The Renaissance of the Cuyahoga Riverfront Means Commercial and Recreational Interests Must Co-exist, Come Hell or High Water

Share the River,
Share the River, Photo courtesy of Jim Ridge

The stately Sam Laud, a 636-foot, 7,000-horsepower Great Lakes freighter owned and operated by the American Steamship Company, is unloading 7,500 tons of iron ore at the Cleveland Bulk Terminal, just west of Whiskey Island and the mouth of the Cuyahoga. That's less than a third of its total cargo. The vessel has to reduce its tonnage before a precarious journey down the Cuyahoga River, or else risk damaging its hull or getting stuck in the mud of the undredged riverbed.

It's an oil-on-canvas Tuesday morning. On board the boat, Capt. Daniel Franklin is dressed comfortably in straight-leg jeans, a green polo and a ball cap. He says that commercial shipping on this particular river is a game of inches. The VP of the Lake Carriers Association, Glen Nekvasil, co-signs the sentiment by making a claw with his thumb and forefinger.

"This much," Nekvasil says.

They're talking about the negligible inches between the bottom of the Sam Laud and the mud, but also about the precious few inches between the sides of the boat and the riverbanks, inches that shrink to practically zero when ships like the Laud navigate the upper Cuyahoga's infamous hairpin turns, the kind of acute angles that have the winding river travel about 100 miles just to make it 30. (The Sam Laud's 6-mile trip from the bulk station to ArcelorMittal will take three and a half hours.)

(You can see photos from the Sam Laud's incredible journey here.)

Great Lakes commercial shipping turns out to be a game of minutes, too. Massive lakers, which are about as long as the Terminal Tower is tall, move sluggishly even at top speeds. Industry improvements have for years focused on maximizing efficiency: It can cost $2,000 per hour just to keep the engines running. So in addition to the technical advancements that have reduced time and crew size — self-unloading technology being chief among them — companies have recognized that they're most productive (i.e., most profitable) when the boats never stop moving. Shipping is a 24/7 operation. Throughout the shipping season, which runs from late March through Jan. 15 ­— when the Soo Locks, on the St. Mary's River on the northern tip of Michigan's Upper Peninsula, between Lakes Superior and Huron, close — the bulk carriers pause only to load or discharge cargo. A few lost hours here and a few wasted minutes there mean fewer shuttles in the long run. It's the main reason why the maritime industry balks every time groups want to shut down waterways like the Cuyahoga River, even briefly, for competitions or events.     

"It'd be like telling a trucker to take a nap for 10 hours," Interlake Steamship president Mark Barker tells Scene by phone.

Longer than that, if you want to get technical, given that a single 1,000-foot Great Lakes freighter hauls about as much cargo as 3,000 semi-trucks on the highway (a fact that industry lobbyists love to cite when championing the economic and environmental advantages of maritime shipping).


For the past few years, the Sam Laud's principal route has been from Silver Bay, Minnesota, down to Cleveland, shuttling iron ore that, along with limestone and coal, is the steel industry's key ingredient. This particular batch has come from Escanaba, Michigan, a port town on the Upper Peninsula. Franklin and his 21-man crew have spent the past 50 hours chugging through the waves of Lake Michigan, the Straits of Mackinac, the sweltering heat of Lake Huron in sunny skies, the St. Clair River, the Detroit River, and finally Lake Erie, before coming to pause here at the Bulk Terminal.

On deck, Glen Nekvasil adjusts his suspenders and calls it a "honey of a day," and it is.  At 10:49 a.m., shortly after the Sam Laud's 250-foot self-unloading boom has deposited the last pebbles of ore — the process is called "lightering," for self-evident reasons — and swung back to its resting place, Capt. Franklin, who is also the pilot, eases his ship ass-first out into open water. His plan is to swing her around in a sort of three-point turn, to approach the mouth of the river head-on.

"This is some of the most technically difficult navigation in the world," says Franklin, referencing the route ahead. "We're not using tugs out here. It's basically 6 miles of turns and twists and corners. Then you throw in sand bars and currents and everything else ... It's terrifying."

Q: What makes one of the most terrifying, technically challenging navigational channels in the world even more terrifying and technically challenging?

A: Recreationalists, soaking up a newly re-vamped waterway on kayaks and brew boats and dragon boats and standup paddleboards and jet skis and sculls. Many of them are responsible, regular river users. But others are unfamiliar with or agnostic about, if not actively hostile toward, safety procedures. Still others are drunk.

And though representatives from the shipping industry — Daniel Franklin among them — are careful to say how excited they are about the riverfront resurgence, how delighted they are to share the Cuyahoga with recreational users, and how wonderful it is for the city of Cleveland, what they seldom say outright is that they are also extremely nervous.

"There are more and more types of users on the water," says Jane Goodman, director of Cuyahoga River Restoration, "and it absolutely freaks out the lake carriers and the freighters. They don't want to kill anybody! And if anything happens, they're the ones who are going to get sued."

She expands on the welcome if nerve-wracking paradox: "On one hand, we want people down on the river. If you use the river, you know the river. And if you know the river, you love the river. And we need more people to love this river. On the other hand, there are rules. And unless you know the rules, it's not a good situation for anybody. This is becoming a real issue, and we're worried that somebody is going to get seriously hurt."

Mark Barker, of Interlake Steamship, says that the river serves multiple purposes, and though commercial interests don't always see eye to eye with recreational interests, it's important to keep a productive dialogue around safety going.

"It's very easy to say, let's shut down industry," Barker tells Scene. "And let's just enjoy the river and have a beer. A beer is good, and it brings dollars to town, but the raw materials that these ships bring — that ton of stone or that ton of iron ore — also bring really important dollars and really important jobs to the area. It also supports the tax base in a way that I'm not sure a beer does."


As the Sam Laud continues, the bright walkway of the Flats East Bank appears on the left. A battalion of crossfitters performs an aggressive, synchronized series of leg lifts. Early lunchers and late-morning strollers dot the strip. The Flats East Bank is the newest and largest example of development on the river, and maritime industry folks note that the recent projects feel markedly different than those of the Flats heyday in the 1980s and '90s.

"Back then," says Glen Nekvasil, "the Flats were the third most popular tourist attraction in the state of Ohio. Shooters, on weekends, brought in the third highest earnings per capita of any restaurant in the country."

Scene was unable to substantiate the above, but the description echoes others of a hopping and exclusively adult entertainment district. Strip clubs, dance clubs, cigarette boats, bars. The word most commonly used by industry folks to describe that era was nightmare.

"It was a logistical nightmare," says Mark Barker.

"It was a nightmare," says Nekvasil. "There'd be six or seven pleasure crafts tied up on either side of the river, and boats just couldn't get through. We'd have to call the Coast Guard or the Cleveland Police boats."

"The party-party thing wasn't sustainable, though," offers Jim Ridge, founder of Share the River, an organization that promotes a vibrant, engaged coexistence on the water. "The focus on eating and drinking came and went."

Franklin, who's been captain of the Sam Laud for four years, says that not only are there fewer pleasure crafts on the water these days (due, at least in part, to the money-tightening of the great recession), the spirit of the development has changed too.

"It used to be a little seedier," is Franklin's assessment. "Now, it's more holistic. Now you have this walkway: There are people jogging, fishing. You still have people having dinner and a beer, but people are living and working down here too. That's more sustainable in the long run."   

But the challenges have by no means disappeared.

On Friday, June 3, the SS Calumet, another U.S.-flagged, 630-foot, self-unloading bulk carrier, collided with the deck at Shooters on the West Bank. No one was injured, but Shooters put the structural damage at about $20,000.

Rand Logistics, the company that owns and operates the Calumet, declined to comment when Scene inquired about the incident, but the Coast Guard is investigating. For a moment, the collision reminded people that enormous objects maneuvering in tight spaces are not only mesmerizing to behold — as anyone who's watched the slow waltz of a freighter from the safety of Nautica or the patio at Alley Cat can attest — they're also extremely powerful and can be extremely dangerous.  

And that's when you're on shore.

"Thirty-six and closing," calls one of Dan Franklin's mates, monitoring the distance between the Sam Laud's portside stern cheek and the east bank bulkhead. On the starboard (right) side, the tenting of the Nautica complex shines titanium white in the sun. To port, the yellow Samsel Supply building inches closer and closer and ...

"Holding at 24," shouts the mate.

"Twenty-four," repeats Franklin.

This is the only spoken communication up here on the bridge, a back and forth calling out of numbers, of distances. As navigator and pilot, Franklin needs constant measurements (in feet) as he massages the rudder's lever. He's got a radio as well, and a team up at the bow chimes in with the relevant distances on their end. Franklin reminds them at intervals that he only wants the closest distance.

The Cuyahoga opens up a bit to port (the area right off Settler's Landing, where the fountain gleefully spurts), and Franklin is able to guide the ship easily around the turn. Like most ships of its class, the Sam Laud is equipped with both bow and stern thrusters. These are tunnels, essentially, that run athwart the ship at the bow (front) and stern (back). Inside each is a variable pitch propeller that rotates to help the boat maneuver. The thrusters' effects are loosely equivalent to that of the omnidirectional wheels on a grocery cart (compared to, say, the fixed wheels of a skateboard). And they're critical on the crooked river.

The bridge tender at the Center Street swing bridge — all these river bridges have human tenders operating them 24/7, by the way — alerts Capt. Franklin that he's all clear. The Sam Laud pushes through, 12 measly feet of clearance on either side.  

Up ahead, to port, is the Cleveland Rowing Foundation. Children and rowers gather outside to wave hello to the Sam Laud. Franklin is a father himself and says he loves to see people so excited when the freighters pass by. Especially kids. When they shout out from the shore to ask what he's transporting, he tells them candy bars.

As soon as the Laud clears the area, angling into a turn that will be transected by the Columbus Road lift bridge, a scull of rowers pushes back out into the water. The rowers are accompanied by another small boat, equipped with a VHF radio, so that the scull can be kept apprised of the area's marine traffic in real time. They knew the Laud was coming and they got out of the way, so she could pass.   

That's what's supposed to happen. But sometimes glitches occur.


The communication issues between industry and recreation on the water were most publicly dramatized in September 2013. Two freighters blocked the Cuyahoga and forced a national rowing event to cut its course in half.

At the time, the quotes from the rowing community (and the popular conspiracy theory from onlookers) ascribed ill will to the freighters. The suspicion, though it was later walked back, was that the boat captains intentionally disrupted the Head of the Cuyahoga race to send a message.

Jim Ridge tells Scene that there had been a lapse in communication and the Canadian-flagged vessels simply didn't get the memo. At any rate, the Coast Guard determined that the "blockade" had been an accident.

The Lake Carriers Association, Glen Nekvasil's outfit, opposed the race and the closure of the river in 2013, but his organization didn't represent the ships in question. He, too, said it was an honest mistake and that a Memorandum of Understanding now exists specifically for that race.

"What we continue to ask for is a window of time," Nekvasil says, of other events and races. "Even if you want to close the river for 12 hours, we'd like a window to be able to transit."

Much more recently, there was another incident on the water, one that could have had catastrophic results. On June 6, three days after the Shooters collision, an 8-man scull (crew boat) full of adult rowers became entangled in the pylons along Irishtown Bend. The colossal barge Ashtabula and the tug Defiance approached, and the Rowing Foundation coach told the rowers to exit the scull.

"That's an absolute no-no," says Jane Goodman, who (like almost everyone interviewed for this story) is a member of the Cuyahoga River Safety Task Force and received a memo about the incident. "He put the rowers at risk and it wasn't necessarily the presence of the tug that did it. It was the panic. They shouldn't have been there."

Jim Ridge says the coach in question is a great coach and a great guy, but "a series of dominoes fell" in order for the incident to happen.

"Folks freaked out a little bit under pressure, and next thing you know you've got an 'abandon ship.'" Ridge says. "It's a little bit of a story, but there's been a really clean record between recreation and industry on the river, and the last thing the Cleveland Rowing Foundation wants is a big headline. That organization is nothing if not safety aware."  

Kirk Lang, the executive director of CRF, said that immediately after the incident, he gathered his coaches to discuss safety protocol.

"It was essentially a re-certification," said Lang, "Every coach in our adult program was required to attend. If they didn't, they were removed."

After a swift investigation, it was determined that the coach responsible didn't use his best judgment and was fired.


But the commercial boats recognize the Cleveland Rowing Foundation's commitment to safety — they've got a 70-page manual that's considered top of class on the Cuyahoga. And in general, rowers tend to be the river's most regular, seasoned recreational users.

It's the novices — folks who sometimes don't even know how to swim, let alone how to behave when a freighter approaches — that worry the big boats. It's often remarked that you need to get a driver's license and pass a road test to drive a car; but to hop in a kayak or to try out a standup paddleboard, all you need to do is sign a waiver of liability. And to operate a boat or jet ski? If you were born before January 1, 1982, you don't need to complete a boater safety certification at all.

"Some of these inexperienced users just don't know the rules of the road," says Nekvasil, on board the Sam Laud. "This is not a playground. When the economy is really humming, we can average four to five vessels a day on the river. At any time, there can be a boat around the next turn."

That's why Nekvasil and the rowing foundation use marine radios. And that's why the Coast Guard encourages people to download Boat Beacon or the Marine Traffic app on their smartphones to monitor boats in real time when they're on the water.

"But those can have issues too," Daniel Franklin says. "A server could go down. It's important to have those tools, but it shouldn't be an excuse not to be cognizant. You've got to use your eyes and ears."

Bill Cochrane runs Nalu Stand-up Paddleboarding and Surf in Rocky River. He says that he takes safety very seriously and, in fact, he doesn't do rentals on the busy Cuyahoga. Though he gets a fair number of novice users on corporate outings and a weekly Paddles and Pints event, which occasionally leaves from Merwin's Wharf, those outings are always led by an experienced guide who's familiar with the river and who knows the freighter schedule.

"The biggest thing is being aware and respecting these boats," Cochrane says of the freighters. "A big boat's going to win 100 percent of the time."   

Jane Goodman says that if you know what to do and how to behave on the water, it makes you a better neighbor.   

"That's what we all are, really," she says. "We're neighbors sharing this incredible resource. And education is the first and last piece of that."

Though the tension between industry and recreation on the water sometimes seems, well, tense, casual onlookers probably don't realize how actively the various stakeholders discuss their issues.

The forum where all this chatter occurs is the Cuyahoga River Safety Task Force. The various stakeholders are assembling the afternoon of June 30 — the June 22 meeting was postponed due to the Cavs parade — at the U.S. Coast Guard Marine Safety Unit across from the Rock Hall. Everyone's here: Glen from the Lake Carriers Association, Kirk from the Rowing Foundation, Jane from Cuyahoga Restoration, the Foundry, the Water Taxi captain, Shooters, Cargill Salt. The task force was designed to be an equitable forum, facilitated by the Coast Guard, where stakeholders could work out their issues. Today, after Marine Safety Unit commander Mickey Dougherty gives a presentation on the RNC, the big topic of conversation is the June 6 incident.

When Kirk Lang, of the Rowing Foundation, relays the details to the gathered body, they gasp.

"Oh, no!" shouts one, when Lang says the coach instructed the rowers to leave the shell.

"I know, I agree with you," Lang says. "At that point, two additional coaches were called and they arrived on scene in about two minutes. They pulled all the rowers to safety. At this time, there was a lot of congestion occurring — calls from the Ashtabula, calls from the tug Defiance, calls from the coach. It was essentially a complete breakdown in communication across the board."

Lang describes the investigation process and the safety measures taken in the aftermath.

"We are open to suggestions for ways we can improve," he says, "but safety is very important to the Foundation. When this occurred it was a complete shutdown until we figured out what exactly happened."

Glen Nekvasil raises his hand and thanks Lang, on behalf of the Lake Carriers Association, for taking such swift and decisive action.

Stephanie Pitts, of the Coast Guard, smiles and thanks Lang on behalf of the Coast Guard and the body at large.

"This is what we're here to do," she says. "Things are going to happen. Nobody's perfect. But sharing this information and coming together helps prevent things like that from happening in the future.

"And just a reminder, from the rowers to the big guys, we're getting a lot more traffic on this river. We already have new commercial vessels out there — the Water Taxi, the Brew Boat. We're really building up here. It's a great waterway, but we've got to keep an eye out for each other."

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Sam Allard

Sam Allard is the Senior Writer at Scene, in which capacity he covers politics and power and writes about movies when time permits. He's a graduate of the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University and the NEOMFA at Cleveland State. Prior to joining Scene, he was encamped in Sarajevo, Bosnia, on an...
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