Old Salt Stories: Yarns, Yesterdays, and Yet to Come

Captain David Beckwith

I started sailing to finance college. I attended school during the winter off season and returned to the boats in June, working until layup. I worked my way up the ranks from deck hand, deck watch, AB watchman, Wheelsman and Bosun’.

1n 1973, US Steel foresaw a future need for Deck officers due to the advent of vacation programs being instituted as the result of union negotiations. I was Bosun on the Richard V. Lindabury and got off the boat that summer to attend a school sponsored by The Company (U S Steel Great Lakes Fleet) and Masters, Mates, and Pilots Union in Cleveland. I completed the course, obtained my original License (for Mate and Pilot) reported to the Horace Johnson as 3rd Mate that October. I got my license before my Degree. That winter I returned to college and that finished up. Tying up loose ends. I also got married in 1974 and decided to continue sailing instead of pursuing a career utilizing a Liberal Arts Degree.

This was a period of big changes in the industry. One thousand footers replacing older boats. vacation times slowly becoming a reality and the end (Thank God) of attempts at year-round sailing. I went back and forth between US Steel and Cleveland Tankers. We were working seventy-five on/ 25 off. This was almost a semblance of normalcy compared to 9- and 10-month seasons with no time off.

Cleveland Tankers built three new product Tankers and got rid of all their old boats and a lot of the “Old Guard” crews that had a hard time adapting to the new EPA and environmental regulations. In the seventies there was heavy demand for the Tanker Trade. Many ports on all the lakes were thirsty for petroleum products. The Gemini was the largest US flagged tanker on the Lakes carrying 70, 000 BBls. In the mid-seventies all the boats were so busy it was often hard to get a relief for time off for the newly negotiated vacation program. 

Then the changes started coming. Pipelines on Lake Superior and on Lake Michigan, and a couple fleets of competing Tug Barges started cutting into business. In the eighties there were more lost customers due to more tug barges, companies going out of business and competition from railroads. Gone were the days when there were more cargos for us than boats. Frequent layups resulted in seniority bumping from boat to boat. Often it took a lot more than 75 days to accrue enough time for a vacation. Instead, time was broken up by frequent short term and sometimes long term lay ups during the season. Yet somehow the job went on.

I got very familiar with the airports near the major ports. I seemed like we were laying up or fitting out every 2 weeks. One thing that eased the chaos was knowing I had made the right decision when I left US Steel. In the eighties we started getting relief 3rd Mates from US Steel. These guys were almost all ahead of me in seniority during my Pittsburg days. Many more of my old shipmates from Pittsburg ended up on the beach and never sailed again after the massive fleet reduction at US Steel. 

Sailing was completely different now. Boom bust cycles were more frequent in the tanker business. The unlicensed crews were being reduced to save expenses. Regardless. I got my master’s license and started sailing as Captain in 1985. The remainder of my career witnessed technological advancements, improving navigation and communication. Cargo handling remained pretty much the same, but regulations and compliance became a full-time job on top of the one you already had. After the Exon Valdez there was a microscope on Tanker operations. Cargos were harder to find. Ashland Oil sold Cleveland Tankers to a Canadian Company, Enerchem, out of Montreal. That lasted a few years and then another Canadian Company, Algoma, took over.

Computers and Cell Phones ended the days when a Captain managed and ran his ship. Everything was micromanaged from ashore with email and cell phone calls. The boats were still being run like trucks since there were not enough cargos to keep the boats running steady. Turn off the key (Layup). 2 weeks later turn the Key back on (fit out). One day after making a dock, I finished with engines on the Chadburn and answered the cell phone that had been ringing constantly during the docking maneuver. I had been ignoring it for 20 minutes as I was busy getting the ship tied up. It was the supervisor in the Cleveland office wanting to quiz me why I paid to have the ship’s garbage removed in Mackinaw City when it was cheaper to do this in Detroit.

At this point I knew my career was ending. I retired in 2001. The next 3 years I collected my pension and filled in relief work with Grand River Navigation on self-unloaders and the Lake Guardian (research Vessel). Every generation witnessed changes in the maritime industry. I witnessed my share between 1964 and 2004.

Captain Beckwith Remembers Captain  Syfert

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Captain Willis  “Sandy” Syfert can best be summed up as the quintessential Hawse Pipe Captain. He learned his trade by starting at the bottom as a deckhand and worked his way up through the AB ratings then as 3rd, 2nd, 1st Mate and then Captain. All the men of his era climbed the ladder this way. Not all remembered how they started out when they arrived at the top. Sandy represented the positive aspects of this progression. As Skipper, he was always willing to teach a crew member any assignment they were not familiar with. He was the best Wheeling instructor I ever had. He would assist a young Bos’n splicing a mooring cable, hands on with the marlin spike. He was such a good cable splicer, a crowd would always gather when he was in action at this task. His splices were flawless. 

     He taught me to wheel when I was an ordinary deckwatch. He even let me take the wheel backing out the Cuyahoga River before I got my AB ticket.. 

    One of my duties as deckwatch was to keep the pilot house coffee pot full. It was not uncommon for me to go to the pilot house with water for the coffee pot and see “The Old Man” on the wheel with the Mate in the window and the Wheelsman back in the galley having a coffee break. There was always a grin on his face. 

     He mastered being ” one of the guys” ; yet, everyone knew who was in charge. He was an excellent ship handler to boot. 

Sandy’s love of card games was unequalled. Poker topped the list. In fact it was common after being up 12 to 15 hours in the rivers, he would be ready for a few hours of poker. If there were not enough men around for a good game he would wake up a few of the regulars. No one ever complained. If he couldn’t fill the table in the dunnage room for poker, he would find someone for cribbage, canasta or any rummy game. That broad grin, sporting a huge cigar and a handful of cards was Capt Syfert at his leisure. 

     He was also a regular at the bowling alleys in Duluth and Two Harbors. I am told he was an excellent bowler. 

     Captain Sandy Syfert, was truly a Master Mariner and master at dealing with his crew. He urged me early on in my career to strive toward getting a license and encouraged me every step of the way. 

     Before moving to Conneaut, he was from a farm in Silver Creek, New York.