The early opening of the St. Lawrence Seaway’s locks paves the way for the first oceangoing ship of the season to dock before April 1.
When the bulk freighter “Federal Hunter” docks Friday in Duluth, it will shatter a 54-year-old record: It will be the first “saltie,” or oceangoing ship, to reach the port before April 1.
According to arrival records kept since the 1959 opening of the St. Lawrence Seaway, Duluth’s gateway to the Atlantic Ocean, the Federal Hunter’s March 29 arrival beats a record of April 1 set in 1995.
“The controlling factor on the arrival of salties is not the ice on Lake Superior, but the freezing of the St. Lawrence Seaway,” said Adele Yorde, a spokeswoman for the Duluth Seaway Port Authority, a public agency that promotes use of the port.
On Thursday afternoon, the Federal Hunter was about 26 hours from Duluth, negotiating the St. Mary’s River, which empties into the southeast side of Lake Superior. It will arrive empty and depart with the load of wheat.
This year’s early arrival is due to a combination of good weather and the unusually early opening of the 15 locks that control the water levels on the St. Lawrence Seaway, Yorde said.
An earlier start for the arrival of oceangoing ships means there is potential for a longer international shipping season this year, Yorde said. That’s good economic news for the port’s iron ore, coal and grain shipping firms and its longshoremen, grain handlers and vessel agents (who handle docking arrangements), she said.
Although salties accounted for only 7 percent of the ship traffic at the Duluth port last year, they are the shippers’ chief means of delivering thousands of tons of commodities to Europe, the Mediterranean and North Africa. The annual freezing of the St. Lawrence Seaway in late December ends the international shipping season for Duluth. The last saltie left Duluth for the open sea Dec. 19 last year.
The rest of the Duluth’s ship traffic comes from “lakers,’’ which carry iron ore, coal and limestone to ports on the Great Lakes, Yorde said. Because lakers are not designed to fit through the relatively short and narrow locks on the St. Lawrence Seaway, they are far larger than salties (which can be no more than 740 feet long and 78 feet wide.) As a result, lakers carry most of the tonnage shipped from the Duluth port.
Steve Alexander • 612-673-4553