Ships head for Duluth as Soo Locks open

Port Authority expects strong 2019 season
The Kaye E. Barker passes underneath the Aerial Lift Bridge in Duluth on Friday afternoon, March 22. The ship was the first to leave port for the 2019 shipping season. Samantha Erkkila / Forum News Service
The Kaye E. Barker passes underneath the Aerial Lift Bridge in Duluth on Friday afternoon, March 22. The ship was the first to leave port for the 2019 shipping season. Samantha Erkkila / Forum News Service

DULUTH -- After surviving a setback that left three ships stopped in ice overnight outside the Twin Ports over the weekend, the start of the Great Lakes shipping season proceeded into gear on Monday, March 25.

The Stewart J. Cort was the first ship through the Soo Locks just after midnight Monday, ending roughly 10 weeks of Great Lakes shipping’s annual offseason filled with maintenance and repair.

“It’s always exciting,” Duluth Seaway Port Authority spokesperson Jayson Hron said. “When the locks open, it’s showtime. All the preparation, the planning, the teamwork — it’s all put in motion.”

The 1,000-foot Cort belongs to the Interlake Steamship Company based outside Cleveland. The Cort was upbound through the locks at Sault Ste. Marie on the eastern edge of Lake Superior and headed for Duluth for a load of taconite iron ore. According to the company website, the Cort has a regular route between Duluth-Superior and Burns Harbor, Ind. — at the southern tip of Lake Michigan.

The Cort was scheduled to arrive in Duluth by 2 p.m. on Tuesday, said the online vessel tracking website Harborlookout.com. But ice across 60 percent of the lake had been impacting traffic, and no times could be viewed as being set in stone.

Coming off a stellar 2018, the new shipping campaign faced the buzz of expectations. In the Twin Ports last year, 21.5 million tons of ore shipped, making it the busiest season since 1995.

“We might not set records in March, given the ice conditions, but we’re optimistic about the 2019 shipping season as a whole,” said Port Authority Executive Director Deb DeLuca. “Last season was a 23-year high in iron ore tonnage, and demand remains strong so that’s a promising sign. We’re also expecting a strong season for wind cargo deliveries into the port of Duluth-Superior. That combination gives us a good bit of momentum for what we hope will be another excellent season.”

On the east end of the Great Lakes, the Montreal-Lake Ontario section of the St. Lawrence Seaway is scheduled to open today at 7 a.m. CDT, marking the official opening of the waterway between the Great Lakes and the Atlantic Ocean.

The St. Lawrence Seaway recorded its best shipping season in a decade last year, with 41 million metric tons of cargo — a nearly 7 percent increase in tonnage over the previous campaign. The St. Lawrence Seaway opened in 1959, making this the 60th season. The binational U.S.-Canada waterway is credited with having opened North America’s heartland to global markets. Last year, grain exports through the seaway rose 37 percent.

“There’s such a buildup of anticipation and high hopes,” Hron said. “Everyone looks forward to the action and also the opportunity to start turning those high hopes into reality.”

Early on in Duluth-Superior, iron ore traffic figures to be king. Of the six ships docked in Duluth and Superior over the course of a roughly 10-week offseason, most were underway for the ore trade.

The Kaye E. Barker was the first out of the Twin Ports, leaving Fraser Shipyards in Superior bound for Two Harbors, where it loaded ore before heading east to the Soo Locks late last week.

By Monday, the Kaye E. Barker and H. Lee White were stopped outside Whitefish Bay on the east end of Lake Superior, according to online vessel traffic service Marinetraffic.com. Ice collects in Whitefish Bay, and the U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Mackinaw was breaking ice in the bay throughout the afternoon on Monday.

The H. Lee White had previously been stopped in ice outside the Twin Ports on Saturday, along with the Mesabi Miner and American Spirit.

The track through the ice first created by the Mackinaw last week collapsed and prevented the vessels from reaching open water. All three were in motion by Sunday after the Coast Guard Cutter Alder, based in Duluth, was able to assist in breaking out the ice.

The American Spirit was docked in Two Harbors, loading ore on Monday.

The Mesabi Miner left Superior with a shipment of coal bound for St. Clair, Mich., and had reached the middle of Lake Superior by late afternoon Monday.