“All is well on board the US Brig Niagara. We have been sailing fast and mostly before the wind since we arrived on Lake Superior yesterday. FYI, the US Brig Niagara is the ship’s historically correct name, but she has also been called Oliver Hazard Perry’s relief flagship, the Flagship Niagara, and since 2005, the US Coast Guard has designated her as the Sailing School Vessel Niagara due to the nature of service in which she is routinely engaged.
For me, it does not matter what she is called. Niagara is a ship like no other. As a fairly large brig, she is one of, if not the largest square rigged sailing ship in the country, which regularly takes the public out sailing. The experience is not just educational, but it’s an adventure.
Right now, 16 very fortunate young people, four professors, and a few others who are sailing in Niagara as trainees and a very real part of the crew, are busy having the time of their lives. In historically traditional fashion, I am hove to and standing by with the ship, located 4.5 nautical miles southeast of Mott Island, which is part of the Isle Royale National Park on Lake Superior. I have the ship and about half of the professional crew standing by, holding station, and blockading Isle Royale, while the students, our ship’s doctor, and the rest of the crew are exploring one of the most beautiful wilderness preserves in the world.
The shore party left the ship about two hours ago, and are expected to return in the ship’s boats about two hours from now. The three ship’s cutters are currently docked at Isle Royale and the crew and trainees are visiting with Rolf and Candy Peterson. They are a wonderful, if not perhaps a bit eccentric couple, that has devoted their lives to the study of the preditor/prey relationship between the wolf and moose populations on Isle Royale. Their study has been continuously ongoing for more than sixty years.
Isle Royale is an international biosphere and wilderness reserve. I chose to send the boats in rather than the ship, because of the risk of contaminating the biosphere with invasive aquatic species, which inhabit all of the Great Lakes, but have not yet become a serious issue on Isle Royale. According to Phyllis Green, the Superintendent of the Isle Royale National Park, the NPS has spent more than $150,000 over the last two years trying to eradicate zebra and quaugo mussels found on Isle Royale. They believe their efforts were successful and are continuing to work hard to prevent foreign invasive species from contaminating Isle Royale’s shores and adjacent waters.
This is Niagara’s 2nd visit to Isle Royale under my command. Last year, I employed a team of 15 scuba divers to scrub, scrape, and completely remove all the marine growth, including several species of mussels that were clinging to Niagara’s bottom, with plans to go to Isle Royale. While the divers reported that all growth was removed, they actually missed an area that was about the size of two dollar bills, on the bottom of the ship’s keel. They also missed a few mussels that were wedged deeply between the crevices of Niagara’s rudder pintles & gudgeons (hinges). I know this, because the National Park Service rangers dove on the ship’s hull and scraped off a few of the critters while we were there last year.
They were very concerned about the incident, and I was very unpleasantly surprised, discouraged, and ashamed to have (despite great efforts otherwise) inadvertently brought potential harm to the environment there. That said, between us, I would not have tried to disturb the mussels on our hull, as the NPS divers did, for fear of spreading reproductive matter during the process. However, fortunately they told me this morning that there was no evidence of any marine growth underwater at the dock where we tied up last year, so I am glad that we apparently did not actually cause Isle Royale any harm by our visit last year. At any rate, the whole ordeal was a learning experience for me, so this time, we have decided to approach the park in a very different way.
This is why we are currently hove to, standing 4.5 to six miles offshore, and sending boats in rather than the ship. On the east end of the island is a freighter lane. It’s a common path for the big ore carriers and other large cargo ships, which also carry invasive species including zebra and quaugo mussels. Their presence, passing just two miles away from the island must be of great concern to the NPS, as such ships are virtually guaranteed to carry billions of such critters, just waiting to jump off and drift in the current toward the island.
In an effort to do my part to help save Isle Royale from invasive species, I am telling this story to you and to any potential boaters who may consider bringing their boat to Isle Royale. If you do plan to sail here, make sure you haul your vessel out of the water before departure for cleaning, so you can guarantee the boat is clean and free of invasive species. Otherwise, stay at least 4.5 miles away from Isle Royale’s shores.
On that note, there is no such mention of Isle Royale’s status as an international biosphere, the NPS’s efforts to protect its shores from foreign invasive species, and the 4.5 mile restricted zone in commonly published maritime documents and charts. So today, I recommended to the Head Ranger here that the NPS communicate with NOAA and the USCG to publish notice of their mission and the environmental issues on Isle Royale in the US Coast Pilot, Volume 6 and on the local marine navigational charts that are printed by NOAA. This simple step will inform all mariners of the issues regarding the park and will significantly help the park to meet their mission. Also, this step will prompt the USCG to issue Local Notices to Mariners regarding the park’s environmental threats and their efforts to protect the island.
As for Niagara, we’ll have the boats back soon, and will be off for the Apostle Islands, with hopes of fetching Bayfield, WI for a quick grocery-run and maybe a bit of fuel. The students are all doing very well, having fun, and are a great bunch of kids, and I feel privileged to be entrusted with their care for the next two weeks and the remainder of what has thus far been a very exciting voyage.
Wesley W. Heerssen, Jr.
Captain, US Brig Niagara
Hove To- south side, east end of Isle Royale, off Mott Island.