OHIO — Captain Paul Berger said he grew up dreaming of being at the helm of a Great Lakes freighter and he’s now living his dream.
Berger started with the Interlake Steamship Company in 1997 and has captioned in one form or another since 1985.
“My early career was spent on the ferry boats servicing Lake Erie,” Berger said.
While growing up Berger said his father worked night shifts, so he’d spent a great deal of time with his “favorite” aunt and uncle. His uncle was employed as a ferry captain and a wheelman for Bethlehem Steel and his uncle’s father was a captain for Bethlehem Steel.
“He pretty much got me involved in it, got the passion going for it,” Berger said of his uncle. “I was actually steering the ferries by the time I was five years old and making the dock with him by the time I was 10.”
Berger said from a young age he and his uncle shared a dream that he would someday become the captain of a Great Lakes freighter — a dream that came true.
“Fortunately, I had the Herbert C. Jackson, and made a trip into Sandusky (Ohio) and he was on a city pier there watching us come in and got to see it,” Berger said, sharing a heartfelt memory of his late uncle witnessing him captaining a freighter firsthand.
This year Berger was chosen as the first captain for the M/V Mark W. Barker, the newest freighter on the Great Lakes in 35 years. Owned by the Ohio-based Interlake Steamship Company, the Mark W. Barker made its maiden voyage on July 27.
“It’s a double edged sword kind of — it’s very humbling and flattering that I was chosen to be the first captain,” Berger, a graduate of the Massachusetts Maritime Academy said. “It’s exciting in the fact that it’s brand new and has the latest modern technology.”
“On the same note on the double edge sword there are growing pains and bugs to be worked out. Some are frustrating and are expected and some pop up out of the blue.”
In his career Berger has captained all 10 of the freighters in the Interlake Steamship Company’s fleet. Berger said there was an adjustment period getting used to the 639-foot Mark W. Barker compared to the 1,000 foot freighters in the Interlake Steamship Company’s fleet.
In two trips up the Cuyahoga River in Cleveland, the Mark W. Barker, although wider than the Herbert C. Jackson, had an easier time because of its shorter length, Berger said. He noted the river is one of the more challenging waterways.
“Mark W. Barker is a very beautifully handling ship — you can get out of whack and get back into whack pretty easily with that boat,” Berger said.
The crew on the Mark W. Barker is currently at 24, and includes a full complement in the engine room, according to Berger.
Berger went on to talk about a mandatory proving period where because of the automation, the engine room needs to be staffed 24/7 to ensure there aren’t recurring alarms in the engine room.
“The Coast Guard will come aboard and ride and witness the fact that we don’t have alarms going off every five minutes,” Berger said.
Once that happens, he said the ship will be allowed to have a designated officer assigned to night duty who would receive emergency notifications from the engine room.
“Then they allow us not to have someone in the engine room during evening hours,” Berger said.
Once that happens the crew would be reduced to 22, which is the same as the other ships in the Interlake Fleet, he said.
Since the Mark W. Barker took its maiden voyage in July of this year, Berger said the ship completed a trip to Porter Colber far on the east end of Lake Erie, and did two trips into Buffalo at the far east end of Lake Erie, into Michigan and Superior.
“Everything but Lake Ontario so far,” Berger said.
At 60 years old, Berger said he’s the second oldest captain employed by Interlake Steamship Company.
“I’m one of the old timers,” he said.
Berger said when he was starting out the “old timers” let him know they were available if he had a question or if there was a weather issue.
Now he’s doing the same.
“Feel free to call me day or night and wake me up,” Berger said he often tells the younger captains. “I’m used to being woken up and going back to sleep.”
“I’m hoping to pay it forward and hope they do the same thing,” Berger said.
There’s also another benefit.
”Their success helps me out, there’s more chance they help me out when I go on vacation,” Berger added.
For anyone thinking they may someday want a career in the maritime industry, Berger offers the following advice.
“It’s very rewarding and it’s also very demanding,” Berger said. “It’s tough to raise a family, it’s easy to provide for them doing this job.”
While on the ship, pretty much everything aside from shampoo and toothpaste are provided, he noted.
The father of three grown children from a previous marriage and grandfather of two said it takes a couple of days of decompression and adjustment to be at home versus on the ship.
“It takes the right kind of spouse that can run the homestead while you’re out,” Berger said.
When he returns home and ends up barking orders, Berger said his wife Sarah often reminds him,“You need to get out of boat mode, you don’t run this show.”
Berger also shared some of the advantages of being a captain on the Great Lakes versus a deep sea captain, including a swifter rate of advancement.
“You can be third rate one year, second the next and first in a year or two and up to captain,” he said.
Another advantage is the Great Lakes captains do the ship handling, and not a pilot, he noted.
“If anybody has the idea of handling and driving a 1,000 foot ship, the Great Lakes is where it’s going to happen,” he said. “It’s very cool and I’ve wanted to do it since I was five years old.”
At the Duluth Harbor there’s normally ship enthusiasts waving and watching as the freighters make their way under the lift bridge.
“It’s always cool,” Berger said. “It’s nice to see the interest in any of the ships that go through there. Obviously, it’s a very unique career and shipping has been a passion of mine from years ago, it’s nice to see someone else who shares it a bit and gives the industry exposure.”
If anyone happens to be kayaking or riding in a personal watercraft at any of the harbors, Berger recommends that they stay more than 400 feet in front of the ore boats and to make their move early and make it blatantly clear what they are doing.
“I’ve only had one instance with pleasure boats in the Duluth Harbor,” Berger said. “The people in the Duluth-Superior area seem to understand to stay out of the way.”
Great Lakes shipping supports nearly 150,000 jobs and represents $35 billion in economic impact, according to a press release from Interlake Steamship Company.