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New Ulm man gets ‘sea legs’ on Great Lakes

February 8, 2009
Story by Fritz Busch

An enthralled reader of sea stories in his younger days in rural Manitowoc, Wis., R. E. Wehrwein lived out his early dreams on Great Lakes iron ore boats in the early 1970s.

As a youth, Wehrwein listened closely when his father and his employer discussed "sea stories" while they built a house for a second mate on a U.S. Steel boat.

His ore boat journey led him to the bottom of a stairway of an old Duluth hotel on a cool night in June 1970.

Article Photos

R. E. Wehrwein of New Ulm and his softbound book, “Deck Hand on the Great Lakes.” Printed in January 2006, books are available from Wehrwein.

"I was holed up there for several very long days due to a misunderstanding regarding exactly what document was needed by the U.S. Coast Guard (to be eligible to work on an iron ore boat)," wrote Wehrwein in his softbound book, "Deck Hand on the Great Lakes," self-published in January 2006.

"Most of the residents were old men. Some of them spent their days sitting around the lobby," he wrote. "The previous days were forgotten in my excitement. The cab pulled up. A short, swift ride later, I mounted the ladder and stepped into a new world. I was a deck hand on the (600-foot) D. G. Kerr."

The new world became chaotic when he was awakened between 4 and 5 a.m. the next morning and told to go to work.

Wehrwein got a promotion to second in command of the deck department his first day aboard ship.

One of the wheelmen got in a fight and either quit or was fired. His step-son, a deck hand, quit with him.

"Any deck hand is always ready to claim that, with the possible exception of the wiper, he is the only one on the boat who really works," wrote Wehrwein.

"There is some truth to the claim...those higher up the ladder do less of the physical labor and bear more responsibility," he added.

Deck hands were busy when ore boats entered and left the port. Duties included opening and closing hatches, getting cables, the boom and ladder ready.

If there were no dock workers when the boat approached to tie up, deck hands were swung out over the side on a boom and lowered to the dock on a boom.

"It's exhilarating," wrote Wehrwein. "Then they catch the heavin' lines that are tossed to them from the boat and pull in heavy cables that, when placed on dock spiles, are used to stop the boat.

Pay was good, according to Wehrwein. He got 16 overtime hours on weekends if he was on the ship.

Food choices included pies, cakes, rolls, doughnuts, cookies, ice cream, ham, beef, pork, eggs and bacon.

Shipboard highlights included running aground in the fog just past the Soo Locks, downbound in the St. Mary's River.

The incident resulted in a couple small hull punctures. Leaks were repaired with thick concrete only after several deck hands were drenched in cold water.

On another occasion, two boats collided in fog and a swift current near the southern tip of Lake Huron.

One boat broke in half and almost immediately sank, but no lives were lost.

Wehrwein said he was never attracted to an ore boat career.

"My real love has always been books, and ore boats are not generally known for housing extensive libraries," he added.

Since becoming a pastor, much of his time has been spent on religious writing and publishing.

A part-time office worker at The Journal, Wehrwein's previous positions include a typing and later copy-editing job with the Rochester-based Agri News.

Prior to moving to New Ulm, Lutheran pastor work took the Wehrweins to Rochester, Mankato, Austin, Sanborn and Okabena.



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