Life of a Ship Keeper01/18:
Their boilers are cold and their engines silent, but life remains aboard the Great Lakes freighters now laid up for the winter.
From Duluth to Montreal, men and women called ship keepers are working - and in many cases living - aboard the idle vessels. In Sturgeon Bay, Wis., home of the busy Bay Shipbuilding yard, vessels typically are laid up 70 to 90 days, Todd Thayse, customer services manager at Bay Shipbuilding, told the Door County Advocate.
"Seventy percent of the companies have one ship keeper per ship, but some of the larger companies have half a dozen ships in dock at one time. They typically hire a crew of four or five 'watch people' who make the rounds of the ships, putting in an eight-hour day," said Thayse.
Among the ship keepers is Larry Meers, who keeps watch over the Edward L. Ryerson, now in long-term lay-up.
"It's not a job for somebody who gets lonely," he said. Because the ship is docked near downtown Sturgeon Bay, Meers is able to spend many of his off-duty hours at the home he and his wife bought in Sturgeon Bay 20 years ago.
Ship keepers perform many tasks. So many, in fact, that the job requires 40 to 48 hours of work spread over seven days. The job includes simple chores like cleaning and changing light bulbs, but it also requires someone knowledgeable enough to ensure the vessel’s safety.
"I'm constantly looking for little problems you wouldn't expect,” Meers said. “I watch for leaky valves; watch the lines to maintain even pressure. You watch for electrical fires, and you watch the bilge."
Meers recently found an unexpected leak. Using skills gained during his years in the Navy and Merchant Marine, he started the process of pumping out the bilge.
Other daily chores aboard the Ryerson include turning the shafts on the pumps, watching the mooring lines to make sure they're not too loose or too tight, checking for leaks, and checking the bubbler systems that reduces ice buildup along the vessel’s hull.
Meers also has been painting and cleaning the ship. Among his projects was the painting of a boiler that stands three stories tall. With its nooks and crannies and nuts and bolts, he needed more than six weeks to pressure wash and paint the entire structure.
"It occurred to me while I was in some of those tight places, that if I had a heart attack back there, nobody would ever find me," Meers said. He said that one of his major problems was interrupting his painting or other projects to answer the telephone. "I finally found an answering machine at a rummage sale, and that solved the problem," he said.
Reported by: Christine Nickerson and Al Miller