Meet Jason Kolar, a mate on a Great Lakes freighter.
Kolar, of Cleveland, is the guy right below the captain, who takes care of payroll, manages the deck crew and plan how to load and unload the ship.
Kolar, 28, who grew up in Olmsted Falls, spent his summers on Catawba as kid. His uncle was a captain on the Miller ferry.
“Growing up, watching him on big boats and seeing the boats near Marblehead, I always liked being on the water and wanted to make it a career,” Kolar said.
Kolar earned a bachelor of science degree in marine transportation at the Great Lakes Maritime Academy in Traverse City, Michigan. He now works 60-75 days at a stretch, then gets a month off.
On March 20, he reports to Superior, Wisconsin, to serve on the Kaye E. Barker, an Interlake Steamship laker that hauls iron ore from Marquette, Michigan, to Dearborn, Michigan.
While both ports are in the same state, the trip stretches from Lake Superior through the Soo Locks, under the Bluewater Bridge, to Lake St. Clair and the Detroit River. It takes 2 ½ days.
“It gets monotonous,” Kolar said.” There’s a lot of boring and some excitement. Boring is a good thing. Excitement is usually when something bad is happening.”
We interviewed Kolar before he headed back to work for the season. Read on for what life is like aboard a 700-foot-long ship
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
How do you load stuff in and out of the boat?
We get things on the ship by gravity. In Marquette, the dock is over 100 years old and we use pretty much the same technology as we did then. We pull in, they lower the chutes and pellets of iron ore falls into the boat. When we unload, we have a conveyor system under our cargo hold.
It’s a pretty quick turnaround. Most people are up working, helping to unload the ship, cleaning the deck, running the gates down below, pulling cables so we can shift up and down the dock if we need to make more room. Usually it takes about six hours, for unload and loading.
When we load it’s sort of the same thing, but it has less people involved. So if someone needs toothpaste or something they have time to run to the nearest Walmart. Or if someone doesn’t want boat food they can get a bite to eat.
Of course, it depends, sometimes we’re loading at 2 a.m. and sometimes it’s mid-day.
OK, I have to know. What is boat food?
Boat food is usually good. We have cooks on every boat, and they’re all really good. But it’s not like home; you don’t really get to choose what you want for dinner that night. Though they’re really good about taking suggestions. It is nice to get off the boat sometimes and get a cheeseburger somewhere different.
Our second cook bakes every day, cookies and cake and all the sweets you want. It’s easy to gain weight.
Do you have a gym onboard?
Yes, we have work-out rooms, with treadmills, workout equipment. I bring my own bike.
There are about 22 crew on every ship, mostly guys. We all have our own rooms. It works out pretty nice; the crews are smaller than they used to be when ships were built. I have double bed, a TV, a desk, my own bathroom and shower. It’s not terrible.
Are most of the guys single?
The guys who are married make it work. Their wives are pretty independent. But it’s difficult to start or keep a relationship
Do you all get along?
It’s like any other workplace. It is definitely a brotherhood because we’re there so long. So there is some bickering. But it’s over usually pretty soon after it started.
What’s your favorite spot on the Great Lakes?
When I’m working my favorite spot to be, if we get a chance or timing works out, I love early mornings through the Manitou Passage (the Lake Michigan waterway separating North and South Manitou islands from mainland Michigan). On a summer morning, drinking your cup of coffee, it’s a pretty nice, calm place to be.
Off work, from growing up near Marblehead, I love spending time that way. That has a special place in my heart.
What do you do if the weather gets bad?
Storms can kick up all over the place pretty quickly. In the fall, it happens pretty often. But with the internet, we’re usually able to use weather predictions to our advantage. We can take weather routes, for example going near the shore so we’re not in the worst of the storm. I haven’t been in anything that’s really scared me.
This may be a really silly question, but are there designated lanes on the Great Lakes?
Freighters have recommended courses, designated upbound and downbound. Most people follow those, but it pretty much is a free for all. But we have whole book of rules of the road like you have in the car. It’s not confusing.
Have you maneuvered on the Cuyahoga River at all? What’s it like from 40-feet up in the pilot house?
Last year I worked on the Herbert C. Jackson for month and made several trips up the Cuyahoga River. It’s interesting. Growing up near it, I’ve been around it. It looks a lot different on a 700-foot vessel.
It gets really tight and scary. People, especially kayakers and paddleboarders, they want to get close and they want to look up at the boat. Because it is massive. They don’t realize that they’re kind of pinching themselves. It gets kind of hairy sometimes. Sometimes you have to scream and yell at them to get out of the way.
Do you get a lot of questions about what you do?
A lot of people think it’s a really romantic career, sailing the high seas or whatever. I really love my job and I enjoy what I do. But it’s still a job. Everybody has good days and bad days.
As for leaving, I don’t think about an end date. If something were to come up, it would be a timing thing.
So why do people love lakers?
They’re so massive. It’s something so big that doesn’t seem like it should be there, but it is. Everything happens so relatively slowly. It’s soothing.
If I’m off and I’m watching a boat come up the river, it’s cool to see. It’s just interesting.