Boat Nerds of the Great Lakes

They call themselves “Boat Nerds.” Need we say more?
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Welland Canal
Welland Canal // Photography courtesy of Boat Nerd

Much like America’s railroad watchers, commercial shipping attracts a substantial group of enthusiasts who photograph and track the great boats as they pass through shipping lanes and waterways around the world.

Michigan is home to its own dedicated group of ship watchers, who log the passage of commercial vessels that haul grains, ore and other cargo across the Great Lakes. Narrow channels in places like the St. Clair River and Soo Locks in Sault Ste. Marie provide ideal viewing locations for ship watchers, such as BoatNerd.com founder and Port Huron native Neil Schultheiss.

Created in 1995, when websites were generally unknown outside of academic and government circles, BoatNerd.com began as an experiment to test Schultheiss’s programming skills.

“I had the interest, and it seemed like a good subject,” Schultheiss said. “There were already text newsgroups that discussed boats, so I thought I would give it a try.”

Great Lakes commercial shipping lanes cross more than 1,900 miles of fresh water between Duluth, Minnesota, and the East Coast, passing through the St. Lawrence Seaway and finally spilling into the Atlantic Ocean beyond Quebec City. There are well-known vantage points throughout the Great Lakes, with several favorites in Michigan that attract dedicated ship watchers year-round.

Armed with binoculars, cameras and notebooks, Boat Nerds track commercial ships and report their findings on BoatNerd.com, which holds a catalog of more than 200,000 pictures recording the life of many ships throughout their entire maritime career.

The website also maintains records of each ship’s history, including their movement, cargo and interior layouts, all within a searchable database. Regularly quoted and referenced by other media and news outlets, BoatNerd.com has become the go-to source for Great Lakes shipping facts and figures.

“Some of the captains know me and they blow a salute, which never fails to thrill me. Yep, I’m a Boat Nerd!”
— Roger LeLievre

Although still known as BoatNerd, in 2001, the organization became Great Lakes and Seaway Shipping Online, Inc., a 501(c)(3) nonprofit based in Port Huron with Schultheiss as president. The organization and its website, still BoatNerd.com, are supported by donations, fundraising events and product sales.

Although completely web-based today, BoatNerd has had physical locations around Michigan and plans to again. Its most recent presence was inside the Great Lakes Maritime Center at Port Huron’s Vantage Point.

One of Michigan’s best ship-watching locations, Vantage Point is located at a bend in the St. Clair River where ships cruising between lakes Erie and Huron reduce their speed. The narrow passage creates great opportunities for close-up photographs.

From mid-March to November, Vantage Point ship watchers can park themselves along Port Huron’s concrete riverwalk or sit inside the Maritime Center when the weather is less cooperative. The building also houses a variety of shipping-related displays, including shipwreck maps, blueprints and items recovered from some of the many shipwrecks found throughout the Great Lakes.

The passion for commercial ships also brings BoatNerd.com members together for several events throughout the year. Their largest, a picnic on the waterfront at the Soo Locks in Sault Ste. Marie, attracts more than 125 ship watchers each summer.

“Many of the ship’s captains know we are there and blow us salutes on their horns,” said Roger LeLievre, admitted Boat Nerd and Great Lakes & Seaway Shipping vice president.

Ship watchers at the Soo Locks
Ship watchers at the Soo Locks // Photography courtesy of Boat Nerd

During the event, visitors can walk across the Soo Locks and access the site’s historical structures such as the Weather Bureau Building. The BoatNerd.com crew also charters one of the Soo Locks tour boats for “ship stalking” excursions.

“We work with the captain to see where the boat traffic is and we ‘chase’ them down for pictures,” LeLievre said. “The trip also includes going through the locks and a buffet dinner.”

Several other events are held for BoatNerd.com members, including a swap meet at the Welland Canal, which connects lakes Erie and Ontario, and the Badger BoatNerd Gathering, when attendees can spend the night aboard the 410-foot long, 7-story tall car ferry — one of the few National Historic Landmarks that move.

BoatNerd.com also operates more than a dozen Great Lakes AIS (automated identification systems) stations, which provide real-time tracking of ships movements. Ship watchers can track vessels live on BoatNerd.com as they move between ports throughout the Great Lakes and beyond.

Today, BoatNerd.com features, such as daily shipping news, industry concerns, water levels, and of course, ship-watching info, attract more than 11,000 visitors a day and 2.2 million page views per month. There are no fees required to become a Boat Nerd, and the crew welcomes tracking and photo submissions from any enthusiasts who enjoy watching Great Lakes ships.

“On nice days, you can often find me on the river with my camera in hand,” LeLievre said. “Some of the captains know me and they blow a salute, which never fails to thrill me. Yep, I’m a Boat Nerd!”


Chuck Warren is a licensed captain and freelance boating writer from Grandville.

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