Review by Victor R. Volkman
I’ll admit it’s extremely rare for a book like Know Your Ships 2022: Field Guide to Boats and Boatwatching on the Great Lakes and St. Lawrence Seaway to cross my desk, but I am extremely impressed by the beauty and detail that it packs into such a compact, colorful, and comprehensive volume. It’s hardly bigger than an average trade paperback and will fit easily in your glove compartment as you travel around the Great Lakes and observe the freighters that ply their waters. Know Your Ships is now in its amazing 63rd year of publication which means at least three generations of boat nerds have perused this virtual Baedeker’s of Midwest shipping. Yes, I’ll admit it, I come from a legit family of boat nerds. My father was in the Merchant Marine during World War II and also did some time on the lake freighters and eventually ended up in the Coast Guard Auxiliary unit Flotilla 12-12. Although we had what we thought was the ultimate perch for freighter watching, I will concede that the U.P. has many superior places to get close to the big boats—from the Straits of Mackinac up through Detour and the St. Mary’s River just to name a few hot spots. Growing up, our home base was Three Mile Park in Grosse Pointe which is a chokepoint on the Detroit River as it opens out into Lake St. Clair. From the docks, the river was barely ½ mile wide, meaning the freighters were often less than 1,000 feet away and we could read the ship nameplates readily on the downbound ships.
Know Your Ships was originally serialized by the late Thomas Manse (Sault Ste. Marie) beginning in 1959 up until his death in 1995. The current editor and owner is now Roger LeLievre, also from the Soo, which I will concede is the #1 freighter watching capital of the Great Lakes. So what makes this book so special? Well, the first thing you’ll notice is the amazing color photography from cover-to-cover it is jam-packed with action shots of freighters and related ships. In this 200 page book, I would speculate there are at least 100 full-color photos.
As a gazetteer of ships, the most important section of Know Your Ships is undoubtedly the Vessel Index and Fleet Listings. Together, they make this the single most important book on current Great Lakes shipping data. From the Vessel Index, you can immediately jump to a page of detailed statistics on the ship of your choice which in this case will be one of my personal childhood favorites, the Roger Blough. I quickly learned the vessel IMO number 7222138, that it is diesel powered, built in 1972 with a cargo capacity of 43,900 tons, it is 858 feet long and 105 feet wide with a depth of 41 feet. A helpful note mentions a fire on February 2021 caused it to put into Sturgeon Bay, Wisconsin for repairs. The guide is limited to commercial boats 30 feet long or more so you won’t find private yachts, for example in Know Your Ships.
Going further, the Roger Blough is presented in context of the 11 other ships belonging to the flotilla of Great Lakes Fleet Inc. based in Duluth, Minnesota so you can compare stats and so on. The next section highlights Saltwater Fleets, those ocean-going ships that make their way down the St. Laurence Seaway into Lake Ontario, Lake Erie, Lake Huron and on up to Lake Superior or Lake Michigan. LeLievre is quick to point out that the “Saltwater Fleets” chapter is not a worldwide comprehensive list of saltwater freighters—only included are those known to ply the Great Lakes basin.
There’s even a boat news section called “Passages” that highlights arrivals, layups (under repairs), and departures (headed for the scrap yard) so you can quickly see what’s changed since the previous edition. The listing of every maritime-themed museum and boats which are floating museums is a great way to up your boat nerd knowledge. Particularly helpful is the “Stacks and Flags” which allows you to identify the fleet owner based on logos painted on the smokestack or a flag flying from the mast. This might be a boon for narrowing down a ship where you can’t quite read the nameplate, although with today’s satellite-based freight tracking software you probably don’t need this unless you’re out on the lake itself. Last but not least, there is helpful vocabulary and basics presented for the budding boat nerd including boat whistle calls, radio frequencies to tune your scanner, detailed diagrams of every lock on the Great Lakes, and some really nice feature articles as an appendix. There are dozens of pages packed with photos in the “Historic Gallery” and other parts of the backmatter. My advice is simple, if you’ve ever pulled your car over to stop and watch a freighter or lost an afternoon in contemplation at the Soo Locks, then Know Your Ships 2022 is the perfect book for you or the boat nerd(s) in your life. It is most conveniently ordered from KnowYourShips.com where you can choose between paperback or a nicer lay-flat spiral-bound edition.