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With nothing to ship, Great Lakes freighters lay up

Courtesy Photo The Philip R. Clarke, one of several freighters recently laid up for the shipping season, is loaded with supplies at the Sault Ste. Marie locks in this photo by Joy Fett of Sault Ste. Marie.

ALPENA — At least a dozen freighters –at least three of which have Northeast Michigan ties — have been tied up in shipyards, some for the rest of the sailing season.

The Great Lakes shipping industry, usually in full swing in the mid-summer months, has been hit by the rocky waters of the economy amid the coronavirus pandemic, causing layups and job losses as decreased demand for steel and other products pulls boats out of commission only halfway through their shipping season.

Eleven of the 26 vessels under the oversight of the Lake Carriers Association, which advocates for and provides guidance to Great Lakes freighter companies, were pulled from the water as early as the beginning of April.

Those include the Philip R. Clarke, Edgar B. Speer, and Roger Blough, of the Key Lakes Inc. — boats that employ sailors from Northeast Michigan, among others, and which have delivered minerals mined at Carmeuse Lime and Stone in Rogers City.

One vessel never got underway at all this season because there wasn’t enough demand in March, when ships launched for the spring, according to Eric Peace, operations and communications director for the Lake Carriers’ Association.

The crews of the three Key Lakes Inc. freighters are being dispersed among other freighters where possible, serving as vacation fill-ins or replacing other crew members with lower seniority.

The Clarke was docked on July 2, and the Blough on Thursday. The Speer has not yet been docked, according to the freighter-reporting nonprofit group Boatnerd, but will be laid up soon, its owner company reported.

The Alpena, the freighter that delivers limestone for the Lafarge North America plant in Alpena, is listed by Boatnerd as being out of duty April 12 through May 18, but is currently sailing and arrived at Lafarge Thursday evening.

Great Lakes iron ore shipments were down about 30% in June, compared to June 2019. American limestone quarries — such as those in Alpena and Rogers City — loaded 27% less limestone in June, compared to a year ago.

Early in the 2020 shipping season, as plants were shut down by the coronavirus, many iron ore mines shut down when the automotive industry stopped needing steel.

Once the reserves that had already been sitting on docks were gone, there was no more iron ore to be shipped, Peace said.

As automotive and other steel-based industries ramp back up, the need for minerals is increasing, but there’s no product to be shipped, Peace said.

Increasing demand, and a resumption of mining, may lead to a rebound for the shipping industry, Peace said.

“That’s the optimistic hope,” Peace said.

Time is of the essence, he explained. Even with a reduced fleet on Great Lakes waters, supplies of iron ore have to get to docks before locks close for the winter and ice takes over the Great Lakes.

If business for the steel industry picks up steam during the winter and iron ore has not been stockpiled — as it usually is by the end of the shipping season — freighters may not be able to get needed minerals to end users if Coast Guard cutters aren’t able to clear a path through the ice if winter is harsh.

Julie Riddle can be reached at 989-358-5693, jriddle@thealpenanews.com or on Twitter @jriddleX.

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