Belle Isle, Two Classics and the Beach
My favorite boatwatching spot on the entire Detroit River is the long and rocky beach on the southeast end of Belle Isle. Belle Isle is a small recreational island situated between Detroit and Windsor where Lake St. Clair flows into the river, essentially just below where the river starts. The island was designed by Frederick Law Olmsted, who is more well known for his work in designing Central Park. Having been to both, I can see many similar characteristics. But Belle Isle is literally an island. Unfortunately, these days the island is not well taken care of by the city of Detroit. On hot summer evenings it can be bustling with parties and huge groups of people out to have fun, just like old times. But most of the year the island is an afterthought, covered in trash and used mainly by joggers and bikers seeking some exercise. Families from both the city and the suburbs are attracted because of the Nature Zoo, Conservatory, Dossin Great Lakes Museum, the playground, and the recently re-opened Belle Isle Aquarium (the oldest in the country). The Detroit Yacht Club is easily the most attractive thing on the island. But overall, the island’s use as a park and its overall condition is fading, which is a shame since it’s a great wildlife spot and has some amazing hidden treasures: some of them natural and others a long-forgotten result of Olmsted’s fantastic planning, architecture, and landscaping. Many have hoped that Michigan State Parks or a local metroparks group will take over operation of the island, but this has yet to come to fruition. Personally, I am in favor of this. Belle Isle becoming a State Park would eliminate an entire island from the huge area that Detroit is working on improving. Also, the State Parks consistently do a great job wherever they go, including Milliken State Park on the downtown riverwalk. Another issue with the island that bothers me is its use in the Detroit Grand Prix. The race is run on the western half of the island, and caused a huge area of grassland on that side to be paved over. 2012′s race also ripped up the old roads that were in no means prepared for such an event to take place on them. Luckily the damaged spots are being repaved, but only in preparation for the event’s return. While the race is probably overall good for the city and for the island’s publicity, I highly doubt that it shows anybody how nice of a park it is. In my mind, the island should be kept as a nature park for recreation and for families to enjoy, and free of all IndyCars. I don’t know any other nature park that holds an annual IndyCar race. My apologies, that was quite a bit of a backstory followed by a slight rant. But I felt like telling about the island for once.
My appreciation for the island has grown from the fact that I usually visit at least twice a month, pending boat passages. As the first sentence says, it’s my favorite spot on the river. However, I do only use this spot to catch dowbound freighters. That’s where the good views are, and also because of the location of the fuel docks downriver that are only used by upbound-traveling ships.
Yesterday, I pulled into the “Rocky Beach” on the southeast end for the first time in 2013. But it wasn’t just rocky anymore, it’s an icy beach.
Surprised? Neither was I. I was only a bit surprised when I was told by a crewmember onboard this ship, the Algosteel, that she will run through the entire winter and only lay up for a short fit-out in Spring.
Algoma now handles all the winter salt contracts out of the port of Goderich, Ontario. They typically need to keep two ships in service all winter long to satisfy the demands for road salt, most of those loads going to the Lake Michigan area (Milwaukee, Chicago, etc.). Last winter the company used two vessels, the John B. Aird and Algowood, to handle the salt run until early February, when fleetmates Capt. Henry Jackman and Algomarine came out of lay-up to relieve them of their duties and take over for the remainder of winter. This year the system appears to be different. The Algoma Enterprise and my beloved Algosteel will be handling the run all winter long.
Since she’s my favorite ship, I have mixed feelings about this. One thing that makes me happy is that this salt run means that I should be able to see her throughout the winter, as long as she delivers to ports like Toledo as she was doing yesterday. On the flipside, this winter salt run is part of what is considered “driving them into the ground”. Salt is a highly corrosive cargo, and an old ship carrying is throughout an entire winter is not exactly good for the ship’s future. Especially considering that the Steel is in the twilight of her career and was already retired once by Algoma.
But it’s happening, and she will be out all winter as long as the weather permits it. So I’ll get out to see her when I can throughout these lonely winter months when all the other ships are in port resting.
As I mentioned earlier, most of the winter runs for her and the Enterprise will be to Lake Michigan ports, but if I get lucky they will make more runs to Lake Erie ports so I can catch them this winter. Like I said, the Steel is going to Toledo. That’s not too far away, meaning I’ll miss her on the return trip, but oh well. Hopefully she’ll be back sooner than later.
The Algosteel herself is a 730 foot long ship, built in 1966 for the Labrador Steamship Company as A.S. Glossbrenner. She is the second-longest tenured member of the current Algoma fleet, putting on the bear logo in 1971. Only the Algorail, who joined upon her construction in 1968, has been a member of the fleet for longer.
The pretty Canadian spends a typical year slaving away in the salt, sand, and stone trades, with a dash of ore, coal, coke, or some other unusual product here and there. Essentially she is typically a salt and stone boat but serves as a wild card for other trades as well.
She’s not the best-looking vessel on the Lakes, or even the best-looking in the Algoma fleet, but she looks nicer than most lakers out there. I began to garner my affection for this pretty boat in mid 2011 and began going after her on my boatwatching trips following her 5-year survey in early 2012. It may have been her final 5-year, so I catch her while I can.
Overall, I like this ship for three reasons: 1) her looks, 2) her sentimental value to me through multiple past experiences, and 3) I think she’s got an awesome name. I love the traditional Algo-names, and the name “Algosteel” just takes the cake for me. Combine those reasons and you’ve got my favorite ship!
As I mentioned a few days ago, I haven’t ever braved through a winter to do stuff like this before. So I’ve never seen stuff like this before. I can’t remember for my life whether or not there is a rock underneath that ice or not… it was still like an island so there must be something!
These perhaps perplexed me even more… I have no explanation other than they are on rocks.
This is only the 12th photo of the post, so I suppose I might as well carry on since my reasonable limit is 25. The second and final boat of the afternoon was this 1952 steamer.
14 years older than the Algosteel, and 37 feet longer, the steamer Philip R. Clarke will also likely outlast the Steel by a long time. For those who don’t know, guess which boat has a higher cargo capacity?
The Jones Act is an American legislation originally meant to protect American shipbuilding (certainly not the only motive but one of them anyway). On the Great Lakes the act has somewhat failed that purpose. Instead of protecting American shipbuilding, it is protecting old American-built ships. To build replacements in American shipyards is out of the question, and to have American freighters constructed foreign violated the act if they trade between U.S. ports. So, they continue to fix up the old ones. Which keeps us boatnerds happy.
The Canada Maritime Act is a similar regulatory act, but with one major difference: it lacks the requirement of the ship being built in the homeland. A high tariff on foreign newbuilds countered this for long enough until its repeal around 2008 that sparked Algoma Central and Canada Steamship Lines to do what had been put off for years: replacing their aging fleets with new ships built overseas. This is one major reason that the old Clarke will be out decades after the Algosteel is razor blades.
But it is not the only reason. The other one involves salt. But in two ways: only one American shipping company, Grand River Navigation, regularly handles salt. They have been creative in finding ways to replace their old vessels. Other, older, American shipping companies do not carry the corrosive cargo in their boats. All three large Canadian companies that operate self-unloaders do carry salt. Heavy carrying of salt can help to determine the early fate of younger (in comparison to American boats like the Clarke) Canadian boats like the Algosteel.
The second salt-related reason is saltwater operation. This one is pretty simple. Canadian freighters trade all the way down the St. Lawrence into saltwater, with those so-equipped even operating in coastal trades in the winter. American ships, with the exception of a few ore runs to Quebec, do not trade into this area. Operating in corrosive saltwater often can significantly shorten a ship’s life. (Regarding the coastal trades, only Canadian freighters built 1980 or later typically apply to that. Classics like the Algosteel go no further than the Gulf of St. Lawrence at most).
Well now you have my explanation in a nutshell on why this old boat is going to outlast the younger Algosteel. By many years.
While they are both good-looking, I will actually take the Steel‘s stern end over the Clarke‘s. I’ve put the giant self-unloading rig behind me.
I think the Steel has the better stack, too.
Well, I’m closing in on 25 pictures. This seemed like such a long post to write but I didn’t have very many photos to use for it. I guess I just wrote more than usual.
Maybe when you’re walking around in the cold on a lonely island and you’re stuck with these two lovely boats, it gives you something to think about. When I’m moving quickly from boat to boat, and I can’t post as many pictures of each because I don’t want my posts to be TOO long, I can’t talk about them as much as I might like to. That’s the advantage of these peaceful (albeit freezing) afternoons at Belle Isle when you have two classy boats to keep you company before you go back home.
And did I mention? I usually do mention destination and cargo. The Clarke is following the Algosteel to the southerly port of Toledo, but with a cargo of taconite from Marquette rather than salt from Goderich. And so is the life of the American and Canadian classic in the winter.
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