Raffle offers vacation aboard a 1,000-foot Great Lakes freighter

Ryan Kazmirzack
Special to The Detroit News

For vacation next summer, how about a leisurely Great Lakes cruise aboard a 1,000-foot freighter?

Seriously – this is a real thing you can do. But you can’t buy a ticket; you have to win one in a charity raffle.

Each year, a fleet of U.S.-flagged freighters carry millions of tons of dry bulk goods between ports on the Great Lakes. They primarily transport iron ore for making steel, coal for power plants, limestone, cement, salt, sand, and grain. Thirteen of these ships are more than three football fields in length and the largest can carry more than 70,000 tons in a single trip, according to the Lake Carriers Association.

There’s no law prohibiting these ships from also carrying a small number of fare-paying passengers, but none choose to offer this service due to various logistical and liability concerns. A few Great Lakes shipping companies do, however, occasionally provide free cruises to nonprofit organizations to use as a prize in a fundraiser raffle. And there’s another opportunity coming up. 

The 1,013.5-foot Great Lakes freighter Paul R. Tregurtha is the largest freighter operating on the Great Lakes.

Port Huron Lodge No. 2 of the International Ship Masters’ Association is selling freighter cruise raffle tickets for $10 each. The winner will get a round-trip freighter cruise for four adults aboard an Interlake Steamship Company vessel during the 2020 sailing season.

It’s impossible to say this far in advance what the exact prize entails; logistical details like specific ship, route, travel dates, length of voyage and departure port are all things you’ll have to coordinate with the company. They aren’t making a special trip for you – cargo takes priority. You’re just coming along for the ride. 

“The willingness to be flexible with the company on this is a precondition,” said Chris Gillcrist, executive director of the National Great Lakes Museum in Toledo. “They don’t go by a passenger time schedule. The boat could be leaving the dock at 11 o’clock at night and you need to be on it by 7 that night.” 

The trip usually takes 4 to 7 days, depending on factors such as route, weather conditions, and if there’s a problem loading or a traffic jam at the Soo Locks. When available, cruises are aboard the 1,013.5-foot Paul R. Tregurtha, which is the longest freighter operating on the Great Lakes. 

Going through the Soo Locks aboard a freighter August 2019.

Routes typically start in the southern portions of the Great Lakes and go north to the St. Marys River, through the Soo Locks, to ports on Lake Superior such as Marquette, Michigan, or Duluth, Minnesota. Upbound trips that start on Lake Erie go under the Ambassador Bridge, past downtown Detroit, and under the Blue Water Bridge at Port Huron; trips that start at the southern end of Lake Michigan (near Chicago and Gary, IN) go under the Mackinac Bridge on the way to the Soo Locks. Photo opportunities abound. 

Unlike a voyage on a traditional cruise ship, there’s no floating casino or discotheque, no comedians or lounge singers to keep you entertained, no all-you-can-eat buffet, no lounging by the pool. Instead, you’ll get to observe the loading and unloading process, tour the ship (including the engine room and pilothouse), and spend time walking the deck. 

Gillcrist said past winners have described freighter cruises as “one of the most relaxing experiences because you’re just out there on the open water,” hanging out with friends. It’s also an opportunity to unplug; cell phone coverage during the journey is intermittent. There are times the ship sails close to land, and other times when you’re surrounded by nothing but deep blue water as far as the eye can see. 

Accommodations: You won’t be bunking with the crew; you’ll get premium staterooms with your own bathroom and shower. You’ll also get access to the guest lounge, where you can sit and watch the scenery go by from high in the ship’s superstructure or play cards at the game table. The company assigns a personal porter to ensure a pleasant trip, and (depending on the time of day) you’ll likely get an opportunity to explore the destination port city while the ship takes on cargo. 

Among the potential hazards of traveling by freighter: gaining weight. Every ship has a chef, and every meal is a feast. People working on Great Lakes freighters are asked to be away from home for weeks on end and, “one of the great retention tools is to provide high quality food,” Gillcrist said. And companies have been known to serve better food when guests are aboard. 

Bruce Morrison, of Port Huron, took a freighter cruise aboard Interlake’s Paul R. Tregurtha in August with his wife and another couple. “It was probably one of the best vacations my wife and I have ever taken, and we’ve traveled extensively,” he said. “Absolutely trip of a lifetime.” 

Morrison, retired, added that the freighter cruise was better than traditional cruises he’s taken in the Caribbean and Alaska. 

Capt. George Haynes, a ship pilot for the Lake Pilots Association and president of Port Huron Lodge No. 2 of the International Ship Masters’ Association, summed it up this way: “To see how these ships operate and how they get through the waterways and the locks is really unique, and hard to come by. Everybody can stand on the shore and see the ships going by, but to be on a big freighter going through the tight turns in the river and through the locks is really unique and special.”  

The experience is not for everyone: Guests must be ages 18 and up, physically capable of climbing a fireman-type ladder to get aboard the ship, and able to put on a survival suit in case of an emergency. All passengers must also have a passport, as there’s always the possibility of weather or mechanical issues forcing a stop in Canada.

To enter, visit www.freightertrip2020-ismalodge2.com to download the entry form and submit before the Jan. 31 drawing.