What is like to work on onboard these Vessels?
It’s unlike any other vessel you will work on. 95* temps in the summer to -20* in the winter. Busy schedules, sometimes you will unload and load in the same day. As a Mate you might have a cargo watch, a lake watch, or a river piloting watch. On the longer runs (3 days between docks) you would have something like this: 2 lake watches, river piloting watch, lake watch, river piloting watch, and a lake watch and arrival to the dock, a cargo watch and departure. The thousand footers unload in 8-10 hours on a pile, 10-20 hours depending on a hopper. The smaller “workboats” unload in 3.5-8 hours depending on the cargo. We haul dry bulk cargoes: limestone, taconite, coal, and then some odd ball stuff( Slag, mill scale, sand, etc.) Loading this stuff can take anywhere from 5 hours to 24+ depending on the dock and weather. Winter sailing things freeze up and ice causes all kinds of issues and delays.
How are the working conditions onboard?
Pretty good. Fresh water allows these hulls to not rot away as bad as some deep sea ships. Being close to shore allows pretty decent cell phone coverage and being in port frequently allows fresh produce in the Galley. The food is definitely better than I’ve had elsewhere.
How has your experience and impression been working on these ships?
It’s not as glamorous as sailing on a brand new Tanker, or a box boat running the European route, or a Matson ship on the pineapple run, but it pays the bills and provides some perks.
Why do you sail on them? When I left the oil patch in 2016 I considered deep sea or going back to the Great Lakes ( I had done some Cadet time up there in 2012). My friends sailing MMP were sitting in halls for months trying to get jobs. A quick phone call and some paperwork and I was headed to a Great Lakes Freighter in a few days. It’s pretty steady work for a new hire with no seniority. Within a year you can get a full 180-200 day season in. I also looked at how many retirements these companies were going to have and how much room to move up there would be. I was able to go from relief Third Mate to Relief First Mate in just over two years. I really like the variety of watches. You go from a easy lake watch, to river piloting, to cargo watches. As First Mate I enjoy loading the vessel. TPI and MT1 and all that stuff you’ve probably forgotten from Stability class & Dry cargo class comes into play.
As a Captain you handle some very large ships in very confined waters without hardly ever using tugs. Definitely some extremely skilled shiphandlers up here.
How is the pay?
Less than most deep sea contracts but not horrible.
What type of jobs would be onboard these ships, especially in the Deck Department?
Almost all have 1 Master/First Class Pilot, 3 Mate/First Class Pilot, 3 AB wheelsman, and a 5 person deck crew.
Mates stand navigation watches on open lake, cargo watches in port, and pilot the river systems during their watch. AB wheelsman wheel the rivers and do sanitary. Deck crew does maintenance and unloads the vessel.
What are the Pros and Cons of employment on these vessels, overall in general?
Pros: 1. Steady work and lots of room for advancement. 2. One of the best jobs to learn river piloting and shiphandling without tugs. 3. Decent cell phone service and good food. 4. Not much paperwork (SMS hasn’t arrived…yet)
Cons: 1. You haul dirt for a living. Just a big floating dump truck. 2. It can be hot as hell or cold as F#@! 3. Typical schedule is 60 days on 30 days off and then you get laid off during the winter. 4. Lower pay than some parts of the industry.
What type of education/endorsements/experience/etc is needed or recommended to work on the Great Lake Freighters?
Biggest thing is a First Class Pilotage endorsement on you license. Some companies will occasionally take “open water” Mates but the Pilotage is key to steady employment. If you Cadet up here record your trips and write the Pilotage. Put in the time to learn the rivers and most ship’s officers are willing to shed some light on the tips and tricks to pass the Great Lakes Pilotage exams at the USCG REC.
A few Texas cadets rode on Great Lakes Maritime Academy’s TS State of Michigan a few years back. See if anyone has the Pilotage info and chartlets before you ship out.
Any advice for starting a career in this aspect of the Maritime industry would be helpful.
If you’re interested start with a Cadet Sea project. Even if you don’t want to sail on the Great Lakes after your sea project, I can promise you, you’ll have a better skill set and outlook going into every job there after. I know I’ve been a better Mariner because of what I learned as a Cadet on the Great Lakes.
Let me know if you have any other questions.