The Saint Mary's Blues

Tuesday & Wednesday, September 15 & 16, 1998
Along the Saint Mary's River between Michigan and Canada -
When Andy Sciullo puts his head to the pillow and drifts off to sleep, he dreams like you and me and everybody else, and on some nights he dreams of standing on the bridge of an ocean-going freighter and piloting the 1,000 foot-long beast right down Main Street. "We'll be cruising through traffic lights and everything," he tells me.

For some reason, Sciullo thought this was odd, until, one day on a flight from Michigan to his home in Florida, he happened to be sitting next to an airline pilot, and he confided his odd nocturnal journeys to him. "The pilot told me; 'yeah, I have the same dreams, only I'm in an airplane!'"

Andy Sciullo is a river pilot. ("We fly low and slow.") He climbs on board ships in the western Great Lakes and guides them through the narrow channels and locks. He has been doing this for nearly two decades, so it's not surprising the business has permeated his subconscious world.

I arrange to meet Sciullo during his waking hours. In fact, I arrange to be with him while he pilots a freighter, not down Main Street, but along the fifty miles of the Saint Mary's River, which separates Michigan's upper peninsula from Canada. A Polish freighter, the Ziemia Gnie'znie'nska, is going "upbound" from Detroit to Duluth, Minnesota and will pass by DeTour Village, Michigan at 10 p.m. Sciullo will pilot the ship up the river, through the Soo Locks and under the International Bridge and I will watch his every move. But first, we must get on the ship, which will not bother to stop for us.

Pilots are brought out to ships aboard pilot boats (of course) and I am on the Linda Jean pilot boat, out of DeTour, captained by Bob Konings. During the ride out from the dock, Konings asks me only one question; "have you ever climbed a Jacob's ladder before?"

I answer the question clearly, with a question: "what's a Jacob's ladder?"

This makes Konings a little nervous, but he has better things to do than to worry about roving journalists and their ability - or lack of ability - to climb a thirty-foot rope ladder up the side of a moving ship. He has to steer his 38 foot pilot boat alongside the freighter, keep his speed at about twelve knots and run steady alongside it for several minutes in the pitch black of this dark night, while Sciulla and I step from his boat onto the rope ladder and scramble up the side of the freighter.

And he will have to keep the Linda Jean precisely in position and at an exact speed, so that this fool, greenhorn journalist won't slip and fall between the two vessels and become the meat for a steel-ship sandwich.

As we come alongside the Ziemia, it's like somebody hit the Surreal Button. Captain Konings floors the Linda Jean, and the GMC 471 diesel roars unbearably loud, and the port hull of the 592 foot-long Ziemia takes up my entire starboard view, and when we match its speed, it is as if we have stopped moving! I turn around to port and the open water, and I see the St. Mary's River rushing past us and the wake from our boat jumping over the freighter's wake and I rattle my head, expecting to hear something loose in there. I say goodbye to the captain and climb out of the cabin and up to the deck of the pilot boat. This is very exciting and I try not to show my enthusiasm to Sciulla and the safety hand, to whom this is very much, just another day on the job.

As I stand on the deck of the pilot boat, watching Sciulla climb the ladder, I'm not thinking about what Konings told me about how a ladder broke on a ship just last week and how the pilot who was climbing it might have been killed, had the safety hand not broken his fall. I'm not thinking about the sixty-two degree, ink-black water below me, or the tons of steel plowing through that water. All I'm thinking about is what a truly boring life I have led up until this moment.

Sciulla clears the railing on the Ziemia and the safety hand gives me a nod. I reach over and grab the rope ladder and start climbing. My ascent is easier than expected, until I pause, two-thirds of the way up and do about the dumbest thing short of just letting go with both hands; I look down.

Twenty feet below me is the Linda Jean coursing through the water, and the safety hand staring up at me, wondering, certainly, which way he will duck should I lose my grip. The scene actually excites me and I continue up the ladder as if I were raiding this tub.

I make it safely to the deck, where Sciulla and a half dozen crew members are waiting. Someone greets us in Polish, and (I swear) it sounds like; "Greetings comrade, did you bring the microfilm and explosives?" I just smile and say "hello." I look over the rail as the Linda Jean bears off to return to the dock.

An escort takes Sciulla and me up to the bridge. On the way, I want to blurt out; "man, that was one of the coolest things I've ever done!" right into their "just another day on the job" faces.

Captain Bob Konings aboard his favorite vessel, the Linda Jean pilot boat. "I'd trust my life to her," he says. "And you have," says his wife Sandy. The Konings have been dispatching pilots to ships passing by DeTour Village for twenty years.

I have a feeling that I am with someone special. I am with the man who will take command of this ship and steer it through the channels and locks ahead. The Ziemia is about to enter one of the toughest navigational passageways in the world and we are here to bring this vessel through it.

But this is just another day for Sciullo. In fact, many days he would rather be playing guitar in a blues band, which is what he does when he isn't stealing onto ships in the night.

I later learn that this is also just another boarding for the crew. By the time the Ziemia leaves North America, they will have taken aboard about thirty such river pilots, costing the Polish Steamship Company between sixty and one hundred thousand dollars.

On the bridge of the Ziemia Gnie'znie'nska, seven stories above the water, Sciulla greets Captain Gwidon Kolodziejski and meets and talks with Jack Curtis, the American pilot who brought the ship up from Detroit. Sciulla will relieve Curtis for a few hours and will navigate the Saint Mary's River and the Soo Locks, for which Curtis is not yet qualified.

Andy Sciullo pilots the Polish freighter Ziemia Gnie'znie'nska northward through the Saint Mary's River.

After a short briefing, Curtis leaves the bridge for a few hours sleep, and Sciulla takes over. The bridge is completely dark and Sciulla gives a few rudder commands, which are repeated by a crewman at the helm.

"Starboard two."

"Starboard two," repeats the helmsman.



"Dead straight ahead."

"Dead straight ahead."

Sciulla will continue this for hours, maneuvering the ship through channels and around buoys. He pilots ships up to 1,000 feet long - nearly twice the length of the Ziemia - so this should be an easy ride for him. It is a beautiful, clear night and I can see the water shining in the lights and the shadows of buildings as they pass below us.

Back to surreal: We pass by a house high on a bluff and I can see inside the living room, seemingly less than a hundred yards away. Someone is watching television, oblivious, it seems, to the ship, nearly two football fields in length, passing right by his window.

"People from shore flash their lights during the day," Sciulla tells me. "They want us to blow our horn. But they don't realize that people are asleep on ships during the day, because they work all night."

Sciulla works nights also. Worse, he works days also. The downside to being a river pilot on the Great Lakes is that you just can't get on a consistent schedule. You have to work where and when the ships need you, which, for Sciulla, means anywhere from Chicago to Thunder Bay, Ontario, and anytime day or night. So, even though you only travel at ten miles an hour in two time zones, you get a lot of jet lag.

He spends a lot of time in cars, also, as he usually pilots ships for only one leg of their journey. The association the pilots own has a fleet of cars and drivers to pick them up and return them to their home port. "I added it up once," he says. "In one year, I spent six hundred hours on the road." He also spends a lot of time on airplanes, flying between Michigan and his new home in Florida, where he moved with his wife and two daughters a few years ago for the climate, culture and to be nearer to his parents.

Navigating around Neebish Island, the channel gets very narrow, making the turns difficult. If you've ever seen a school bus jump a curb while taking a corner, you have an idea what it's like to steer something nearly half as long as the Empire State Building is tall, and swing it past a buoy.

"That's the deal with being a pilot," Sciulla says. "You have to be able to judge your turns." No kidding. He sums up the job of river piloting pretty well; "It's 98 percent boredom and two percent terror."

This is why captains from around the world, with decades of experience practically hand over their ships to pilots. No matter how good a captain you are, if you don't know the waters, you don't know jack. Pilots specialize in certain waters, and to be a pilot on the Great Lakes, you must know these certain waters very well.

The Soo Locks (derived from the French word "Sault" meaning "rapids") is the busiest lock system in the world, passing more ships and tonnage in only seven months, than the Panama and Suez canals combined will pass in a year, according to the local newspaper; "Mackinaw Magic".

Photo courtesy U.S.A.C.E.

The Great Lakes waterways and locks are considered to be vital to our country's defense, and for any freighter to sail these waters, they are required by law to be under the command of a U.S. or Canadian river pilot licensed by the United States government.

Getting this license isn't easy. Sciulla graduated from the Great Lakes Marine Academy when he was twenty-one. He sailed on ships for Ford and Amoco, working his way up to First Mate. "I was making a lot of money then," he says. "But I had no time off - that defeats the purpose!" Then he captained a tug-barge for several years, pulling timber around the Great Lakes.

When Sciulla decided to get his pilot's license, he first had to get the standard Coast Guard pilot's license, then the federal license. Overall, he had to travel the lakes dozens of times and take exams on seamanship and specific exams on each lake, river and port through which he wished to pilot. It is far too easy to run a 1,000 foot freighter aground around here and far too difficult to repair the damage.

Of the hundreds of river and harbor pilots in the United States, the Great Lakes pilots are the only ones required to have the special federal license, according to Sciulla.

Ocean going freighters, or "salties" as they are called around here, are not built for tight maneuvering, and Sciulla knows he will need a tugboat to get him into the Soo Locks. The Ziemia has no bow thruster and the engine will not run below forty RPM - it's like driving that school bus backward at full throttle. Also, since the Ziemia is empty and high in the water, a good gust of wind will push it in a bad way. It is dead calm now, but Sciulla knows better than to trust the weather hours from now and miles away. He orders a tugboat on the VHF radio. "We should be up at Mission at 0140," he says. "Roger, 0140," replies the dispatch.

Captain Kolodziejski keeps an eye on our progress, using charts and radar. "Sometimes I envy people who have normal lives," he tells me. "But this better than being bureaucrat - in America too?" I nod. "Here, I see the result of my work. I do my job - no nonsense."

The mostly Polish crew is friendly - I even get a few photos of them - and they speak broken English. Sciulla has met people from around the world in his travels on the Great Lakes and he has enjoyed meeting most of them.

Palocha Franciszek and Tomasz Maeser, keeping the topside up on the Ziemia.

Pilots are not needed when a ship travels across an open lake, so Sciulla gets time off between ports and waterways. Sometimes he will bring his guitar and play for the crew.

It is hard to comprehend just how grateful people around the world are to visit America and to meet Americans. A Japanese officer once asked Sciulla for a favor. "Your accent is so clear," he told Sciulla as he handed him a stack of children's books written in English. "Would you read these into a tape recorder for me?" Sciulla read the books for the man and didn't really think much of it. Months later, he got a call from a trucking company about a large package they had to deliver to him. It was a beautiful, oriental doll in a glass display case.

River pilots also have the luxury of not having long-term problems with personnel, as they are on ships for only a few hours - maybe a few days. Sciulla admits that people from some countries are more difficult to get along with than others, but only for a little while, then he moves to another ship. Much like the life of a roving journalist.

We pass Sugar Island and approach Sault Saint Marie at about 1:30 a.m. Captain Bill Palmer arrives in the Tugboat Oklahoma, pulls up along our starboard side and noses up to our bow. The Ziemia will have to take a sharp left and settle into the lock closest to the left bank. Sciulla talks with Palmer over a hand-held radio. "Lean on her, Bill," he says and over the starboard side I see the rear of the little tugboat swing out and the water churn behind it as Captain Palmer pushes our bow nearly to the American shore.

Sciulla, Captain Kolodziejski and I step out onto the port wing, a balcony just off the bridge, and we lean over the side to watch the progress. The lock is only eighty feet wide, which is only four feet wider than the Ziemia, and - I imagine - the Captain will be very upset if Sciulla puts a scratch in his ship. This, I figure is like putting your pants on without letting your leg touch the fabric.

"Starboard twenty... Hard starboard... Stop Engine... Midship... Dead slow." Sciulla commands the helmsman. Once our nose is in the lock, the Oklahoma leaves and we're on our own. After several minutes of precision piloting, our entire 592-foot length is tucked inside the lock and Sciulla stops the ship. "Engines off," he says.

I let out a sigh, and the Captain and I rest on the wing railing, watching the men, fifty feet below us, tie up the lines. In a few minutes, they will be seventy-one feet below us. I ask Captain Kolodziejski about possible damage to the ship during such maneuvers. "Oh we have steel plates welded to the sides," he says. "It is not a problem."

The Ziemia will reach Duluth by 1 a.m. Thursday. Captain Kolodziejski doesn't know what cargo he will pick up there, but I find out later that he will lade 185,150 tons of canola seeds and take them to either Liverpool, England, or somewhere in North Africa. That's the nature of worldwide shipping these days - schedules are made on a daily basis.

I chased the Ziemia to Duluth for some daytime shots.
Loading canola seeds onto the Ziemia for export to Europe or northern Africa.

The lock fills up and we pull out into Lake Superior. Sciulla takes us under the International Bridge and pilot Jeff Curtis takes command again. I thank the Captain for a great ride, and an escort takes Sciulla and me back to the port rail and the Jacob's ladder. We are up to speed, now, and a pilot boat is alongside us, thirty feet down and keeping up the pace.

I grab hold of the rope and swing myself over the side. With a nod goodbye to the crew members, I lower myself down the ladder and onto the deck of the pilot boat. The descent is pretty routine for me. Yes, just another day on the job.

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