to spend time. One of the most important parts of the ship is the galley. The chef makes three gourmet meals that would be found in a five star restaurant.

Paul Smith is the Chief Cook. He's been working in the galley for more than 25 years, "That's the hardest part of the job. Coming up with new ideas, different things every day. We don't have a meal plan per say. One of my favorite things is to use the meat smoker we have on board. We often carry passengers and guests, so we like to step our menu up a notch a lot."

The menu while we were on board was impressive,"We're serving prime rib, sea scallops in butter Parmesan sauce and a chicken Parmesan breast. We also have sweet potatoes and a rice medley. For dessert, there's a cake called chocolate insanity."

The Second Cook is Denise Hanrahan. She started as a temporary cook, and years later she's still sailing, "My kids were all grown, and I was working on Mackinaw Island and I would see the freighters go by. I thought how cool would that be to work on one. I love it, it's not a job to me. It's a lifestyle. A lot of people can't cut it, but to me it's much more than just a paycheck. The engine room is the blood of the ship, making everything work. The pilot house that's the brains of the ship making everything go. Here in the kitchen, we're the heart, so we help keep it all together."

People on board have invested their lives on the lakes, and while it's a different way of life, Denise says she wouldn't trade it for anything, "I figure these kids I am watching climb the ladder right now, one day some of them will be captains. I'll be coming up to them on the gang way with a walker until you tell me I can't do it anymore."

There's a way for you to win a ride on board a Great Lakes freighter.
The Luck of the Lakes raffle is a fundraiser for the National Museum of the Great Lakes in Toledo. The drawing will be held later this month during the museum's H20 event.

There are a few incredible raffle prizes, including $10,000 in cash.
A trip on a freighter will also be raffled off. Anna Kolin from the museum says the trip is priceless,"I had a chance to spend a day on the Tregurtha with the 13abc crew and it was absolutely amazing. It is fascinating to see something so large moving so effortlessly through the lakes. I was only out here for a day, so I can't imagine how cool it would be to be out here for several days for the raffle trip. Between the raffle and the fundraiser we usually generate about 15% of the museum's operating budget for the year. That money allows us to fulfill our mission of making known the important history of the Great Lakes."

The money will be used for things including educational programs, research and the museum. The raffle is September 30th. Tickets are still available.

For more information, click the "The National Museum of the Great Lakes" or "Interlake Steamship Company on Facebook" link on this page.