Old lakers keep on chugging
Lower Lakes Towing prospers by running refurbished fleet of aging bulkers

Capt. René Ruest fixed his gaze straight ahead as he piloted the Mississisagi out of the St-Lambert locks. Forty feet below the bridge, the laker's hull crashed through newly forming St-Lawrence Seaway ice, which signaled the approaching end of another shipping season.

"You can ask questions, but don't mind me if I can't answer them right away," Ruest said. "I'm a little busy here."

Ruest wasn't kidding. Within eyeshot, banks of navigation devices flashed signals that warned there was only five feet of clearance on the bow side. One wrong move and 16,000 tons of ship, including a hold full of furnace coal would crash into the cement wall lining the dock.

The Mississagi, a self-unloading bulk carrier built in 1943, is part of a seven-vessel fleet controlled by Port Dover-based Lower Lakes Towing. The ship is one of the few survivors of a massive downsizing. Canadian and U.S. Great Lakes shippers have pared combined fleets from 325 vessels in 1980 to about 140 today, due to decreasing steel industry activity and alternate routing of grain traffic.

Year-to-date tallies show that 25.8 million tons were shipped through the St-Lawrence Seaway System up to the end of November, down from 26.9 million tons last year. The decrease is part of a long-term trend that has seen tonnage traffic slide by almost a third during the past two decades.

But while most shipping companies have been consolidating and downsizing, Lower Lakes Towing has been moving in the opposite direction.

Scott Bravener, a former captain, founded the company in 1994 with several partners. Since then Lower Lakes Towing has been buying up old lakers, re-furbishing them and serviceing clients throughout the Great Lakes and St-Lawrence seaway system. The cargo is mostly bulk aggregates such as iron ore, salt and other commodities.

 

Shipping continues to play a vital role in North America's economy. According to the Great Lakes St-Lawrence Seaway System, marine commerce on the routes generates $4.3 billion in personal income and $1.3 billion in taxes each year

Despite this, few Montrealers pay any attention to the endless series of ships that parade down the seaway each day.

"People don't know very much about us," Ruest said. "They still think sailors have a girl in every port. But it's not true. We don't have time for that."

 

Fact Bar:

Company Name: Lower Lakes Towing
Founded: 1994
Products: Bulk shipping of raw materials including coal, iron ore, salt and wheat
Head office: Post Dover Ontario
Number of employees: 220
Sales: Approximately $40 million

 

 

 

peter@peterdiekmeyer.com

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