Steering the Big Boats

Retired Captain Ray Sheldon on piloting boats into winter layup

When Great Lakes freighters come back to Sturgeon Bay for winter layup, folks young and old alike turn out for a closer look. And why not? 

These floating giants, gliding up the channel, are quite a sight. 

Take for instance the Joseph L. Block: 728 feet long, a payload capacity north of 37,000 tons, and powered by twin diesel engines turning out 7,000 horsepower. Or how about the Wilfred Sykes, steam turbine classic measuring 678 feet.  

The Sykes has been sailing the Great Lakes for 75 years. The Block is a Sturgeon Bay native built at Bay Shipbuilding and launched in 1976. Anyone at the helm of these historic freighters needs to know what  they’re doing. Captain Raymond Sheldon is our guy. 

Sheldon, 68, graduated from the Great Lakes Maritime Academy in 1976 and began his career with the Inland Steel Fleet. He retired in 2021 with an impressive resume including 30-plus years as captain of, yup, the Wilfred Sykes and the Joseph L. Block. Sheldon and his wife, Peggy,  were even married on the Joseph L. Block in 2019. It was the first, and so far only, time an active Great Lakes captain was the groom on his own boat.

Because none of us non-freighter-captain types will ever pilot the Sykes or Block through the Sturgeon Bay canal, blow the ships’ horns for a heart-pounding salute, and thread the needle between the city’s two downtown bridges, what’s the next best thing? How about talking Great Lakes freighters with Captain Ray and imagining the view from the pilot house?

On a very cold day, the pilot house and inside of the ship is very warm. Photo by Peggy O’Connell.

Coming home 

The process of bringing a freighter into Sturgeon Bay begins about 10 hours before tying up at Fincantieri Bay Shipbuilding. 

“You have to notify the bridge tender that you are going to be in at approximately such-and such a time,” Sheldon says. The Bay View and Michigan Street bridges are remote-operated by a bridge tender at the Oregon Street bridge. 

Next, Sheldon pumps out ballast water. 

“The port of Sturgeon Bay is kind of a shallow port,” he says. “You have to be at the right draft [how much of the boat is below the waterline] to make sure you can come in and not do any damage to the ship. 

“On the Block we had two plans called Sturgeon Bay 1 and Sturgeon Bay 2 depending on what water level we were expecting.” 

Sheldon is aiming for draft of about 18 feet at the stern (back) of the Block, and 13 feet at the bow (front). 

“Then you pump out the middle so you are not hogging or bending the boat one way or the other,” Sheldon says. “About 10 miles from the Sturgeon Bay breakwall, I’ll be up in the pilot house to make sure everything looks good.” 

The Block’s pilot house sits high above the deck of the boat, loaded with a mind-boggling array of screens, gauges, dials, levers, and switches. It’s a place where Great Lakes captains such as Sheldon are very much at  home. 

The Outer Shoal 

As Sheldon approaches the Sturgeon Bay canal, he is very aware of a shoal marked by a Coast Guard Buoy to alert captains of shallow water ahead.

“We are kind of aiming for a spot east of the shoal,” he says. “You’re picking out objects on shore that you tell the wheelsman to steer on. Once he is on them, you mark the heading. Then you can tell if the boat is setting one way or another with the current and wind.” 

As he nears the breakwall, Sheldon sends out calls on marine radio channel 16, the international hailing and distress channel. The calls alert anyone in the area that the Joseph L. Block or Wilfred Sykes is inbound to Sturgeon Bay. In other words, we’re coming up the canal so you better get out of the way. 

Joseph L. Block. Photo by Luke Collins.

About two miles from the shoal buoy, Sheldon taps the brakes. The speed limit in the canal is five miles per hour. The Block and Sykes cruise the Great Lakes at about 13 mph. It takes a mile or so to slow them down. 

The Moment of Truth 

“We’re slowing down and getting things lined up,” Sheldon says. “The interesting part is that the breakwalls are converging, so they narrow at the entrance. It looks very tight! You don’t have a whole lot of room to play with.” 

Once committed to entering the canal, Sheldon says you just have to go for it. “You can’t hem and haw and say, ‘I dunno.’” 

Ray Sheldon and Peggy O’Connel got married on the Joseph L. Block in 2019. Photo by Michael Hall of MDH Photography.

With the boat sitting higher, the wind has a greater effect, made more challenging by the current in the canal. And it’s not just the wind, there is a current in the canal. 

“The current can go in either direction,” Sheldon says. “There are no current indicator lights here like they have at the Duluth entry. It’s not until you get in there that you find out which way the current is flowing.” 

Between the Seawalls 

In the pilot house at Bay Shipbuilding, it’s hard to imagine how snug it  must look for freighter captains as their boats slowly navigate the canal. Sheldon keeps a close watch on the seawalls.

“On a boat like the Joseph L. Block, or something that is built with the cabins all aft, you have the long bow of the boat right there in front of you, so you can look out and see if the boat is staying somewhat in the center of the canal,” he says. 

The Wilfred Sykes, which has the pilot house forward, is a different story. The captain can’t always tell by looking ahead. “You have a steering pole that the wheelsman is using,” Sheldon says, “but then you turn around and, ‘whoa, that stern is awful close back there.’” 

This is where the captains earn their pay. 

“If the starboard side is closer to the wall,” he continues, “we’d put hard right rudder on to kick the stern off the seawall. Then you push with the bow thruster to the left so that you are crabbing the boat sideways off the wall.” 

Nothing to it!

Time to Open the Bridge 

Hours ago, Sheldon alerted the bridge tender that he was on the way. Lake freighters have priority and bridges are opened on demand. Once he’s in the canal, it’s time to reconnect. The response Captain Ray wants to hear: “Great, we’ll be ready for you.” 

On a few occasions, that hasn’t been the case. Sheldon remembers a time aboard the Wilfred Sykes when the bridgetender asked him to hold up for a minute or two because an emergency vehicle was coming down the highway. A minute or two became three or four. Sheldon brought the Sykes to a near dead stop and was fortunate that ice in the channel helped keep her on course. You never know. 

Passing through the Bay View Bridge requires a turn. Two green range lights along the canal, as well as a  diamond-shaped sign with a light on the Michigan Street Bridge, help captains position their boats. “The Bay View bridge does not line up with the channel,” Sheldon says. “A thousand-footer that’s 105 feet wide can get through it without any problem, but it just looks a little intimidating.” 

Hello, Sturgeon Bay! 

The city of Sturgeon Bay is on an island – at least part of it. The Oregon and Michigan street bridges connect the east and west sides. When boats the size of the Joseph L. Block or Wilfred Sykes come to town via the canal, both bridges are up at the same time. Twenty minutes before the bridges open, the bridge tender notifies central dispatch which alerts emergency services in the area. For about a half  hour, whatever side you’re on is the side you’re on. 

As Sheldon approaches the Oregon Street bridge, he relies on crew members to relay the boat’s position. His first mates are looking for “daylight” on each side. “As long as I have daylight, I’m good,”  he says. 

Then Sheldon has to feel what the boat is doing. He remembers the words of Captain Riley Ward, one of  his mentors: “You are reacting to the boat, the boat is not reacting to you.”

“I can give it more engine, I can thrust with the bow thruster and stern thruster,” Sheldon said. “If it is not doing what I want it to do, I have to try something different.”  

The Steel Bridge 

Halfway through the Oregon Street bridge, Sheldon’s attention turns to the city’s historic Steel bridge. Again, it’s all about daylight on either side. Once he’s cleared both bridges, Sheldon tries to get back on  the radio with a call to the bridge tender: “I always want to say ‘thank you.’” 

Photo by Paul Haan

Valet or Self-Park 

The converging breakwalls, a narrow canal, and three bridges are in the rearview mirror. It’s time for  Sheldon to “make dock.” 

“In the wintertime, there will be more tugs because you have to move ice around,” Sheldon says. “Depending on what dock you’re making, if it is just that steel dock or across the face, I can make that on my own because of the bow and stern thrusters.” 

All Stop

Whether Captain Ray brings the Block or Sykes in himself or with the help of a tug or two, he says it’s a special feeling when all lines are secure: “Once the boat is tied up, whether it went exactly how I wanted  it to go or I had to raise my voice occasionally, I would say ‘nice job everyone.’ Things got done, nobody got hurt – that was the main goal.”

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