Drummond Island, Pt. 2: “Holding My Own”

August, 2012.

The reason I am laying down in this photo is because I had reached my physical limits, and my body had to shut down for awhile.

Okay, so what had happened was...

The John Sherwin's hull measures 37' 6" depth, and since it was completely unloaded and partly stripped, it was sitting about as high in the water as it possibly can. Remember the rope in gym class? It was that, times 10.

I put my camera in my back pocket, made sure I had my spare battery, and began to climb. One thing that I almost immediately noticed sucked about this was the fact that the friction from my laying on the rope as I climbed was enough to burn my willy right through my jeans. Not sure how, but that was another factor precipitating the taking of frequent rests. In order to conserve energy, I stopped every few seconds to rest my arms.

Wait...what the f#$% was I doing?

I looked at my shadow cast on the side of the hull and asked this question through a haze of adrenaline (for safety reasons, I actually took that previous photo on my way back down, which was considerably easier, thank god).

The last three feet were the hardest. I looked down and realized I was in a world of shit in a minute, unless I focused every atom of my physical and mental ability. If I fell between the boat and the seawall, I would be too tired to swim, and I now realized too late that there was nothing on the seawall for me to grab to pull myself out of the water; the edge was six feet above the water. I'm not sure I've ever stared into death's eyes more surely than I was right now. No more thinking about how lazy I felt this morning, I had to bring it for real. I guess I could slide down the rope, but I'd get so chewed up by that I'd probably let go out of pure instinct from the searing pain, and either way, my injuries would be serious. I began hauling myself up with renewed vigor, my arms bristling with hot adrenaline. My grip strength was not flagging, but the muscles in my shoulders and back were crying for mercy...and grip strength is no good if you can't hold your body up to where your hands are.

At that point my motor skills were adios...all my arm was good for was a hook, because I realized that once I let go of the rope, I couldn't grab anything anymore. Those muscles were done. The only thing they were good for right now was holding that particular rope in a death-grip. I'm not sure of the specifics of this last part of the climb because I was in survival mode, but I know I threw my right arm over and locked it in place like a hook while the rest of my body slowly followed.

My whole upper body burned with pain as I lay there staring up at the clouds. I couldn't move. My hands were perfectly molded into a three-inch circle just like a Lego figurine, and I couldn't open them.

When finally I was able to get up and move again, I looked back over the edge to see if there was anyone in the area. I was alone. Nonetheless I tried keeping out of sight for the most part, as I could still hear the motors of personal craft off the starboard side of the ship. Obviously since I was in the aft end of the ship, I ought to start by exploring the quarterdecks first.

I gingerly snooped around and found a lot of locked hatches, but there were enough that were openable to provide me ingress to some interesting areas. Before I went below however, I decided to go up and see the smokestack at the top and work my way down.

As you can see there is no other vessel here in this shipyard anymore as was shown on some of the aerial imagery. I also tried to stay in shaded areas so as to minimize my visibility from a distance.

The island seen off the starboard quarter is Pipe Island, which has a long-decommissioned lighthouse on it:

If you're a frequent watcher of the Great Lakes waterways, you might notice something missing from this picture...

The ore self-unloader (that big, long conveyor boom that looks like a crane and usually sits stowed on deck) is missing. This is an older ship called a "straight-decker," meaning it doesn't have a self-unloader; it depended on Huletts or similar kinds of unloading equipment on shore to do the work of emptying its holds. These days, not having a self-unloader makes a vessel antiquated and less desirable to have in your fleet if you're a big shipping line, because it takes longer to unload. And that means money lost, to the big-wig execs.

The John Sherwin has the distinction of being among the only two remaining straight-deckers on the American side, and unlike the other one, she has not sailed since 1981. According to boatnerd.com, the John Sherwin was built at Toledo in 1958, and hauled minerals on the lakes for many years, though not entirely without incident. On October 30th of 1960, she struck a rock in the St. Mary's River, ripping a 300 foot long hole in her hull, and had to be refloated. She ran aground a few more times in more minor incidents, but I suspect this is not terribly uncommon.

On November 18th, 1981, she went into long-term layup at Superior, Wisconsin. It was eventually thought that she would be converted to a self-unloader and re-powered (given a new modern engine) by 1999, but this did not materialize. In June of 2000, two Duluth men were apprehended stripping valuable items from the mothballed ship. The items were recovered. In 2004 the John Sherwin passed a unique milestone: she was 46 years old, yet more than half of her life had been spent in layup.

In 2006 the flag of her fleet, the Interlake Steamship Line was rehoisted, and she was moved into Fraser Shipyard for inspection. Projections were for increased business on the lakes and it seemed she would be finally sent back out. However after inspection she was towed to Chicago for use as a grain storage container. The John Sherwin was docked “between two elevators off the Bishop Ford north of 130th Street.” The vessel remained on Chicago's south side until August 2008 when she was towed back to Sturgeon Bay, Wisconsin for her long-awaited repowering and self-unloader conversion to be completed by the start of season, 2010. This move was halted again two months later, “pending what happens with the economy.” You may recall that not long after that, General Motors declared bankruptcy. In regards to the John Sherwin's future, the president of Interlake said,
Right now, the demand for steel has dropped considerably globally and steel companies are shutting down capacity to deal with that. That's got everyone pausing a little bit to see if this is a short-term realigning of inventory or if this is the global economy coming to a stop.
And when the steel mills shut down, the iron mines shut down too, which means taconite shipping shuts down. For some reason, the Charles M. Beeghly was given the self-unloader that was destined for the John Sherwin. If I'm not mistaken, another ship was also given the new engine that was meant for the John Sherwin. In October 2009, the John Sherwin was towed once more to its current location here at DeTour Village...it was said that she is the largest deadship ever towed on the Great Lakes.

The first compartment I was able to access was the mess:

I felt the uneasiness of exploring a place that you sense isn't totally abandoned...it almost felt as if I had interrupted the room right after a meal. Cigarettes lay smushed in the ashtrays, and I could smell the ashes. Dishes lay piled in the sink, seemingly just cleared from the table, and the cleaning supplies closet was open, as if the cook was nearby, just about to begin cleanup after the officers had finished eating. The occasional sound of water dripping in the sink added to the tense atmosphere. I moved with extreme gingerness, almost tiptoeing; not because I thought I was going to run into somebody, but so as not to disturb the ghosts.

A stairway went down a level to a common hallway, along which offices and a few sailors' quarters lay.

Much was left behind, though most of it was disturbed. I got the impression that some level of work had been going on aboard this ship lately, as there was what seemed like a construction entrance down the hall with cardboard laid down so as to minimize wear to the carpet from the increased traffic. Yes, some of the compartments had carpet, especially this lounge:

When you're working on a ship, you don't get to go home at the end of your shift; the boat is your home. Therefore, efforts have been made to make some areas more comfortable.

My main interest at the moment was to find engineering. I had never been in the engine room of a real laker like this, and I was curious to see what they had under the hood. Little did I know, the John Sherwin's mill had already been yanked (which helped explain why she was sitting so high in the water). According to one of the links I found, the original steam turbine engine produced over 9,300 shaft-horsepower. I'd guess that it was a coal or oil burner. Lakers today run mammoth eight-cylinder diesels.

Finally I reached a stairway that led down below decks to engineering. The smell tingled my nostrils to remind me that I was most assuredly on a ship. Mmmmm, industrial lubricants. I paused suddenly when I thought I heard the sound of people talking, perhaps workers in another compartment, so I advanced with caution. It was very dark, though enough light filtered in for me to see the giant chasm where the old motor would've sat.

The noises of the water lapping inside the bilges of the hull, or the deep recesses of the engine well were so strange and so animated that it often sounded exactly like human voices murmuring somewhere nearby, casting a haunting, extremely eerie feeling over the whole ordeal. If I had been in a little more excited state of mind I could easily have believed I was hearing the voices of the spirits of this dead ship whispering sinister warnings to me, or evilly plotting amongst themselves for my eventual undoing. Several times I had to stop completely and listen as hard as I could just to make sure there were not peoples' voices mixed in behind the burbling sounds of water lapping against steel echoing within the vaulted chambers below. I made a mental note to research the history of this old vessel to see whether it had a hoodoo in it.

So far nothing has come up except for that one running-aground incident on Devil's Night of 1960, but then again you have to consider this boat has been inactive for most of its life, and has not had much chance to accrue bad luck or tales of the supernatural. I looked up to see—much to my surprise—right up through the smokestack! Apparently smokestacks are fake these days, haha. I never really thought about it. I'm guessing an exhaust pipe or two used to go up there:

Between being able to look way way up above me and see that, and look down into the engine well, I'd say the huge space I was in was probably at least 60 feet tall.

I was having a hard time getting steady shots in this dark environment without a tripod, but I didn't see you volunteering to carry one up that mooring line for me so you'll have to deal with it. I walked around to the other side of the engine well and fired a flash shot, with so-so results:

Apparently part of the powerplant still remains down there. At the top of the frame you can see the ladder (stair) I came down. Below that deck you can see the curved bulkheads at the bottom of the ship's aft-end. The rudderhouse was just beyond.

I headed over that way, and soon found the huge electric motors and hydraulic pumps that powered the rudder's movement:

I wish this shot wasn't so blurry because the white placard on the center motor said something interesting about “When rudder is amidships...” that I can't remember the rest of now. Again, you can see how the bulkhead curves into a bowl shape to form the rounded stern of the ship. The stern anchor is also back there somewhere, but I don't remember seeing any chain, or windlasses or the like, so that must be in a different compartment.

A little bit forward of the engine well:

There were so many cool things in here, but I felt a bit rushed because I really had wanted to be on Drummond by now. I knew that I had quite a bit of exploring to do on the island before dark, and tomorrow I would have to begin heading home fairly early.

I kept an eye open for any service entrance, perhaps, into the main cargo holds, if such a thing existed, but I saw nothing to that effect. I did find the big hatch in the side of the hull where supplies for the crew are loaded when in port (and mail is hoisted aboard from the J.W. Wescott when passing Detroit's maritime post office), but it was welded shut, I noticed. How were workers getting aboard this ship, if in fact work was being done here in DeTour? If you were going to access this ship, you would get a gangway, and it would attach to this hatch. This should've been my clue that in fact no work was being done on the boat here in Michigan, but at the time I knew nothing of the boat's status or history. Three years is a long time for a boat to be sitting here abandoned, it seemed to me. I wonder how much longer it will be here like this, and what other activities, if any, occurred at this yard.

I believed I had now basically checked out everything in the aft portion of the ship that I could get to. At least everything that wasn't pitch black, or behind a locked or stuck hatch, anyway. I could've taken many more pictures inside this ship, but I was conserving battery power in case my second battery was not as well-charged as I thought, which often happens. I really didn't expect to get on board this ship on this trip; it was kind of an a la carte item that ended up overshadowing the main course. I also could've spent a lot more time exploring all of the areas, because I know I missed several, but I was sort of in a hurry because I didn't want to be up on this boat and have somebody show up at the yard (or the house that I believe is also here just behind the trees) and be shimmying down the mooring line right in front of them, or have to hide for hours to wait them out.

I climbed back up topside to see some other areas of the ship.

I wasn't entirely fond of the idea, but I now began the long exposed walk forward to the bow of the ship. This beast was as long as one of the larger buildings at the Packard Plant. I could see one of the garages of the ship yard, and its door was open with a front-end loader parked just in front of it. Still no sign or sound of any activity though. I also looked down and noticed that there were several trailered boats stored here.

This was very cool, seeing a ship like this from the perspective of a deck hand. All the hatches were firmly battened down. I also saw the smaller man-sized access hatches which presumably had ladders going down into the hold, but they too were tightly battened. I found a wrench laying around that apparently was for opening those cleats but with as rusted as all this hardware was, I didn't even bother.

The rails you saw along the deck are for running the crane you can see sitting amidships in this photo:

The crane is only for lifting the hatch covers off during unloading. I now found myself inside the forecastle of the ship.

The only way in however was via a stuck hatch I had to yank open, up on the top deck. I tried every hatch along the lower decks as I climbed the stairs but they were all pretty well locked. One thing I now became quite aware of was the extreme abundance of wasps...there were clouds of them buzzing all around the metal superstructure of the boat, more so up here than back aft. At first I thought they were merely swarms of flies, but no. We left each other alone though.

Obviously the main thing of interest up here at the forecastle was the bridge. I found it soon enough, though disappointingly the windows were all boarded up and it was mostly gutted:

Here's what I believe to be a bow thruster control:

The notches indicate “1/4, 1/2, 3/4, and FULL PORT or FULL STBD,” presumably for the amount and direction of thrust. When you think about it, it seems like an analog throwback to the days of manual controls, but honestly this device, and every other maneuvering control device on this bridge could be computerized, and some dingus could probably control this ship with an app from their bloody smartphone. The U.S. Navy probably has full computerized control of their practically windowless modern warships these days, so the era of the brave mariner peering stoically out into the waves while clutching the helm is pretty much an anachronism.

I believe this is the ship's gyrocompass:

It's kind of hard to use a magnetic compass when you're in a steel boat, hauling iron ore. Also, who wants to deal with compensating for constantly changing magnetic aberration depending on your latitude? No room for even the smallest error when you're projecting course headings that take you hundreds of miles.

Radar, I assume:

Unfortunately that's all the pictures I had from the interior of the ship. There wasn't much else in the forecastle of the ship that was photogenic...there were a lot of corridors and compartments that were pretty generic to what I've already shown, so I saved battery power. But I really wish I had more to show. I didn't go out on the bow of the ship, mainly because that was where I was the most exposed. I now began the task of preparing myself for the hellacious climb back down, and steeling my nerves for the ballsy leap of faith back over the railing and onto the rope.

I thought this would be worse than the climb up, but I was thankfully wrong about that. I did look around for something I could use as a harness...I felt that I might not have enough strength left to climb back down safely, so if there was any way I could give myself a safety line of any kind, like a rope I could tie myself to the mooring line with, that would be smart.

I was lucky enough to find a 3/4-inch rope about six feet long with clips on the end of it that was just long enough to double around my waist and clip over top of the hawser. So in case I fell I would slide all the way down like a zip-line instead of taking a plunge in the drink or bouncing off the pavement. The rope was kinda sun bleached and questionable, but it was all I had. As it turns out though, the climb down was much easier than I predicted. Basically all I had to do was hug the rope, and let myself slide down an inch or two at a time, so as not to get rope burn on my boys. And yes, I really could feel the heat buildup on that part of my anatomy, even through my jeans. I was on the ground in about a minute—piece of cake. I was pretty satisfied with this one.

CLICK for part 3



  1. Excellent update on the Sherwin. It brought back a lot of memories from other straight deckers. I'm proud to wear the belt buckle that carries a dimensional representation of this proud old lady.

  2. My Father sailed on the Sherwin before he was drafted for Vietnam. Worked in the engineering area. He is very proud of his time on the boat. Sad to see it sitting like that, but glad it's not razor blades or pieced out to china.
    He's mentioned how she was designed to twist and bend during the storms, and related how you could be on the stern and see the bow moving like a snake.
    I wish there was a way to get him and I on it. Would be fun.

  3. http://www.interlake-steamship.com/index.php/our-fleet/str-john-sherwin

  4. I stumbled on this and was very interested. I sailed the Sherwin in 1973 out of Fraser Shipyard when she was converted and automated and had a stern thruster installed. That was also when she was streched to 806 feet.i had some memorable experiences aboard her. One of which no one would ever believe but as it was, my father was in Silver Bay to drop off my brother who was waiting to ship out on the Presque Isle. The 3rd engineer was returning back from a vacation, and my brother introduced himself. He (the engineer) thought for a moment and asked if he was my brother. My dad and brother was quite surprised that someone remembered me from that many years ago. He told them a story me that he said all my shipmates remembered. It had to do with Capt Hanson having to go back to Taconite Harbor because we left with my girlfriend still aboard. They sent her down the ladder. I can't remember if I ever saw her after that. I didnt get fired, but Capt Hanson and the chief Alton Beech were sure ticked off.Imagine my surprise when my dad called me and told me heard a story of my sailing days. My brother thought it was funny. I was a wiper then,but was promoted to oiler. But then I got sent from the flagship of the fleet to the oldest thing floating I think at the time the Col. James Pickands. That was a far cry from oiling on the Sherwin because the oilers had a room to themselves because there was no firemen anymore.


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