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The season's first ships

When the Great Lakes shipping season starts, boat nerds watch for salties.

An ore boat enters the Twin Ports.

© Torsten Muller

An ore boat pushes through ice in the Twin Ports.

Like robins and maple sap, Lake Superior ore boats aren't much affected by the never-ending winter that humans find so annoying.

In Duluth, the big lakers leave port the third week of March whether there's ice or not. In warm 2017, the Roger Blough, a favorite of boat nerds, was first to leave on March 22.

In 2015, icebreakers had to help the John G. Munson leave port on March 20. There was no ice in 2016, but the Edwin Gott didn't leave until March 22. 

After the first boats leave winter layup, traffic starts to move within Lake Superior and then, after the Soo Looks open, from other Great Lakes.

Ah, but when will the first oceangoing boat arrive? Whoever guesses that wins the annual First Ship Contest sponsored by the city and the Duluth Seaway Port Authority, and the grand prize of an all-expenses-paid trip to the port town

In 2017, the first saltie was the Antigua-flagged Lake Ontario, which arrived April 2 to load grain. In 2016, the first saltie was the Dutch-flagged Albanyborg, arriving on April 3. It dropped off a load of German wind-turbine parts in Port Colborne, Ont., and continued to Duluth for a load of wheat bound for Italy.

In 2015, the first saltie was the Malta-flagged Kom, which arrived April 13 with a Bulgarian crew to load wheat.

You may think that the colder and longer the winter, the later the arrival — and that was true in 2014, the year of the polar vortex.

That year, ice on the Great Lakes was so heavy that navigation on the Montreal/Lake Ontario section of the St. Lawrence Seaway was delayed until March 31.

On Lake Superior, Coast Guard ice cutters had to escort lakers in convoys from the Soo Locks.

The first saltie didn't arrive until May 7, and even then, the 435-foot Antigua-flagged Diana needed help from two ice-breaking tugs and a 1,000-foot laker, whose bulk helped cleared the way for the little Diana.

The ship had traveled from Brazil; it loaded wheat in Duluth and headed for Algeria.

That was the latest first arrival since May 3 in 1959, the year the St. Lawrence Seaway opened.

However, the winter of 2013 also seemed to drag on interminably. And yet, the Hong Kong-flagged Federal Hunter broke a record set in 1995 when it arrived in the early hours of March 30. 

The Dutch-flagged Albanyborg.

© Beth Gauper

In 2016, the Albanyborg was the first saltie, arriving on April 3.

Another saltie, its Cyprus-flagged sister ship, the Federal Elbe, arrived later the same day but had to wait at anchor for its turn at the grain terminals.

In 2012, March was shockingly warm, but the Dutch-flagged Arubaborg arrived April 10, just two days shy of the then-record for late arrival.

What you need to know

The Welland Canal, which allows ships to bypass Niagara Falls, usually opens March 28 — but in 2015, it was pushed back to at least April 2, and in 2016, it opened March 21.

The 26-mile canal connects lakes Ontario and Erie and allows boats to get around Niagara Falls.

Lakers can move around each Great Lake as soon as ice is out; on Lake Superior, they shuttle between Thunder Bay, Silver Bay, Two Harbors and Duluth-Superior.

After the Soo Locks in Sault Ste. Marie open on March 25, they can take their loads to the steel plants on lakes Michigan and Erie.

But salties, most of which are coming for loads of grain, tend to take their time. Their schedules, like those of the lakers, are dictated not only by weather but also by the economy and demand for the goods they carry.

In 2011, the Cyprus-flagged Federal Leda arrived in Duluth on April 11.

In 2010, the Federal Elbe from Italy arrived April 5, but a Canadian laker had arrived to load wheat just before her, and the Federal Elbe had to wait until the morning of April 7 to enter the harbor.

In 2009, the first ship arrived April 12, when the Dutch Antilles-flagged Medemborg became the latest arrival since 1997.

In 2008, the Hong Kong-flagged Gadwall arrived April 10.

Before 2013, the earliest an ocean-going boat had arrived in Duluth was April 1 in 1995.

Check Marine Traffic for ship locations and Duluth Shipping News for estimated arrival and departure times. A live webcam records canal traffic.

For more shipping tips, check Boat Nerd, which displays a map of real-time vessel locations on the Seaway.

The Lake Superior Marine Museum Association in Duluth holds a Spring Break-up drawing for a 5½-day cruise on the 1,000-foot freighter Edwin H. Gott, but you have to be a member. Membership is $40 and includes many other benefits and discounts.

Boatnerd lists benefit raffles for trips on Great Lakes freighters, including its own trip on the Gott or the Roger Blough.

For more, see Boat watching in Duluth.

Last updated on April 3, 2017