An Overview of Our Industry

Great Lakes Shipping

Most Americans consider the United States to have three coastlines: the East, West and Gulf. But when Congress designated the Great Lakes our "Fourth Sea Coast" in 1970, it did not err. The Great Lakes are one of the country's most important waterways and home to the U. S.-flag Lakes fleet, perhaps the most vibrant segment of the U. S. merchant marine.

In terms of the number of hulls, the LCA-registered fleet is not large. There are 57 large self-propelled vessels and tug/barge units moving dry-bulk cargos. But what these vessels accomplish is impressive by any measure. In a strong economy, LCA members will haul upwards of 115,000,000 tons of cargo, or more than one-third of a ton for every man, woman and child in this country.

There are 60 Federally maintained (i.e., dredged) ports on the Great Lakes. Others are privately maintained. Some ports handle a number of different cargos, others just one or two.

Virtually every U. S.-flag laker is a "self-unloader," i. e., the vessel is so equipped that its crew can unload cargo without any need of shoreside personnel or equipment. And do the job fast – the largest vessels can discharge 70,000 tons of iron ore or coal in less than 12 hours.

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Another beauty of self-unloading vessels is that virtually any waterfront property can become a working dock with little investment. All the vessel needs is something to tie up to and open space to receive the cargo.

The self-unloading vessel was invented on the Great Lakes and is just one of many advances pioneered by the U. S.-flag Lakes fleet.

Cargo moving between U. S. ports on the Great Lakes and other waters is governed by the Jones Act. This Federal law requires domestic waterborne commerce to be carried on vessels that are U. S.-crewed, U. S.-built, and U. S.-owned. The Jones Act's ground rules ensure that shipping on U. S. waters meets the world's highest safety, operational and environmental standards. To that end the U. S. Coast Guard oversees every aspect of U. S.-flag shipping: construction and maintenance of the ship, crew qualifications, safety equipment and systems, compliance with environmental laws and regulations....

The Jones Act also plays a critical national and homeland security role by maintaining a strong U. S. merchant marine and shipbuilding industry.

While the Jones Act reserves domestic waterborne commerce to American companies, competition for cargo is intense. There are no government subsidies for Jones Act carriers. Self-propelled vessels compete against tug/barge units. Ships and barges compete again the railroads and in some trades, short-haul trucking. The American consumer reaps the benefits of this competition in the form of lower freight rates and a wide variety of transportation options.

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Fleet Overview

A Diverse and Efficient Fleet

The U. S.-flag Lakes fleet offers customers a wide range of vessels to meet individual cargo requirements. Those steelmakers and power plants that need cargo in massive quantities and have dock facilities that can accommodate the largest ships are served by vessels 1,000 feet long and capable of carrying more than 70,000 tons each trip.

Not every customer needs cargo in such quantities or can handle vessels this size, so the other dry-bulk carriers range in length from 494 to 858 feet and offer per-trip carrying capacities that start at 5,750 tons and peak at 50,305 tons.

Also important is the vessels' ability to carry different types of cargo. Only cement must be carried in a vessel specifically engineered to discharge that cargo. Most ships carry and discharge iron ore, stone and coal with equal ease.

Without a doubt it's self-unloading that makes the U. S.-flag Lakes fleet the pacesetter for the dry-bulk trades world-wide. The term "self-unloader" is self-explanatory: The vessel can discharge cargo without any assistance from shoreside personnel or equipment. Self-unloading means virtually any waterfront property can become a working dock literally overnight.

Further boosting the fleet's efficiency are bow and stern thrusters that increase maneuverability and so minimize the need for tugs. State-of-the-Art navigation equipment allows vessels to keep moving in heavy weather.

Since the Lakes are freshwater, a well-maintained hull can last basically as long as the operator wishes. One ship, the cement carrier ST. MARYS CHALLENGER, was launched in 1906 and continues to move cargo safely and efficiently. Many vessels built in the 1950s have since been lengthened and converted to self-unloaders. The freshwater environment allows for this increased capacity without having to incur all the costs of new construction.

The Iron Ore Trade

Iron ore rains into a laker’s hold. It takes 1.5 tons of iron ore to make a ton of steel. Photo by Ben McClain.

It was iron ore for the steel industry that built the U. S.-flag Great Lakes fleet and remains its mainstay. LCA members typically haul nearly 50 million tons of iron ore each year, twice that of the next largest commodities, limestone and coal.

Iron ore is the primary ingredient in steel production. It takes anywhere from 1.3 to 1.5 tons of iron ore to make a ton of steel.

The iron ore LCA members move is mined in Minnesota and Michigan and loaded at ports on Lake Superior and Lake Michigan. The ore is then delivered to lakefront steel mills or transfer facilities where it is then railed to inland blast furnaces.

The steel mill in Cleveland represents a special case. It is located at the end of the navigable section of the twisting Cuyahoga River. In fact, the river's name means "crooked" in the language of the Indian tribe that once inhabited the area. Full-sized lakers deliver iron ore to a dock on the lakefront where it is then reloaded into vessels small enough to transit that challenging waterway.

The Lakes iron ore trade dates from 1852, when six barrels were loaded in Escanaba, Michigan. To this day, that port is the first to ship each season, generally in early March. When the locks at Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan, open on March 25, loading resumes at the five ore docks on Lake Superior and continues until the locks close on the following January 15. (The opening and closing dates can be advanced or extended under certain circumstances.) Once the locks close, Escanaba will feed lower Lake Michigan steel mills for a few more weeks.

Because it has the longest shipping season, the iron ore trade is the most dependent on icebreaking by the U. S. (and Canadian) Coast Guards. Early and late-season sailing tests the crews and ships, but steelmakers must minimize stockpiling costs if they are to remain competitive with foreign suppliers.

The Stone Trade

Of all the cargos moved on the Great Lakes, limestone has the most diverse customer base. The steel industry uses fluxstone as a purifying agent in the steelmaking process. The construction industry uses aggregate as the bed for everything from highways to driveways. Limestone is also used in scrubbers that cleanse emissions from power plants and other industrial applications. All in all, it’s estimated that each of us uses 8,000 pounds of limestone every year.

Great Lakes shipping is a 24/7 industry. Here a vessel unloads limestone as the sun sets. Photo by Todd Shorkey.

The annual stone float for U. S.-flag lakers is approximately 25 million tons. Approximately 65 percent of that total is aggregate and chemical stone. The remainder is mostly fluxstone for steel production.The Great Lakes region is blessed with an almost inexhaustible supply of limestone. The quarry at Rogers City, Michigan, is reportedly the largest in the world. In fact, Michigan can rightfully lay claim to being the “Limestone Capital” of the Great Lakes region. Five of the six U. S. stone loading ports are in Michigan, and together they typically account for 85 percent of shipments from U. S. ports.

Because stone can be somewhat high in moisture content and is often rinsed before loading into vessels, the trade is a bit more weather sensitive than other cargos. Therefore, shipments generally begin in early April and finish around Christmas.

The Coal Trade

Coal rounds out the “Big 3” trades for U.S.-flag lakers. Shipments generally top 20 million tons per year.

There are two types of coal hauled on the Lakes: Steam coal for power generation, and metallurgical or “met” coal for steel production. However, 90-plus percent of Lakes coal is steam coal to make electricity.

A 1,000-foot-long laker delivers low-sulfur coal to Marquette, Michigan. Once ports and waterways are again dredged to project dimensions, a ship this size will be able to carry about 70,000 tons of coal each trip. Photo by Rod Burdick.

There’s another distinction: Eastern and Western coal. Eastern coal is mined primarily in West Virginia, Kentucky, Pennsylvania, and Ohio, and shipped from ports on Lake Erie. Western coal (which is low-sulfur) is mined in Montana, Wyoming and Colorado and railed a 1,000-plus miles to Superior, Wisconsin and Chicago, Illinois, for loading into both U.S. and Canadian lakers and oceangoing vessels for shipment overseas. The coal trade begins in mid-March and extends into January.The coal trade perhaps best exemplifies the benefits of intermodalism. There isn’t a single large coal mine anywhere near a Great Lakes port. American railroads, in other instances fierce competitors for the cargo carried by lakers, deliver the coal to Lakes ports for final shipment to customers in the U.S., Canada and overseas.

Other Cargos

The numeric dominance of iron ore, stone and coal in no way diminishes the importance of other cargos carried by U. S.-flag lakers. Cement, salt, sand, grain, and gypsum in total account for about 6 percent of the fleet’s annual total. In many instances, these commodities are “backhaul cargos” that help keep freight rates as low as possible.

Because cement is face-powder fine, the loading and discharge process must be entirely confined. "Air slides" are lowered into position and cement is pumped into the vessel's holds. Photo by Rod Burdick.

U. S.-flag lakers typically move more than 3 million tons of cement each year. Alpena, Michigan, and Charlevoix, Michigan, are the hubs of the trade and the product is delivered to destinations stretching from Superior, Wisconsin, to Buffalo, New York. Because cement is face-powder fine, it is carried in vessels designed specifically to discharge that cargo.

Salt cargos approach 1.5 million tons per year. Many Great Lakes communities depend on the fleet to deliver the salt they need to keep roads and sidewalks ice-free during the winter. Cleveland and Fairport Harbor, Ohio, are the two U. S. salt-loading ports on the Lakes.

Roughly 300,000 tons of wheat move between Duluth/Superior and Buffalo in U. S.-flag lakers. One boatload of wheat (600,000 bushels) represents the yield of roughly 20,000 acres.

Other cargos include sand for industrial applications and gypsum for the construction industry.