Viking ship heads to Bay City despite surprise bill

Leonard N. Fleming
The Detroit News

A vintage Norwegian viking ship remains on course to Bay City despite facing a whopping and unexpected bill that’s threatening to end its Great Lakes voyage.

Draken Harald Hårfagre, dubbed the world’s largest replica viking vessel, will arrive on Thursday to participate in the Bay City Tall Ship Celebration even though it’s running up a hefty tab in waterway fees — a cost its owners didn’t think they had to pay.

The trip to the Bay City festival, which starts Thursday, was in peril for days because the owners discovered there had been a misunderstanding over whether they would incur $400,000 in pilotage fees — a cost required so a pilot can navigate the ship in waters here — to sail the Great Lakes.

Those fees may eventually force Draken to turn back toward Norway after its Bay City visit, ending its North American tour unless additional money is raised.

“It’s very, very important to say that we are not blaming the pilots (association). They do the work, they are very polite and they help us a lot, but it’s too big of a cost for a nonprofit small ship to pay hundreds of thousands of dollars for showing up and trying to be polite,” said Draken Captain Björn Ahlander from the vessel Wednesday.

“If we had known that the American pilot association said that we should need a pilot all the time, we wouldn’t have started. We can’t afford to stay in the Great Lakes the whole summer with a pilot costing over $9,000 a day.”

His understanding there would not be any pilot fees for their voyage, Ahlander said, came from “highest level” of authorities in Canada. But Ahlander also admitted he and others could and should have “investigated it more.”

Draken passed through Detroit on the Detroit River near the Canadian side around 11:30 a.m. Wednesday as part of its 17-port tour. It is expected to arrive in Bay City between 10 a.m. and noon Thursday, officials say.

Ahlander said although the trip is expensive, “we couldn’t let them down,” referring to the Bay City celebration. But the other planned trips to Chicago, Green Bay, Duluth, Minnesota, and Erie, Pennsylvania, are in question, he said.

The captain said the journey from Norway, which began in April, was “quite wet and rough and tough” because of inclement weather on the trip through places such as Iceland, Greenland, Newfoundland and then into the Great Lakes. It was when they entered the waters of St. Lawrence Seaway they learned the ship required a pilot at all times, requiring the fees.

The 115-foot-long vessel travels at speeds of only 6 knots without much wind, officials said. It has a crew of 33 members.

Refering to the cost, Ahlander said, “that is the only thing. Otherwise, we love it here.”

Vincent Berg, an official with the U.S. Coast Guard Great Lakes Pilotage division in Washington D.C., said everyone ranging from Draken’s owners to the Tall Ship officials know about the federal requirement for pilotage fees, which dates back to 1960.

“We’ve had conversations with committees and owners and everyone else pertaining to this matter,” Berg said. “It’s all about safety of the environment, and the safety of the vessels and the safety of the ports. That’s what it’s all about. These talks had been going on for over a year.”

In a statement, Canada’s Great Lakes Pilotage Authority said there had been a misunderstanding related to the pilotage requirements because they are different in Canada than they are in the U.S.

“Pilotage requirements for the U.S. Coast Guard are different than Canadian requirements in International waters, and as such, the Norwegian ship is required under American laws to avail themselves of a licensed pilot in all international and American waters of the Great Lakes,” the statement said.

“Canada has no reciprocity agreement with the U.S. when it comes to pilotage exemptions on foreign flag vessels, therefore the American laws are in place and as such, the Great Lakes Pilotage Authority is not responsible for this matter.”

Robert Lemire, chief executive officer of the Great Lakes Pilotage Authority, said it was unfortunate Draken officials were upset by the fees, but it’s not his agency’s fault. He said he doesn’t know why the captain thought he didn’t need to use a pilot to traverse the Great Lakes in the U.S.

“It was a surprise to us that in their initial press release they labeled Canada that was the party that was requiring the pilot fees,” Lemire said. “We don’t administer U.S. laws. We’re good but we’re not that good.”

Nevertheless, Draken spokeswoman Sarah Blank said the cost of $400,000 to travel to the other cities after the Bay City celebration is “a lot of money” to make up but it’s possible.

“We have experience, so many engaged people who are high up in all kinds of organizations the past couple of days that are willing to help us,” Blank said. “I have my hopes up as far as I can stretch it, but I’m not going to say that we are going to be able to.”

(313) 222-2620

Twitter: @leonardnfleming