I’m a boat nerd

I’ve got the twitches.

That may not be an ailment you’re familiar with. Twitches are what happens when it’s cold and crummy outside and warm and cozy inside–and I can hear boat whistles. I should be out there, I think. I should grab my camera and get out there.

It’s not a worry when it’s a random series of blasts. They must be testing something, I figure. Or when it’s a long, sustained sound, which means a boat is leaving dock.

The Wilfred Sykes comes into view, inching its way down the canal.

The Wilfred Sykes comes into view, inching its way down the canal.

It could just mean it’s being hauled to the dry dock, or to another part of the Bay Shipbuilding yard.

But what I dread, when the wind is blowing and the rain is slanting sideways, is the three-long-two-short, or the one-long-two-short, which are the formal and informal salutes blown as a boat is leaving harbor. I’m a boataholic, and those whistles are siren sounds to me and my camera.

My ears have learned to recognize all the toots and whistles that come from the bay just a two-minute walk from where I live, and there are a lot of them. Whistles from the big boats, from the tug boats that shove them around, even from the draw bridges, three of them, that have to go up and down as the cargo boats and the tug boats pass through. But it’s only the big boats, most of them ore boats, that have the the deep, throaty expulsions of air that speak of size and power and mystique.

George and I have been known stop in the middle of fixing dinner,

Passing the Coast Guard station--and giving the salute I missed.

Passing the Coast Guard station–and giving the salute I missed.

eating dinner, walking the dog, even driving to work, to chase a boat and get a new shot. Now, as April scurries along toward May, our chances are limited because most of the boats, which wintered at Bay Shipbuilding, are already gone, back to work for the summer season. Only two remain: the Walter J. McCarthy, the thousand-footer built right here in Sturgeon Bay; and the Algosoo, a 750-foot Canadian boat that was the last Great Lakes vessel to be built with cabins in the bow.. The Huron Spirit, a Canadian barge built in China, just arrived, so it may be here a while yet–but there’s no way we laymen can predict unless we have “in” with someone in the shipyard. (And I do have a few.)

Here in Sturgeon Bay, boats have two options: east toward Lake Michigan, or west toward the waters of Green Bay. Right now there’s still a lot of ice in Green Bay, so it’s the inconvenient three-bridge route they have to take. With two of the bridges only 750 feet apart, the boats, ranging in size from 600 feet to over 1,000 feet, are often passing under two bridges at once. Just picture it. You don’t even have to love photography or boats to want to shoot something like that.

The business end of the Sykes.

The business end of the Sykes.

That eastern route is the most scenic, and most accessible, to photographers. Since we’ve taken a lot of shots of boats going through the bridges, I’ve been wanting to get a close-up shot of one of those behemoths sliding through the Sturgeon Bay ship canal. Last week, when the 634-foot Buffalo started belching and moving around the harbor, we hightailed it for the canal, trudged for 20 minutes through the woods until we found a break in the trees for a good view, then waited until I HAD to leave because of a previous appointment. When we got back to town, the Buffalo was still sitting there. We obviously didn’t listen to the whistles.

A few days ago, we were just about to head to the gym when we heard the whistle and got a call from a friend on the bay. The Wilfred Sykes was moving out, and it was heading toward the bridges. We looked at each other and grinned. Forget the exercises. This was far better. The 678-foot Sykes is one of the handsomest boats on the lakes, to my mind. I wanted a chance to ogle her a bit.

So,  back to the canal we went, opting for positions closer to the

Heading past the lighthouse and into Lake Michigan.

Heading past the lighthouse and into Lake Michigan.

Lake Michigan entrance in order to save time. We needn’t have worried, though. The boats slow down considerably as the waters narrow.

We waited. And we waited. The wind blew, cold off the lake, but I didn’t feel a thing. And then, far down the canal, I saw it coming, feeling its way carefully down a waterway that looked too narrow to handle it. The Sykes isn’t the biggest laker out there, but it dwarfs that canal. As it drew closer, I fingered my camera, preplanning my shots, knowing exactly what I wanted.

They were exactly what I got–with one exception. I had hoped to do a short video when the boat saluted the Coast Guard station. I hit “record” when the blast came and then saw the flashing battery light that wouldn’t let me video. Of all the times to forget to recharge my battery! The spare was low, too. How unprofessional of me.

But there was enough charge to get photos, and get them I did. It was only later that I discovered my hands were nearly frozen solid, and realized what “the heat of the moment”

The Sykes rounds the bend and heads south. Safe travels!

The Sykes rounds the bend and heads south. Safe travels!

really means. Everything feels warm when there are photos to be taken.

I get hooked on experiences like that. So although I chased a boat and shot those pictures just days ago, I’m anxious to do it again. I can hear whistles on the bay, and I’ve got the twitches.


About Monica Sawyn

I'm a retired newspaper reporter/columnist, and although I still freelance, I miss the weekly column I used to write. I still "see columns" in everyday life and need a place to put them after they're written--thus, this blog. I'm Catholic, have been a Benedictine oblate since 1977, and live with my husband and our beagle in Sturgeon Bay, Wis. When I'm not writing, I'm probably reading, sewing, taking photos or walking the dog.
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4 Responses to I’m a boat nerd

  1. blb1 says:

    Wish I could visit you some day and enjoy such ventures. OK my cameras aren’t like yours. lol

  2. blb1 says:

    btw i got a kick out of looking at the images full screen and seeing the reflection in them.

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