When the holidays arrive and winter begins to transform the Great Lakes into beautiful, frozen expanses, most of us are home by the fireplace enjoying the warmth and good tidings of family and friends. The Christmas tree is decorated or the menorah candles are lit, and turkey dinners and other traditional holiday fare are served up in abundance.
For merchant mariners on the Great Lakes, dedicated men and women who choose life aboard freighters — braving often frigid and harsh conditions — the holidays can be difficult. They, too, are made better by generous holiday feasts, traditional gifts from the captain and the camaraderie of shipmates. Their long days otherwise are defined by shifts: on watch, at station, time asleep, mealtime, what movies are showing and time in their cabins. They have cargos to deliver and deliver they must.
“Winter navigation is challenging. Crews get ‘crispy,’” Wisconsin marine photographer Christopher Winters explained. “They have been out from 30 to 90 days. People are missing their families, and once we get into the ice season, bridge and engine-room ice create a problem. People get worn out by it. They are already dealing with disrupted sleep patterns. There is a lot more worry and things to think about.”
Winters, author of “Centennial: Steaming Through the American Century,” a wonderful coffee-table study of Great Lakes freighter life, spent five seasons aboard the 551-foot S.S. St. Marys Challenger documenting life aboard the old, iron-ore steamer. It was built in 1906 and christened the William P. Snyder. The boat steamed from port to port for 107 years under six different names and celebrated its centennial anniversary in 2006, making it the oldest working steamboat in the world.
“In the old days, it was physically demanding work,” Winters said. “Crews were gone from April to Thanksgiving without a break. So, one way the company attracted personnel was to pay them well and feed them very well. I wouldn’t call it fancy food, but many of the guys came from small towns. It was excellent quality and well prepared; the fresh bakery is legendary.
“It can be 500 to 600 feet from the front of the boat, where half the crew lives, to the back where the other half is quartered. You can have a cultural disconnect. The galley was the one place everyone got together.”
Winters is a self-proclaimed freighter “geek.” He and his wife live in Milwaukee where he grew up. He recalls being captivated as a young boy by the tragic sinking of the Edmund Fitzgerald on Lake Superior. It often was a topic of family conversation.
“My mother’s people are all from the Keweenaw Peninsula,” Winters said. “It was one of my earliest memories. I remember my uncles drinking Schlitz (beer) in the garage and arguing about what happened. The next summer, we visited an iron boat (freighter). I bought a book that day about the Edmund Fitzgerald and must have read it 8 million times. … I’ve been fascinated by maritime history in a strange, nerdy way since I was 9. This is the work I was born to do.”
A professional photographer for 20 years, Winters is the staff photographer for Discovery World Science and Technology Museum in Milwaukee. The museum owns the S/V Sullivan the “only example of a three-masted Great Lakes cargo schooner still afloat,” according to Winters, who arranged time off and permission from the shipping company to go aboard the freighter for weeks at a time.
Gaining the trust of captain and crew took time, he said. He was careful to dine with the crew in their mess and with the officers in theirs, opposed to taking meals in the guest quarters. Shipping is a 24-hour, seven-day-a-week business, and Winters was on deck at 2 a.m. shooting the crew spotting hatches or down in the engine room on throttle-watch. He spent one season following the freighter from port to port by car, dozing in darkness, waiting for it to arrive.
“When I am onboard, I am in my wheelhouse,” Winters quipped. “I’m being creative. It’s a delightful way to travel and wake up in a different place each day.”
Winters shot a half million frames for his book. The best 300 or so grace its pages. The St. Marys Challenger no longer sails as a Great Lakes steamer. Her hull was converted to a barge in the winter of 2013. Her pilothouse was donated to the National Museum of the Great Lakes in Toledo, Ohio, where it will be on display with other artifacts salvaged from the ship.
Here at BLUE, we are fortunate to be able to share Winters’ illuminating images with readers in time for the holidays. He is the co-author of two other books. His most recent is “Schooner Days, Wisconsin’s Flagship and the Rebirth of Discovery World.” Find his work at schoonerdaze.com.
Howard Meyerson is managing editor of Michigan BLUE Magazine.