TRAVERSE CITY, Mich. (AP) — Cargo shipping was at a standstill Tuesday on the Great Lakes as superstorm Sandy churned waves up to two stories high, forcing crews to take refuge in bays and harbors, and raising concerns about an economic blow if the shutdown is prolonged.
The lakes are a bustling maritime highway for ships that haul bulk commodities such as iron ore, coal, limestone and grain. The massive vessels, some longer than three football fields, are built for punishment and accustomed to plowing through rough seas — even during the "gales of November" that in bygone days scuttled many a craft, including the legendary Edmund Fitzgerald nearly 37 years ago.
"We don't stop for thunderstorms and flurries," said Glen Nekvasil, spokesman for the Lake Carriers' Association, which represents U.S.-flagged cargo ships on the Great Lakes. "The lakes don't have to be perfectly flat. It has to be a significant weather event for ships to go to anchor or stay in port. But this was just too much."
About 50 vessels in the U.S. fleet are operating on the lakes this fall. Nekvasil said some began heading shoreward Monday morning, and he knew of none that were sailing Tuesday. Canadian ships also were playing it safe, said Robert Lewis-Manning, president of the Canadian Shipowners Association, which has about 80 member vessels that travel on the lakes.
"Everything's come to a halt," Lewis-Manning said. "They were taking precautions well in advance. The waves are getting much higher than we've seen for a long time."
The U.S. Coast Guard doesn't have authority to order ships off the water but issued an advisory urging them — and recreational boaters — to stay out of harm's way, said Petty Officer Levi Read of the regional office in Cleveland.
Weather buoys operated by the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration recorded wave heights exceeding 21 feet on southern Lake Michigan, 19 feet on southern Lake Huron and 14 feet on western Lake Erie.
Waves had dropped significantly on Lake Ontario by Tuesday afternoon, measuring just over 2 feet — down from a high of 12 feet the previous day. But on Lake Superior, the biggest and westernmost of the freshwater seas, waves were getting higher and had reached 9.5 feet.
"It's going to be treacherous on the Great Lakes for the next couple of days," said Scott Rozanski, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service office in Gaylord, Mich. Even after the superstorm gusts subside, strong northwesterly winds from Canada are expected to make for choppy surfaces, he said.
Every day that a ship doesn't operate hurts the company's bottom line, just as when trucks or planes are idled. Nekvasil said it takes about 40 hours for a vessel hauling iron ore from mines near Marquette, Mich., to reach Detroit steelmaking plants. So a storm-induced layover of two days can be the equivalent of a lost trip.
Once traffic get moving again, there could be temporary delays at choke points like the locks at Sault Ste. Marie, which lower and raise ships between Lakes Huron and Superior, Lewis-Manning said.
But it's among inconveniences the industry deals with, like low water levels that sometimes force ships to carry lighter loads, Nekvasil said.
"The weather on the lakes in November is always challenging," he said.
The loss of the HMS Bounty, the replica 18th-century sailing vessel, in the Atlantic off the North Carolina coast during Hurricane Sandy shows that sailing remains a risky business.
About 6,500 ships are believed to have sunk on the Great Lakes over the years, said Frederick Stonehouse, a maritime historian who has written extensively on the subject, including a book about the Edmund Fitzgerald. Storms were blamed for about 70 percent of those wrecks, he said. Among other causes were fires, navigational errors and fog-induced collisions or groundings.
No cargo vessel has been lost on the lakes since the Fitzgerald's sinking in eastern Lake Superior on Nov. 10, 1975, which killed 29 crewmen. Waves higher than 30 feet were reported during that monstrous storm.
"I think people are being a bit more cautious nowadays, and weather forecasting is a lot better," Stonehouse said. "Navigation is also better. The Fitzgerald was, relatively speaking, in the dark ages of radar. Now it has much greater range and clarity. And you have GPS, and most ships have the Internet on a full-time basis."
The decision of whether or not to continue sailing is ultimately the ship captain's, with safety the top priority, Nekvasil said.
"I don't think anybody would ever want to take a chance," Lewis-Manning said.