Great Lakes Captains Deserve Utmost Respect
by Tom Rau

While conducting research for my book, “The Boat Smart Chronicles, Lake Michigan Devours Its Wounded,” I rode aboard with a number of commercial captains from large motor vessels to captains of small passenger-carrying vessels. From their vantage point on the bridge, I was able to witness firsthand the ordeals and tribulations imposed upon them by recreational boaters—transgressions they must so often bear in silent indignation. I think the world of these captains: truly the Great Lakes’ consummate maritime professionals.

Not only do these professional captains deserve utmost respect, but more so they deserve a little empathy from the boating public on the challenges they face, especially while making port. Let’s go aboard the motor vessel Wilfred Sykes to walk a step or two in the captain’s shoes.

The steamer Wilfred Sykes is a 671-foot long bulk carrier capable of carrying 21,550 tons of cargo in her six compartments below decks. I picked the boat up in Muskegon and rode her down to Grand Haven. We departed Muskegon at sunrise. The Sykes had dumped a load in the early hours at the VerPlank dock located at the east end of Muskegon Lake and was now on her way to the VerPlank docks in Spring Lake. A two port visit across 24 hours would call for an 18-hour workday for the crew.

The departure from Muskegon Harbor carried us out into a placid Lake Michigan. By the time we reached the waters off the Grand Haven harbor mouth, the morning sun sat 15 degrees above the eastern horizon, casting eye-squinting rays across a glimmering surface.

Despite the fact that the Sykes carried electronic charts that interfaced with GPS input to pin point a
vessels’ position on a LCD screen, the captain, for the most part, relied on time-proven methods—reading nature’s telltale signs.

Captain Ron Brezinski, pointed to the harbor mouth: “If you look closely you can see darker water around the harbor mouth. That’s river sediment. Notice it’s setting towards the south. That means a surface current that will set us south,” said Captain Brezinski.

The captain then pointed out wave movement from the northwest and a slight breeze that brushed surface waters indicating wind direction. At the moment, a calm Lake Michigan hardly announced these subtle movements, but to the veteran captain they seemed apparent, slight as they might be. All can influence the large bulk carrier, often in opposing directions. Imagine the challenge dealing with these elemental influences while maneuvering through a sea of boats.

While riding aboard the car ferry Emerald Isle that runs between Beaver Island and Charlevoix, Michigan, Captain Kevin McDonough told me while approaching the Charlevoix harbor mouth he can experience river currents, lake currents and wind--all working in opposite directions. At 130-feet long and weighting 380 gross tons fully loaded, boat handling in a close-quarter environment can be challenging. Throw in a bunch of recreational boaters into the mix and watch the sweat flow.

That morning the Sykes’ captain set up an approach to the Grand Haven harbor mouth three quarters of a mile out. Captain Brezinski said, “If I start my final approach too soon I could find myself making unwanted maneuvers to say on course as the elements play on my vessel. If I make it too late I could miss the mouth” One can understand, then, why small boats can raise havoc once the large boat commences its final approach. The last thing the captain needs is to make unnecessary course maneuvers. Fortunately, most recreational boaters follow the common sense rule—the rule of gross tonnage.

Entering the Grand Haven channel the size of the motor vessel became apparent as we passed the lighthouse on the South Pier. I’ve passed the light structure numerous times aboard Coast Guard small boats and always looked upward at the 51-foot high cylindrical light that loomed over the Coast Guard small boat. Now, I was looking down onto the top of the lighthouse.

Entering the Grand River, the captain piloted through a series of lateral buoys marking safe passage through the shoal-ridden waters. He used landmarks on shore as reference points for the helmsman to steer on while making slight compass changes when needed. Like any experienced boat handler, the captain was a boat length or so ahead of his position. The maneuver he made now could moments later raise havoc should he miscalculate even a subtle course change, especially in a narrow channel. He certainly doesn’t need recreational boaters throwing unexpected surprises onto his tenuous path.

The Sykes does carry a bow thruster a rotating propeller device located beneath the bow that allows the captain to pivot the bow left and right. However, the thruster is of little use at speeds above three knots, or in winds exceeding twenty-five knots.

Watching the veteran captain focus on the task at hand, one would conclude that it was his first channel transit as a master. Even though he has made countless passages in his 12 years as master, he focused on the task at hand as if it the experience were anew.

Most boaters would be utterly impressed, as I was, by the professional skills displayed by Captain Brezinski and his crew. Smart boaters can show their respect by staying well out of the captain’s workspace, and I believe most do except for a few loggerheads. Boat Smart- give them space only a loggerhead wouldn’t.

Tom Rau is a long-time Coast Guard rescue responder and syndicated boating safety columnist.

Look for his book, Boat Smart Chronicles, a shocking expose on recreational boating — reads like a great ship’s log spanning over two decades. It’s available to order at:,,, or through local bookstores.