Missed Opportunity

Generations have been awed by the sight of the huge lakers, like the Arthur M. Anderson, laid up for the winter in Sturgeon Bay. The author asks why this can’t be a niche tourist draw. Photo by Tom Groenfeldt.

On Sunday morning, January 15, my wife Keli and I were sitting in a cozy car at the boat launch on the West Side of Sturgeon Bay waiting for the Bay View Bridge to open.

The Arthur M. Anderson was on the other side. Over the next half hour several cars arrived to watch and photograph the ship. The driver in front of us had picked up the Anderson moving north past Sheboygan on the website the night before and had pegged the ship’s Sunday morning arrival pretty accurately. The retired man goes up to Sault Ste. Marie for five days every month during the shipping season to watch and photograph the ships.

The Soo Locks handle 10,000 passages a season, so visitors are almost guaranteed to see a ship move through on any given day of the mid-May to mid October season. The 350-foot long locks, which allow ships to make the 21-foot drop from Lake Superior to the other Great Lakes, have an elevated viewing stand to provide visitors with a clear view of the ships as they move through. Boat tours are available to travel through the harbor and the locks themselves.

Sault Ste Marie has made its locks and the lakers that pass through them the centerpiece of their destination marketing.

On a Sunday morning in January, the ship-viewing was a little more basic – people sitting in their cars, getting out to shoot a few pictures, and returning to the warmth quickly.

More drivers and photographers were lining up on the other side of the bay to watch the huge ship arrive and tie up for the winter.

So why isn’t Sturgeon Bay building some tourism around this?

Too uncertain, say some. The ship schedules aren’t fixed. Bay Shipbuilding Company, a division of Fincantieri Marine Group, knows which ships are coming in for winter layup and has a loose schedule which it provides to the Maritime Museum and the bridge tenders.

The lakers come into Sturgeon Bay in December and January when not much else is going on in the area’s hotels and restaurants. The city knows the ships are popular – look at the lines that form for Bay Ship’s Shipyard Tours each May.

Am I missing something, or is Sturgeon Bay showing a startling lack of imagination here?

What’s the point of keeping the Michigan Street Bridge and then building the Oregon Street Bridge a couple of hundred feet away if not to make it interesting to watch the lakers line up their angle of approach to get through without scraping one or knocking the other. Hey, the bridges make winter layup an even better spectator sport, especially when they both have to stay open for a 1,000 footer because they are only 600 feet apart.

Okay, Lakers on the Move as an event will never be as well fixed on a schedule as Pumpkin Patch, but it is certainly feasible and could be good for the entire county.

It just takes some smart use of technology.

Here’s how it could work.

Take the Bay Ship lakers schedule and put it up on a single website – maybe the Door County Visitors Bureau. Ask others – Sturgeon Bay Visitors Bureau, hotels, B&Bs, wineries and restaurants – to point to the schedule from their websites. Update the schedule as soon as new information is available from Bay Ship.

The Arthur M. Anderson passing through the Bay View Bridge. Photo by Tom Groenfeldt.

Steve Graf, the bridge tender on the Bay View Bridge, said he gets calls at least 24 hours in advance of a laker’s arrival and an update as they approach, preferably to provide a two-hour window for catching its entry, though he knows if the ice is heavy the ship could be delayed. So the county has available the updated information a day or half-day ahead. The information could be updated to the website for ship enthusiasts to see.

So let’s say we have a couple coming up from Chicago because they know a couple of lakers are expected to arrive during a week in January. They book into the White Lace Inn, maybe attracted by a Four Nights for the Price of Three package and some discount coupons for a couple of restaurants or wineries.

The couple checks the website through the inn’s Wifi, see nothing is expected until 3 pm and head up north to visit a winery and have lunch in Sister Bay. They might check the website for updates from a smart phone, and the inn could promise to call if the laker is going to arrive earlier. Meanwhile they are wandering around Door County spending money.

The ship arrives around 3 pm and the couple has returned in time to shoot the arrival. They spend an hour photographing the laker moving through three bridges while leaving all of them intact, and then they could go out to dinner in Sturgeon Bay. It’s such fun they extend their stay for two more days, long enough to spend some money at the art galleries that are open on weekends.

They catch at least one more laker arrival, have several fine dinners, buy a painting or two and spend money up and down the county, drawn by the lakers.

What’s Sturgeon Bay waiting for, spring? Hey, that’s when the lakers reverse course and head back out. Their departure schedules are more predictable.

It’s time to get a Lakers on the Move program in place.