Loaded with durum wheat and bound for Italy, the last oceangoing ship of the year was due to depart a Superior dock Thursday evening, capping the Twin Ports ocean shipping season on a relatively high note.
Like the first snow emergency in the Twin Cities, the last oceangoing ship — or “saltie” — out of Duluth-Superior is a sure sign of winter’s deep freeze. Ice will soon shut the St. Lawrence Seaway, the Great Lakes’ outlet to the Atlantic Ocean.
The season ends with grain exports up at least 15 percent over a year ago, when exports hit a historic low, and domestic shipments also have grown from last year.
Through October, the Twin Ports had hosted 710 cargo ships of all stripes and dispatched 29.4 million tons of cargo, up 1 percent over a year ago.
The bulk of those shipments are iron ore and coal wending their way to U.S. ports in the lower Great Lakes. Through October, coal and ore were up 4 percent and 3 percent over a year ago.
Interlake vessel traffic — “lakers” — will continue sailing until the locks at Sault Ste. Marie, Mich., close in mid-January.
Such intralake shipments account for most of the ships that visit the Twin Ports. But 7 to 8 percent of the port’s traffic comes from salties like the Orsula, a 656-footer that was the last oceangoing departure of the year.
These ships, while greatly diminished in numbers from their 1970s heyday, make Duluth-Superior the nation’s largest inland international port.
They primarily carry agricultural products, notably spring wheat and durum grown in North Dakota and Minnesota. Shipments of both are up this year, partly due to a 2012 change in Canada’s grain marketing system, said Chuck Hilleren, owner of Guthrie Hubner, a Duluth vessel agency that handles shipowners interests when their ships are in port.
Because of the change, some wheat that would have previously gone through Thunder Bay — Canada’s Lake Superior port — instead went through Duluth-Superior, he said.