A man in the background of a photograph accompanying a story Saturday about Great Lakes shipping was misidentified as George J. Ryan, president of the Lake Carriers' Association. The man is a member of the crew. (Published 11/13/90)

ABOARD THE PAUL R. TREGURTHA -- There's almost no room to spare as Capt. Ray Smith eases more than 100,000 tons of momentum into the one lock at Sault Ste. Marie, Mich., that can handle his 1,014-foot boat, the largest hauler on the Great Lakes. A touch with his huge props here, a nudge with his bow-thruster there, he performs the nautical version of threading a needle.

Putting a loaded ship with a 105-foot beam into a lock 110 feet wide -- with perhaps only 30 feet to spare from bow to stern -- is something that an ocean-going captain would almost never do. But Great Lakes captains do it regularly as they navigate the narrow locks and channels along the world's largest bodies of fresh water.

Yet when most of the country thinks of shipping on the Great Lakes, it's of the wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald, popularized through Gordon Lightfoot's haunting ballad. Today, the 15th anniversary of the Lake Superior tragedy, the Mariners' Church in Detroit will once again ring out 29 chimes for each man killed when the Fitzgerald fell victim to the legendary gales of November.

The "Fitz" notwithstanding, the men and women of the lakes are the success story of the U.S. merchant marine, straining to haul an increasing tonnage that could lead to a new round of shipbuilding. "Good news is not often news; we are a secret," said George J. Ryan, president of the Lake Carriers' Association, which represents the 14 companies that handle almost all U.S. lake shipping in 65 lake boats hauling ore, coal, limestone, cement, grain and other bulk commodities.

The Tregurtha -- called a "boat" even though it is far longer and wider than the Queen Elizabeth II -- was hauling 64,052 tons of coal on a regular run from the Midwest Energy Resources terminal at Superior, Wis., 687 miles to the Detroit Edison power plant at St. Clair, Mich., almost exactly the same route of the Fitzgerald's last trip.

Like many on the lake today, Smith remembers where he was the night the Fitzgerald went down -- second mate on the Herbert C. Jackson, headed for Calcite, Mich., on the northern shore of Lake Huron, to pick up a load of limestone. The Jackson was hit with strong westerly winds of 60 to 70 mph, but "we were fortunate enough to get up to the west shore," Smith said. "We had a pretty good ride out of it."

The next morning, Smith said he came to the pilothouse and his captain told him, "I don't know for sure, but I think that Fitzgerald is in trouble."

"It makes you feel funny, especially since I had a good friend on board," Smith said.

Several crewmen on the Tregurtha also remember the sinking of the Carl D. Bradley in northern Lake Michigan on Nov. 18, 1958, with only two survivors, and the Daniel J. Morrell in Lake Huron in November 1966, with only one. Historians write of the great "blow" of Nov. 25, 1905, and the "big storm of 1913," that claimed numerous vessels, and the "Armistice Day Storm" of 1940 that destroyed the William B. Davlock and the Anna C. Minch.

But one of the striking facts about the wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald is that it is the last foundering on the Great Lakes. Since 1975, there have been only relatively minor incidents. The most recent, an explosion aboard the 391-foot tanker Jupiter at a dock near Detroit, killed one and injured 17.

Those accidents have not been caused by weather or lack of crew skill. More than anything else, the run of good luck on the lakes can be attributed to captains and mates who -- unlike their counterparts on ocean-going vessels -- are fully qualified pilots and handle their own boats in harbors and in the narrow rivers and channels connecting the lakes. According to a staff member of the National Transportation Safety Board, which seldom offers praise, this makes lake crews some of the best in the world.

"I don't think we're better seamen than anybody else," Smith said. "I think we're better ship-handlers than anybody else."

Turning to his first mate, Scott Parker, Smith said, "These guys get more experience in a month than those guys {ocean-going sailors} would in a lifetime."

The Tregurtha -- named for one of its owners -- has had its chances to prove it. Last month, for example, it had an early brush with the autumn gales. At 7:40 p.m. on Oct. 27, westbound for Superior shortly after entering the lake, its log notes a course change and a speed reduction on account of "heavy seas." Only at 5:15 a.m. did the log note, "resume speed."

"We knew we were going to get it," Smith said. "We just cut her back and rode her out."

Although it can haul four times as much as the Fitzgerald, the Tregurtha operates with the same number of crew members -- 29 -- partly because of greater automation, including an unloader that can empty the boat by conveyor belt within eight to 10 hours.

In addition to the officers in the pilothouse and in the engine room, there are "unlicensed" seamen who handle such chores as docking and keeping the boat clean and repaired.

Most of the officers and crew are married, but spend more time with the Tregurtha than their wives. The unlicensed seamen, who belong to the United Steelworkers of America union, are entitled to five weeks paid vacation plus two weeks without pay during the shipping season, which generally lasts from the mid-March thaw to the January freeze. Wives sometimes meet the boat for the few hours some crewmen can go ashore.

Officers work on a 60-days-on, 30-days-off schedule, although captains often do not take that time. Smith, 58, a soft-spoken Tennessean who is married and has a home about 70 miles east of Nashville, takes September off.

Living conditions have changed in the last few years. Wives and family are allowed to sail aboard for a week to 30 days, depending on seniority and status, and each man now has a room to himself rather than the four-per-room arrangement of past decades. There even are plans to install a telephone.

For a variety of reasons, the lakers have a lot of work these days. Some of it is the luck of industrial geography, with 70 percent of U.S. steel-making capacity along the shores of the lakes.

The lakers also are protected from foreign competition under the Jones Act, which says cargo hauled from one U.S. port to another U.S. port must go in U.S.-flagged vessels built in U.S. shipyards. But they are not protected from competition from truckers and the railroads that ring the lakes, which long ago grabbed away most non-bulk freight.

The Iron Range, the huge blanket of iron ore to the northwest of Lake Superior, is almost wholly dependent on the lakes. Of the 76 million tons of ore shipped from the Iron Range in 1989, 67 million tons went by lake boat after being delivered by rail to docks in such places as Duluth and Two Harbors. Only 9 million tons stayed on the rails to final destinations. Coal shipping is more competitive, but a large portion of low-sulfur Montana and Wyoming coal is dumped from rail cars at Superior for shipment around the lakes.

The Tregurtha's trip in late October and early November illustrates how lakers compete. Its two big diesel engines gobble up 10,000 gallons of fuel a day, plus 40 to 50 gallons of lubricating oil a day. A 5 1/2-day round trip with 64,052 tons means it used less than a gallon per ton to move coal more than 600 miles, even counting the empty return trip.

But economic health on the lakes runs in cycles. The recession of 1982 sent the steel industry -- and therefore lake shipping -- into a depression. Fifty-one of the 120 U.S. ships on the Great Lakes were scrapped, and three became floating museums.

As U.S. steelmakers recovered, so did the lake carriers, this time with a younger, larger, more efficient fleet they had built in the last boom. This included the new behemoths of the fleet, 32 nearly new 1,000-foot long, 105-foot wide lakers such as the Tregurtha.

From 1982's low of 128 million tons of bulk commodities handled by the U.S. lake fleet, tonnage rebounded to 160.4 million in 1987 and 162.1 million in 1989. That tonnage could skyrocket if clean air laws induce eastern utilities to turn to low-sulfur western coal.