Photos by: Chris Franckowiak

From April through December, and sometimes into January, massive Great Lakes freighters will visit the port of Manistee, delighting residents and visitors, who will line the banks of the river channel to watch in awe and wonder. In daylight, dusk or dark, no matter the weather, these hardy souls often will chronicle the freighters’ journeys with cameras, following their progress into Manistee Lake to their destinations.

It’s a spectacle that has been going on for decades. The Great Lakes shipping industry has flourished since the 18th Century. Prior to the building of the railroads, the Great Lakes waterways were considered a ‘highway’, as shipping was the most efficient and economical way to transport people and goods. Manistee’s deep-water port has had a significant role in Great Lakes shipping since the mid-1800s, when the area’s lumber, shingle and salt industries grew to prominence, creating millionaires out of many of the area’s businessmen. Today, freighters will make about 35 visits to Manistee during the season, to supply coal, aggregate, rock salt and other commodities to industries on Manistee Lake.

However, while freighters seem to travel smoothly through the lakes and channels, what’s it really like to pilot a freighter into port? Ed Wiltse, a freighter captain and former vice president of operations for Grand River Navigation Company, has piloted ships into the Manistee River Channel, and has given us an overview.


The freighters traveling the Great Lakes to ports like Manistee are smaller, to better navigate narrow river channels. A 630-ft-long freighter carrying 20,000 tons of cargo appears to glide seamlessly through the water. But a successful four-mile journey from the piers at Lake Michigan through the channel to industry at the south end of Manistee Lake is a delicate balance of managing wind and river current that requires training, skill, experience and patience to master, according to Wiltse.

“A freighter will begin to make its turn toward Manistee’s piers about three miles out in Lake Michigan,” said Wiltse. The average speed for a freighter traveling Lake Michigan is about 14 mph and it must be slowed to about four mph into the river. The river current (varies from an average of three miles per hour) pushes against the ship on its trip into the River, then helps push the ship out of the river when exiting. There are no indicators for the current’s speed in the Manistee River Channel, and the slower the freighter moves the more the wind affects the ship, he added. Winds approaching 20 mph may require a ship to anchor in Lake Michigan until they subside, and it becomes safer to enter the channel.

A 68-foot-wide freighter traveling through Manistee’s 100-foot-wide (on average) river channel is a snug fit. Boat launches, several marinas, motels, condos and businesses with boat dockage, and a 1.5-mile Riverwalk along the business district, present distractions and challenges for the captain and crew.


Canoes, kayaks, sailboats and fishing boats are often vying with the freighter for space. “A freighter is like a freight train. It can’t stop on a dime,” said Wiltse. “Small boats sharing the channel with a freighter can make a captain anxious. Usually they’ll (small boats) move out of the way at the last minute. A small boat is affected faster by wind and current, but has more power to get out of trouble. If a ship gets in trouble it’s harder for the captain to fix.”

After navigating the bends in the winding channel and passing through Manistee’s two drawbridges, the ship will finally make its way into Manistee Lake. Bright green and red navigation buoys mark the narrow channel turning south through Manistee Lake, and the challenges continue, with debris from former logging operations and lumber mills still lodged on the lake bottom. “It’s like a slalom course, maneuvering through water and wind and avoiding old dock ruins that dot the lake edges. You have to go slow enough to make tight turns, but if you go too slow the wind will push you around. You need to find the sweet spot to get around the buoys,” he said.


The ship can increase its speed in Manistee Lake, winding its way south to its destination. The trip from the pier heads to the industry at the south end of Manistee Lake takes about two hours. It will take the 18- to 20-man crew another five or so hours to unload. The freighters coming into Manistee’s port are self-unloaders, with unloading booms up to 260 feet in length. Freighter captains are required to receive nine to twelve hours of rest per 24-hour day, and will often rest during the unloading period, said Wiltse.

The sight of an impressive Great Lakes freighter or the sound of its deep, booming horn is a thrill for all ages. Keep your camera handy when visiting our Port of Manistee. For more information about the ships traveling Lake Michigan, the Great Lakes and the oceans, look for, “Know Your Ships 2016”, at Happy Owl Bookshop in Manistee (available April 2016) or visit or

For more information on the ships traveling through the port of Manistee, join the Facebook group of Manistee resident and photographer Chris Franckowiak: “Manistee, MI Vessel Arrivals & Departures.”