He says it was no big deal, but coming home with a new boat was an adventure for Don Szczech. In October, he picked up a boat to replace the venerable Wenonah, which has carried passengers between Grand Portage and Isle Royale National Park since 1965. The new boat, called Sea Hunter III, was docked on the Atlantic Coast at Long Island, New York.
Nothing is wrong with the steel-hulled Wenonah, but it has become a victim of circumstance. During a couple of recent summers, low water levels in Lake Superior prevented the boat from docking in Grand Portage Bay, so it was unable to make daily runs to the island. The aluminum Sea Hunter III needs less depth than the Wenonah and can reach the dock in low water.
Joining Szczech on his journey were several of his friends from Grand Portage. The group went to New York on Amtrak, which allowed them to carry more gear than they could bring if traveling by air. Reaching their destination on Long Island, they spent a day readying the boat for the trip. Their start was then delayed for a couple of days by high winds from an ocean storm.
The waves were still running nine to 12 feet on the ocean when they set off for New York City, where they passed beneath the Statue of Liberty and started up the Hudson River. At Albany, they were delayed again. The same storm had soaked parts of New York State with torrential rains. Flood conditions closed canals and locks. After three days in Albany they proceeded to Waterford, where they found the Erie Canal was closed until the waters receded. They were stuck in Waterford for a week. Szczech says they did some work on the boat and went on long walks to pass the time.
The Erie Canal connects the Hudson River with Lake Ontario. Opened in 1825, the historic canal was the first transportation route to the Great Lakes that did not require portaging. Today it is mostly used for recreation. In the fall, the locks are operated from 7 a.m.-5 p.m., so it took Szczech three days to traverse the system.
He says much of the canal looks like a big irrigation ditch. Vertical clearance is limited to 20 feet, so they folded down the mast and antennas and filled the fuel tanks, bringing the Sea Hunter III's clearance to about 17 feet. High water and debris still interfered with canal operations. At one lock, the boat fought a surging current, entering under nearly full power and then quickly coming to a halt.
From Lake Oneida, they followed the Oswego Channel to Lake Ontario and started up the Great Lakes. To reach Lake Erie, they went through the Welland Canal, which bypasses Niagara Falls. The canal is primarily for commercial traffic, so the 63-foot craft was dwarfed by oceangoing freighters. They entered Lake Erie on a Wednesday at 5 p.m.
Making an uneventful passage through the Detroit River and Lake St. Clair across Lake Huron, up the St. Mary's River and then across Lake Superior, they passed through the Aerial Lift Bridge and entered Duluth at 9 a.m. Saturday. Szczech had planned on a cruise of seven to 10 days to allow for weather, and they spent 18 days on the boat. While the Great Lakes are famed for fall storms, the only weather they encountered was the tropical depression that caused the high winds on the Atlantic and the flooding in the Erie Canal.
The Sea Hunter III is spending the winter in Duluth, where it is being refitted for service with Grand Portage-Isle Royale Transportation Line, which Szczech owns with his wife, Jennifer Sivertson. The business was begun by a famed North Shore mariner and fisherman, the late Stanley Sivertson. The boat was recertified for passenger service by the Coast Guard in New York and is undergoing a second inspection and recertification in Duluth. It will also be renamed. Szczech says the new boat is significantly faster and should make the Isle Royale crossing in about an hour, rather than the 2 1/2-3 hours required for the Wenonah. It will also ride a sea much better than the Wenonah, which will no doubt be appreciated by many passengers. While he isn't making promises, Szcech hopes to have the boat in service by June.
What will happen to the Wenonah? At some point, the 65-foot steel boat, built in 1960, will be put up for sale. However, over time, storage expense can quickly eat up the profits from an eventual sale. If the Wenonah doesn't attract a buyer relatively quickly, it will be scrapped.
Though he'd never made the trip from Long Island to Duluth before, Szczech says it was more of a work trip than a sigh-seeing cruise. His friends who came along on the trip might disagree. Despite the delays, he says, everyone had a good time.
Airdate: December 24, 2010