Listen: Men afloat, international sailors on Lake Superior

Mainstreet Radio's Leif Enger shipped aboard a Bulgarian tramp freighter as it departed for Italy with a load of North Dakota wheat. Enger presents an understanding of sailor life aboard.

Duluth is one of North America's largest seaports. It's common knowledge that hundreds of ships from across the world enter the port every year. What's not common is an understanding of the two thousand or so foreign people who cross under the lift bridge each year.


2000 MNSPJ Page One Award, third place in Radio – Feature category


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LEIF ENGER: At 7:15 PM, a tugboat bobs around the prow of the Okolchitsa, a 600-foot freighter set to embark for Europe with 15,000 tons of spring wheat. It's pouring. Rain hammers the ship's green decks and massive red hatch covers.

It sweeps like a blizzard across the tugboat spotlight. The tug bears down, and the Okolchitsa groans away from the dock.


SPEAKER 1: Port 10.

LEIF ENGER: Issuing commands on the bridge deck is American pilot Don [? Willikie. ?] He knows the shallows in and around the harbor the shoals of superior. Captain [? Ganshuv ?] at his side affirms each order. A young helmsman in Reebok sweats and flip-flop sandals adjusts course.

SPEAKER 2: Midship.

SPEAKER 3: Midship.

LEIF ENGER: The bridge deck is darkened for night travel, lit only by glowing radar and instrument screens. With the Okolchitsa under power, the tugboat slips its lines and peels away toward the city.

SPEAKER 4: All right then. Thanks again there, Don. We'll talk to you.

LEIF ENGER: Straight ahead, the Duluth Lift Bridge climbs its cables, opening a huge square door to the rest of the world.


Ships move at the speed of history. The Okolchitsa at daybreak is like a transient sphinx, shouldering through fog at 14 nautical miles per hour. Helmsman Dimitar [? Hristov, ?] in his mid-20s, rattles off the voyage's ports thus far-- Israel, Amsterdam, Brazil, Toronto, Duluth. Next, Italy.

[? DIMITAR HRISTOV: ?] I am one of the luckiest men because I work for this company. There are many people fit for working for shipping, but they have no chance.

LEIF ENGER: [? Hristov ?] says shipping is one of the few stable elements in Bulgaria's ruinous national economy. The fall of socialism brought democracy but, so far, no prosperity. The war in neighboring Kosovo deepened Bulgarian problems of joblessness and falling salaries. A ship's officer can make the equivalent of $1,000 a month, 10 times what he might make on shore.

On deck, nervous sparrows glean a meal from grains spilled during loading. They've pretty much got the deck to themselves. It only takes 22 sailors to run the ship, a few engineers to mine the 12,000-horse diesel, three ship's officers to navigate, two cooks, two stewards, and a handful of able-bodied seamen, or ABs.

While methods change, the ABs do what ABs have done since Robert Louis Stevenson went to sea-- man anchor lines, turn winches, swab the deck. Now swabbing is done by an AB with a sparrow-scattering high-powered hose, washing the spilled wheat overboard.

[? STEFAN HARLAMPO: ?] The first time when I was in a boat was wonderful. We were in Holland, in Greece and Turkey-- was wonderful.

LEIF ENGER: [? Stefan ?] [? Harlampo, ?] the chief steward, stoops in a claustrophobic kitchen under the bridge deck. He's making the captain a cup of coffee-- 5 ounces of water, 3 tablespoons of pulverized Brazilian beans, and 2 of sugar. [? Stefan ?] wears a white shirt, black pants, and the look of a man who has outlived a first love.

[? STEFAN HARLAMPO: ?] It's hard to be alone when you know that the kids and family and wife is far away from here.

PAT SAJAK: "Event" is the category. We drew numbers before the show to see who starts. Chris, it's going to be you. Good luck.

LEIF ENGER: In the ship's mess, four sailors keep an eye on the TV while downing fried eggs with fresh red peppers and feta cheese. It's a testament to Vanna White's appeal that none of them speak English. Down the hall, Dimitar [? Hristov ?] rests in his cabin between watches. He prefers reading novels, science books, and the Bible, which he's come to rely on to ease the long months away from his wife. Asked about his statement that he is among the luckiest Bulgarians, he admits luck can be relative.

[? DIMITAR HRISTOV: ?] Every time when I came back, I promise to fire this company to look for any job on the land. And every time, I assure my wife that this was the last time I sail. But when you live on the shore for a month, two, three, you expire your money and make your decision to go again. There--


LEIF ENGER: Without a knock, Dimitar's door opens. It's an older sailor on some urgent errand. Dimitar nods and checks his watch. When the man leaves, Dimitar leans forward, irritated.

Under socialism, he says, many profited by spying on their employees or neighbors. Now, under democracy, those people have been forgiven and often given the best-paying jobs.

[? DIMITAR HRISTOV: ?] After changing the social order, all this pretends to be clear, to be [? innocence. ?] And today, a lot of them now are here among us. It's not fair. There is so much younger people who need a job.

LEIF ENGER: By nightfall, the east end of Superior looms. Pilot Don [? Willikie ?] has brought the Okolchitsa as far as the St. Mary's River and is ready to get off. The ship doesn't stop for this. A small pilot boat now roars up alongside the Okolchitsa at about 7 knots.

The deck is slick with rain and spray. [? Willikie ?] swings himself over the side and climbs down a rope ladder as if it were a set of stairs downtown.

[? DON WILLIKIE: ?] See you later. Have a good trip.

LEIF ENGER: With [? Willikie's ?] departure, a new pilot has climbed aboard. He'll guide the ship through Sault Ste. Marie, now just a distant clutch of lights, and down the St. Mary's to Lake Huron. The captain paces the darkened bridge.

Dimitar [? Hristov ?] is back at the helm, and [? Stefan ?] appears, holding a cup of coffee, looking out at the next set of lights to be left behind. Leif Enger, Minnesota Public Radio.

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