Shipments of limestone on the Great Lakes totaled 27.6 million tons in 2013, an increase of 1.7 percent compared to 2012, according to the Lake Carrier’s Association (LCA). The trade was, however, still 4 percent below its long-term average.
Shipments from U.S. ports totaled 23.9 million tons, an increase of 5.7 percent compared to 2012. That total is also the highest for U.S. ports since 2008.
Shipments from Canadian ports totaled 3.7 million tons, a decrease of 18 percent compared to 2013.
The major shipyards on the Great Lakes are located in Sturgeon Bay and Superior, Wis.; Erie, Pa.; and Toledo, Ohio. Smaller “top-side” repair operations are located in Cleveland; Escanaba, Mich.; Buffalo; and several cities in Michigan.
The stone trade was pretty well wrapped by mid-December. Shipments during the ice season that statistically began on December 16 totaled 313,000 tons, or 25 percent of the December float. The limestone trade typically ends sooner than iron ore and coal as much of the stone moving on the Lakes is washed prior to loading into vessels and therefore susceptible to freezing as temperature plummet, LCS said.
After a season in which U.S.-flag ships will have sailed more than 2,500,000 miles and carried nearly 90 million tons of cargo, a $70-plus million tune-up awaits the fleet. One ship arrived in Sturgeon Bay, Wis., to undergo conversion to a barge in early November, but the bulk of the fleet began tying up at their winter berths starting in late December and the final lay-ups will come in short order now that the locks at Sault Ste. Marie, Mich., are closed. Upwards of 1,200 shipyard workers then will labor virtually non-stop to ready the vessels for the 2014 season that will begin in mid-March.
Despite the challenges that winter weather presents in the Great Lakes region, the first quarter of the year is the prime time for maintaining and modernizing vessels, LCS said. Vessels have to operate 24/7 during the season to meet the needs of commerce, so the closing of the Soo Locks means employment at Great Lakes shipyards is about to peak.
While the Lakes freshwater environment is gentle on vessels, U.S. law requires lakers be dry-docked at regularly scheduled intervals so the U.S. Coast Guard and American Bureau of Shipping can examine the hull below the waterline. Massive concrete and wooden blocks are positioned in the drydock and support the vessel once the chamber has been drained. Several vessels will undergo out-of-water inspections this winter.
Much attention will be paid to the vessels’ massive engines, some capable of generating nearly 20,000 hp. The engines are shut down only long enough to load and discharge cargo during the late March/mid-January shipping season, so must be primed for nearly continuous operation. Navigation, fire fighting and lifesaving equipment will also be carefully checked.
Great Lakes shipyards made a number of improvements during the year to better service the fleet this winter. One yard in Wisconsin added a 7,000-ton floating drydock. Another yard in Wisconsin continued to add hundreds of feet of sheet pile berthing dock to allow it to service more vessels.
Communities far from the Lakes also benefit from the winter work program. Hundreds of feet of high-strength conveyor belts for the vessels’ unloading systems are being manufactured in Marysville, Ohio, and new galley ranges to feed the crew of 23 on a 1,000-foot-long vessel are being produced in Smithsville, Tenn.
The industry’s annual payroll approaches $50 million and it is estimated that an additional $800,000 in economic activity is generated per vessel in the community in which it is wintering.
Over the course of the season, about 1,600 men and women work on U.S.-flag lakers. Some will assist with maintenance of the vessels during the winter. Others will upgrade their skills at classes sponsored by their employers and unions.