Remembering a Day on the Great Lakes

by Roy Heberger - Boise, Idaho - USA

This essay is a “combined memory” of 13 years of experience on research vessels on the Great Lakes.  It attempts to pull together a variety of reactions to some of what the lakes can throw at you.  I got to work offshore on all five, but mostly on Lakes Erie, Huron, and Ontario.   I also did some nearshore work out of a Boston Whaler and a  26ft Bertram hard top at Hammond Bay in northern Lake Huron and in the St. Claire River delta.  But this essay is just about working aboard the 65ft. Research Vessel Kaho.

November 2000 to March 2011 (It took a while)

“Clank…clank…clank…” – the sound of a heavy, steel pawl that prevents the spool from unwinding in the event of hydraulic failure.  The wine of the trawl winch as it rewinds its wire rope can be heard over the howl of the wind, the rolling seas, and the rumble of the engines.  It is a long way up from 60 fathoms, especially when there is no sun to warm the decks.  The wire rope is taught with the strain but not so taught that it sings as it feeds through a heavy block and onto the spool.  The sampling gear is a, small, one-meter, plankton sled today, not like the much heavier bottom trawl nets and otter doors used for sampling forage fish that inhabit this Great Lake.  The half-inch cable slices through the dark water at its surface, now just under the transom; a moment later ten feet further below the aft, working deck as a wave slips forward under the research vessel’s rising hull.

For some reason unknown to this writer, ships and boats have been and still are referred to as “she.”  Whether politically correct or not and with no gender discrimination intended, I will keep with that tradition here.  She – the Research Vessel Kaho – is one of a fleet of U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service research vessels working on each of the five Great Lakes in the early 1970’s.   She’s on northern Lake Huron on this the first cruise of the season.  The crew is gathering information on the invertebrate species that support the forage fish population of the lake.

She’s headed down wind – standard practice for bottom trawling or in the towing of plankton nets or bottom sleds in this fleet.  Today the cold wind is stiff, so the smell of the diesel fumes from twin engines is not ever present on the aft deck.  Rather, there is the pleasant smell of the lake water, if you pay attention, for it is one of those smells that fails to register on the senses after having been on the lake for a time.  But it is there if you take a moment to notice.

There is also another pleasant smell, not unlike freshly cut cucumbers.  Few people ever get to experience this fragrance.  It comes from a half-meter, plankton net hanging from a hydrographic winch on the port side of the aft deck.  The net had been used earlier on station to sample zooplankton.  For some reason plankton nets used in the deep waters of the Great Lakes take on this smell when in use.  I don’t know whether it comes from the animal or plant plankton, but the smell is very pleasing, not at all fishy, and is most noticeable just as a net is being lifted from the water and is being washed using deck hoses spewing lake water.

That plankton net hangs suspended for use from the hydrographic winch cable, above the hero board that juts out from the main deck, and is suspended over the dark water.  Standing out over the dark water on that wire mesh to deploy and retrieve the sampling gear is – well it’s interesting, and it can be a challenge on a rough day.  One moment you are standing out over the side of the boat at 10-to-15 feet above the Lake’s surface.  As the boat is usually “in the trough” during and after vertical hauls for zooplankton, she is rolling substantially.  So, in the next moment you may be standing with water up to your knees and hanging on so you won’t be washed overboard.  I guess that is why we call it a hero board.

“Clank…clank…clank…”  Waiting for the sled, biologists and deck hands huddle out of the cold wind as best they can – their shoulders scrunched to raise the collars of their warm wool coats as high on their necks as possible.  They are waiting for the sled to surface.  Wool watch caps atop their heads, some of the crew still wear their “oilers” over their wool coats – an old term still applied on these waters to the newer, yellow, rain gear that is common on board work boats these days.   The oilers do a good job of cutting the wind, but they are stiff and cumbersome…at least the good sets are.   They had been needed to shed the driving rain encountered before daylight.

Much earlier in the day the crew had awakened to the sound of the ship’s deckhand-engineer “tap, tap, tapping” on the clamps that hold electrical cables on one of the duplicate sets of storage batteries located down in the engine room just aft of the crew’s quarters.  It is dark below decks and was otherwise quiet, except for the hint of a howling wind outside.  Shortly thereafter, the thrumming of one of the generators was to be heard from everywhere onboard – a signal that all hands – biologists and deckhands alike – that we were due to be on deck soon to help with the shorelines.  To this day – more than three decades later – I do not know how the deckhand-engineer awoke each morning.  He never used an alarm.  Ole just quietly got up when it was time.

The generators run quietly compared to the two engines that turn the propellers.  When those two diesel-guzzling monsters start, the whole vessel shutters, vibrates, and whines with their rumble, and all hands must finally roust out of bed.  The cold decks of the stateroom and crew’s quarters are a sharp contrast to the warm wool blankets in each of the berths.  The crew is quickly dressed and headed up the ladders from their quarters located forward of the galley and below the pilot house and bow deck.  They must pass through the galley on their way to the working, aft deck, companion way (the starboard side deck), and fore deck outside.

The smells from the galley indicate breakfast is cooking.  The coffee is not yet fully perked this morning so the crew grumbles a little about not being able to take a cup on deck.  Cliff – the skipper – up on the bridge in the pilot house, located just forward of the galley was mumbling about the coffee situation as well.  But all of the grumbling is done with a sense of humor – no person on board ever really complains about the goings-on in the galley.  After all, the cook has deck-hand duties as well and works as long a day as the rest of the crew.  His work in the galley is the most important job on board.  The coffee will be coffee soon enough.

As each of the crew arrives on the dark, aft deck they bundle into their oilers.  The Great Lakes’ cold and dampness chill to the bone on these mornings.  Deck lights come on.  One crewman goes to the fore deck, another along the companion way, another remaining aft, and one to the dock.  It had been raining at that early hour – a driving rain – during those first waking moments of the day.  At the direction of the skipper, biologists and deckhands had scurried around on the starboard side working together to cast off bow, spring, and stern lines from the rickety dock where the research vessel had been moored all night.

With the dock man back aboard, the skipper, using the controls on the bridge to work the two props one against the other, began to maneuver the great, gray, steel hull away from the dock.  Occasionally he had his head out of the starboard door of that white pilot house to see that all was as it should be on the decks below.  All the while his bare head with its white hair and his shirt were being pummeled by the rain.  As soon as the ship was well away from the dock the skipper had closed the pilothouse door and had the R/V Kaho headed for the main river channel and the breakwaters out at the harbor entrance.

All night at the dock in the inner harbor there had been little, vertical swell that was noticeable.  As the crew coiled, fastened, and stored shorelines it was only moments while still inside the shelter of those breakwaters before the bow was bobbing – an indication of things to come on this cold, rainy, early-spring day.  There would be no sun on this morning, and not all of the water blowing across the decks would be from the rain.

Ahead, a green light to the starboard and a lighthouse to the port indicated the harbor entrance and the dark lake beyond.  “Red-Right-Returning,” is the old saying that recalls what red or green lights may mean when observed from offshore.  The closer to the harbor entrance the vessel advanced, the higher the swells became.  We chugged from the confused water of the inner channel to the well-defined swells of the lake.  And with the higher swells there came a mumbling and grumbling from the galley as the cook fastened all cook pots and frying pans for rough running. The stove top was rigged with an adjustable bracketing system that was designed for securing hot pots.  The coffee maker in its permanent housing above the galley table, complete with its bungee cord, was just completing its perk, and the smell of fresh-brewed coffee wafted from the pilot house to the aft decks.  Mind you, these were the days when coffee in a café was about 25ȼ a cup, so we’re not talking latte’s here.  By late afternoon you could use this brew for etching metal or tarring a roof…take your choice.  As I recall the skipper sipped from a cup of this potent brew all day long.  Yuk!

R/V Kaho at dock
Hauling plankton nets (Mysis shrimp sled aft).
Bongo Plankton Nets
Washing zooplankton captured in the conical nets into collection cups at the end of the cones.
Zooplankton Collected from the Great Lakes: Bosmina
Cyclopoid copepods

Loose water and the driving rain had brought the crew in out of the weather, their oilers dripping water onto the galley’s gray-tiled deck.  There were no complaints from the cook about the galley’s wet deck.  Today it would likely be wet all day.  The deck lights were turned off as the ship rounded the harbor entrance, and the full surge of the waves was felt by all hands – pitch, yaw, and roll all combining as one, complex motion – the bow heaving against the waves as we rounded the piers and set out for the first sampling station.

Feet well apart and bracing himself on the various pieces of equipment on the bridge, the skipper checked the radar for other vessels in the immediate area of the R/V Kaho and looked through the pilot-house windows for any lights out on the boiling lake.  Except for a radar blip that was likely a Great Lakes freighter out on the freighter lanes, there was no indication of vessel activity for forty miles.  It was still early in the day and in the year for that matter.  Few pleasure craft would take to the lake today.  He set the autopilot on a course heading that would take her to the sixty-fathom station some thirty-plus miles off the Michigan shoreline. It would be about a three-hour chug.

The cook brought coffee and breakfast to the pilot house, where the skipper would spend his entire day.  There was no need for the head biologist to visit with the skipper at this point.  Each knew his responsibility.  The skipper had the last say as to the activities on his vessel.  His primary responsibility was for the safety of ship and her crew.  He was pilot, navigator, and helmsman all in one.  He decided if we were to sail or not.  Within those safety considerations handled by the skipper, the biologist had responsibility for the mission – the scientific aspects of the cruise.  Today they would sample in northern Lake Huron for vertical temperature distribution, benthos, zooplankton, and opossum shrimp – all food organisms of fishes of the Great Lakes.   No water samples for dissolved gasses or chlorophyll would be collected today.  They would stop to work at five-fathom intervals from stations located at five to sixty fathoms in total depth.  They would do that in reverse order on this day.  No time clocks were punched on these cruises.  The work dictated workday length.  It was just the beginning of what was to be a long, tiring, and invigorating day on the lake.

It had been the skipper’s decision to run to the sixty-fathom station first.  According to the marine forecast (MAFOR) the winds would subside somewhat in the time it would take to make the run out to deep water.  That would provide for safer working conditions on deck.  Also, it would not be full daylight by the time they passed the innermost, five-fathom station – a situation that the skipper thought about in terms of safety and the biologist thought about in terms of biology.  Plankton migrated vertically in the water column according to time of day – higher in the column at night, lower during the day.  He wanted the sampling to reflect a daytime condition.

As they chugged for deepwater the crew sat down in the rolling galley for breakfast.  The table in the galley had been covered with wet towels – a trick used by the cook to keep the coffee cups and plates and bowels of food from sliding this way and that and on the table as the crew ate.  We’re not talking health food on these research cruises.  Oh there was the occasional oatmeal or cream of wheat and toast for breakfast.  But today as on most days there was bacon and sausage, eggs, toast with butter and jam, juices, orange wedges, and lots of steaming coffee.  It would be cold, and the crew would be working hard and would burn calories just attempting to stand upright on the heaving decks today.

There would not be a horizon to be seen on this morning.  The rain pelted the lake surface, the decks, and the windows of the pilothouse.  Of all locations aboard ship, the movements of the vessel were felt the most in the pilothouse as the vessel punched through the waves.  Some hint of daylight was evident to the skipper as he looked into the otherwise dark sky. In the galley the crew pitched in to help with breakfast dishes and the cook had a break from kitchen duties.  After that the head biologist took another cup of coffee to the skipper and joined him in the pilothouse to have some last minute coordination on the day’s operations and sampling needs.  He made ready all of the data sheets for all sampling stations the R/V Kaho would visit.  The skipper was checking another weather forecast on the marine radio.  It still looked like the weather would be on an improving trend.

Today the wind and seas were out of the northeast, and the course heading was east-northeast.  So the ship was at one moment plunging into a wave and the next lurching out of one.  Waves on the Great Lakes are smaller than on the great oceans of the world, but they also run closer together.  People not accustomed to the practice of observing and recording such information commonly over estimate wave heights.  On these cruises the skipper always estimates the wave heights.  He is on every cruise and has the best eye for it.  The waves were running about eight-to-ten feet peak to trough or four-to-five feet as estimated from mean lake level on this morning run.  We were taking a pounding non-the-less, and occasionally the decks were awash.

There was no work that needed doing until we arrived on station at sixty fathoms.  So, the remaining crew sipped coffee in the galley or read magazines in their berths.  Those in the galley simply braced themselves between bench back and table to stay in place, their feet widely separated on the deck.  It’s another matter below decks.

Staying in a berth – especially one located in the bow – in these seas was a trick in itself.  Each berth is made in such a way as to allow its occupant to remain an occupant and not be pitched out onto the deck.  Crew can hook each arm around a rail along the sides and near the head of the bunk.  Similarly, they can hook each foot or knee in rails on sides of the bunk near its foot.  It does not make for the most comfortable of resting positions, but it keeps the occupant from becoming airborne.  And you can actually read and fall asleep fastened in, in such a way, especially with all of the water sounds and the white-noise rumble of the engines just aft of the bulkhead.

“Clank…clank…clank…” the crew waited for the plankton sled on its first haul of the day to reach the surface.  Sixty fathoms – at six feet per fathom, 360 feet – shallow compared to Lake Superior’s deep hole of over 1300 feet and not the deepest part of Lake Huron.  But the warp length – the amount of wire rope over the stern – was seven times the depth; hence, the long haul time.

Little communication was required.  Each member of the crew had a job and had done it many times before this cruise.  They just kept to themselves mostly or joked about the “good weather” – hunkering out of the wind as best they could.

The rain had subsided, but the dark gray sky and dark gray lake afforded no opportunity to see a horizon.  All was gray except for the white, breaking waves and an occasional gull.  The lake water was still very cold this early in spring.  Maximum density of fresh water occurs when its temperature is 4 degrees Celsius (about 39 degrees Fahrenheit).  The temperature at the lake surface was still less than maximum density.  The water column – measured using a torpedo-like bathythermograph when we had first arrived on station – was almost uniform in temperature.  It takes a stiff wind to stir up a lake surface whose temperature is at or near maximum density.  We had, had that wind today.  Fortunately it was no longer gusting.  But it was holding steady out of the northeast.  And waves in water at or near maximum density are felt more by the vessel and her crew than the same size waves in summer.  It felt rough.

Finally, the sled was in sight.  It came out of the dark water – first as a pale green difference below the surface, then as a white object without any definite shape.  Now it could be seen as a large, conical, plankton net mounted on a stainless steel bottom sled.  The winch slowed – “clank…clank…clank…” – and finally ceased its whine.  The sled hung from the port-side stanchion – the otter-door, support structure.  The large plankton net was partially suspended in the air beside the hull.  The bottom of the cone was yet in the water.

Cucumbers!  There it was.  That’s the smell one senses emanating from those plankton nets when hauled from deep waters of the Great Lakes.  That wonderful, fresh smell the exact source of which is unknown to the author, who misses it!

Hoses were brought to wash the contents of the net toward the stainless steel plankton cup at its end.  A modified boat hook was used to gather the net over the transom.  I could see the opossum shrimp clinging to the inside of the net and in the cup.  The deckhand was pulling in, hand-over-hand, the staff-buoy line, all eighty fathoms of it.   The buoy had not surfaced yet, but it would.

It was the beginning of another field year on the Great Lakes.  It smelled great, the air was fresh, and nobody (especially the temporary biologist) was sea sick – yet.  It was going to be another good year on the water.

An Essay by:

Roy Heberger
U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service – Retired


  1. Thanks, Roy.

    You put me “right back there.” Something primal, about those mains lighting off. That, and wedging yourself around the galley table, a china cup with a familiar little chip in the becket, half full of that hot and opaque swill. The painted, steel bulkhead thrumming next to your ear, as she takes the first roll, and heads outside.


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