They look like birdwatchers. They stand with binoculars and notebooks and write down names. Or they travel to good spots for up-close viewing. But it’s not birds they’re looking for. They’re looking for ships. And they’re passionate about the huge boats that pass through the Great Lakes. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Melissa Ingells has a look at the pastime of
They look like birdwatchers. They stand with binoculars and notebooks and write down names. Or they travel to good spots for up-close viewing. But it’s not birds they’re looking for. They’re looking for ships. And they’re passionate about the huge boats that pass through the Great Lakes. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Melissa Ingells has a look at the pastime of ship-watching:
(Sound of sing-song shouting)
If you’ve ever been to the shores of the Great Lakes, or to the canals connecting some of the lakes, you’ve probably seen ship watchers. They’re the people with binoculars, trying to spot the name on a freighter’s hull.
It could be the romance of the sea, or a fascination with the storms or shipwrecks; something grabs people about it. Maybe it’s just because some Great Lakes ships are so huge. These kids on the St. Mary’s river near Sault Ste. Marie are trying to get the captain of a Great Lakes freighter to blow his whistle for them.
(Sound of horn, cheering)
Now, that’s big.
Sault Ste Marie isn’t the only seaway people visit to see the ships up close. At the other end of the lakes, in Thorald, Ontario, Ross McGimpsey watches the freighters. He’s come all the way from Northern Ireland to Lock Seven of the Welland Canal. He’s interested in the locks’ engineering, and in the size of the ships.
“I just came to see how they went up and down the locks, and to see how big it is and what it was like. You don’t really see this stuff when you go to Scotland, there sort of really small, just taking up, like little speedboats, but over here it’s full-sized ships, so it’s really different.”
McGimpsey’s one of the many people who travel for good ship-watching. Around the lakes, a cottage tourism industry has sprung up to serve the watchers. Terry Dow sees a lot of the tourists that come to the Welland Canal. She works at the locks viewing area in Thorald. Dow loves to talk to visitors about the ships.
“I love the ships. My office window is just, looks out here at lock 7, and you know, you can be typing away and there’s nothing in the lock and within ten minutes you have this huge ship in front of your window and I really enjoy them. My favorite is the John B. Aird from Algoma, she’s a great ship and I love watching her come through the locks, she’s also one of the largest ships that can come through, the biggest can come through is 740 feet, and I just like watching her come through. I love it here.”
Dow is a lucky ship-watcher; she works close to her hobby. She says some folks have actually moved to the area just to watch the ships. They call themselves the “boat nerds.”
“We have a lot of people here that live in Thorald that have retired from other areas, Toronto for instance, and they come because they love the ships so much, they buy a house along the canal and they are proud to be the “boat nerds” and they volunteer for me every day here in Thorald at the locks viewing complex.”
So, where do people like Dow and the boat nerds get their passion for the ships? Part of it is that people are just plain fascinated by the size of the vessels.
Lou Ann Kozma thinks many people first get interested in ship-watching because they hear some of the popular songs and stories about Great Lakes ships. Kozma organizes festivals in mid-Michigan that celebrate Great Lakes lore.
She brings in people who sing songs of life on the Lakes, tell stories of shipwrecks, and even make wooden models of the big boats people like to watch. Kozma says once a good ship story gets a person’s interest, they usually want to know the real facts behind the tales.
“In general, things like popular culture does romanticize it quite a bit like the Edmund Fitzgerald song, and perhaps shipwrecks, in particular hold that mystique, because ,there’s such a dramatic story, usually, behind each one, and then there’s the lure of just finding out about what happened, and people can discover that in so many different ways.”
Kozma says people find that ship-watching is another way to feel the adventure and romance of the lakes. Back at the Welland Canal, Terry Dow says even though she sees the ships every day, she and people like her never get tired of watching them.
“There’s a lot of people who love these ships. They love the magnitude of them. I’ve named them the “Quiet Giants of the Waterway,” because you can’t even hear them coming into the lock, and they’re so big that you just can’t believe that something of that magnitude you can hardly hear coming into the locks. So, there’s a lot of people, yes, who truly enjoy these ships.”
It seems like the romance of the Lakes and the marvel of engineering are what draw “boat nerds” to the water. And the number of ship watchers might be growing. Earlier in the day, Terry Dow spent time with a whole busload of folks who scheduled their stop just in time to see one of her Quiet Giants glide by right in front of them.
For the GLRC, I’m Melissa Ingells.