Deep in winter, Duluth's ship repair season hums

The Herbert C. Jackson is in dry dock for repairs.
The Herbert C. Jackson is in dry dock for repairs at Fraser Shipyards in Superior, Wis., undergoing a "repowering," which entails replacing its old and inefficient fuel oil engine with a new diesel propulsion system to meet stricter emission standards.
Derek Montgomery for MPR News

Mike Wolny doesn't look like a surgeon, and Fraser Shipyards bears no resemblance to a hospital. Wolny, though, does have a needy patient — the 56-year-old freighter Herbert C. Jackson — and not much time.

Deep in the giant ship's bowels, Wolny's team carves up the original steam turbine and twin boilers so they can be removed with a crane. Later, two new 20-foot-tall diesel engines will be hoisted in, all designed to get the big laker back working on the water this spring.

Wolny, an inspector for Interlake Steamship Co., has worked on ships for 25 years. His uncle was a captain for Canada Steamship Lines, but he became an engineer and loves the gritty jobs below.

"I find that more exciting than being a captain," he said as work buzzed around him on the Jackson. "They take all the glory up there, but we're the ones that work on the heart of the vessel — putting a new heart back in her."

Mike Wolny with Interlake Steamship Company
Mike Wolny with Interlake Steamship Company talks about the work being done on the Herbert C. Jackson.
Derek Montgomery for MPR News

Winter is the busiest season for the shipyards where the giant Great Lakes ships lay up for repairs. Ship owners will invest more than $100 million this winter to upgrade vessels. But finishing in time for the spring shipping season requires intense work and a ballet of cranes. A day spent at the yards and in the ships shows the challenges of transforming the old boats.

"You think of a ship, it's actually a floating city," said Mark Barker, president of Interlake Steamship, which owns the Herbert C. Jackson. "We have to generate our own power. We have to treat our own wastewater. We have to generate our own drinking water. We have to do everything, because we're not connected to shore in any way."

In the very bottom of the 690-foot-long Jackson, below the 40 cargo holds that carry almost 25,000 tons of taconite pellets, Wolny pointed out equipment that either needs fixing or will need fixing.

Down here there are giant conveyor belts, stretching farther than the eye can see, that are part of a self-unloading system that was added to the ship in 1975. The technology was invented on the Great Lakes and allows the crew to unload cargo without any shoreline workers or equipment.

But it needs to be maintained every year along with the ships' engine, welding, piping, plumbing and electrical systems — basically anything that can't be done when the ship is running.

The ship is completely removed from the water.
While in dry dock, the ship is completely removed from the water so every inch of the ship's exterior is visible for inspection and repairs.
Derek Montgomery for MPR News

"One of my members likes to say, When we lay up in the winter, you have to organize swat teams to get all this work done in six, seven, eight weeks," said Glen Nekvasil, vice president of the Lake Carriers Association, which represents the 15 companies that own the 56 U.S. flagged ships on the Great Lakes.

Those ships operate 24 hours a day, seven days a week, from mid-March to mid-January.

"These winter months are the one chance we have to take them to the shipyard and maintain them and modernize them," he said.

The payoff for that hard work is visible on another ship docked at Fraser Shipyards in Superior, Wis., for winter layup. The Kaye Barker had a new 8,000 horsepower engine put in three years ago, very similar to what will be put inside the Jackson.

The Barker carries 26,000 tons loaded and runs 17 miles an hour. So it requires a lot of power. The engine is "a lot more efficient than the old steam engine that burned fuel oil, said David Newell, the Barker's engineer.

"This boat, in operating season, we can go about 30 days without refueling," he said. "The steamer was every 10 days refueled."

Of the $110 million invested this winter in the Great Lakes fleet, a little over half will go toward routine maintenance; about $50 million will be spent to add pollution control technology and new, more efficient engines, including the ones headed for the Jackson.

Fraser Shipyards has repaired and built ships on the Great Lakes for 126 years, including more than 100 during World Wars I and II. But last year was a slow one on the water for the Great Lakes shipping industry. Six ships were taken out of service due to the ongoing struggles of the U.S. iron ore and steel industries. On top of that, the freshwater ships are pretty resilient.

"Because there's no salt in the water to corrode the ships, they can last for a long time if they're properly maintained. One sailed for over 100 years before recently being retired," Nekvasil noted. "That's one of the tremendous advantages of great lakes shipping. We can run ships for decades and decades and decades."

A worker inside the Herbert C. Jackson
A worker inside the Herbert C. Jackson looks up at other workers.
Derek Montgomery for MPR News

The Jackson is Fraser's biggest job since the late 1980s when it lengthened several ships and added self-unloading equipment.

"This is a jumpstart, a high voltage jumpstart for us," said vice president of engineering Tom Curelli. "It demonstrates to everybody that we're capable of doing this, and doing it well."

More than 70 employees are working on the project in two shifts. Fraser is one of only four shipyards across the Great Lakes capable of handling such a large project.

It will take about six months to repower the Herbert Jackson at a cost of around $20 million. This is the fourth steam-to-diesel conversion for the ship owner in the past decade. When it's done, the Interlake Steamship Company will no longer operate any steamships.

The Jackson plans to be back on the water in June, making her regular run hauling iron ore between Marquette, Mich., and Detroit, just a lot more efficiently.