Tugboat Goes from Trash to Treasure

The owner and crew of the Nels J., formerly the Ares, will tell the story of how they got the tug from a scrap yard in Texas to the Duluth harbor

image Ares pulled into the Duluth harbor on Oct. 27, a successful finish to a journey that included filling the boat with 60,000 gallons of water to get it under a bridge in Illinois, a misunderstanding at a slip in South Chicago, unpredictable weather conditions and four days in Michigan with bad lake conditions. Ares has had a name change to Nels J. and will be put to work in the spring.

by Christa Lawler, Duluth News Tribune
reprinted in its entirety with permission

It was the stuff adventure stories are made of: a touch of Huckleberry Finn meets the Great Lakes, “Gilligan’s Island” and some Popeye thrown in for good measure.

In late October, a local crew was part of a 16-day mission to bring a retired tugboat named Ares from a scrap yard in Texas to Lemont, Ill., to Duluth. The journey included grubby toilets, ingenuity, a little luck, high seas and an encounter that nearly ended in fisticuffs. Now, the tug — which has been renamed Nels J. and will begin its career as an icebreaker in the spring — can be seen to the east when you cruise over the Blatnik Bridge into Superior.

Mike Ojard, the boat’s owner, and Paul von Goertz, who was part of the crew (his official title is vermin exterminator/gopher/historian) will tell their story, “Racing the Witch of November II,” next week in Knife River.

“When you’re at this age, what it is is an adventure. It’s kind of like the ‘Bucket List,’ ” said Ojard, who owns Heritage Marine, a tugboat company that works western Lake Superior.

Ojard had been looking for a second tugboat when he heard about Ares, which had seen both Hurricane Ike and Katrina. It is a 103-foot, 1,950-horsepower boat with a 16-cylinder diesel engine that once supplied oil rigs in the Gulf of Mexico. It had no anchor, so they rudely crafted one from metal held together with cables. The living conditions inside the boat included a kitchen, bunk space and two toilets — a setup closer to camping than a luxury cruise ship. Not to mention the cockroaches.

The boat was taken to New Orleans, where it became part of a barge tow, and was dropped off in Lemont, Ill., about 30 miles south of Chicago. A revolving crew of four to nine local men — most of them in their early 60s — boarded the boat to bring it home. They were a collection of Ojard’s friends and family from Knife River, with skills ranging from electronics to navigation to engine specialists.

Sinking the Boat (on purpose), and Fisticuffs

The crew’s first obstacle was getting the boat to clear a railroad bridge near where they were docked in Lemont. They filled the ballast tanks, and when they were still about 4 feet too high, they vacuumed out the fuel tanks and filled those with water, too. Eventually the boat was filled with 60,000 gallons of water and, with the assistance of a push tug, they were able to pass under the bridge — with 6 inches to spare.

“It looked like a swamped canoe,” von Goertz said. “If you couldn’t get it under the bridge, you’d have to settle for being in the tugboat business in Lemont.”

From there, they traveled about six blocks and pulled into a slip on South Chicago. The boat needed to be emptied of water and refueled (this was done in an environmentally safe way, von Goertz said), cleaned up and cleaned out, and a mast was attached to the top of the pilot house.

Unfortunately, they had pulled into the wrong side of the slip, attracting a Spanish-speaking security guard who gave the men some guff. He kept asking what the crew was doing, von Goertz said, and finally threatened to call the police, giving them an hour to leave.

“This guy starts hollering and screaming and jumping up and down and threatening us with bodily harm,” Ojard said. “We had no idea where we were supposed to be. The push boat pushed us into the wrong spot.”

The crew used a small boat to row the ship’s mooring lines to the other side of the slip, and they used a pickup truck to tow the boat to the other side. At the slip, the crew made friends with another group that fortuitously had a crane and a crane operator, and so they were able to weld the 800-pound steel mast onto the boat. They got the engine running, took it for a test run on the Calumet River, made a few adjustments. After four days, the Ares crew set out on Lake Michigan.

“Seeing [South Chicago] in your rear-view mirrors is one of the most welcome sights you’ll see,” Ojard said.

High Seas

There was an overnight stop in Milwaukee, and then they were off again. A tail wind shifted to a head wind, and waves sprayed the front windshield. The windshield wipers, by the way, were broken. And instead of a steering wheel, the boat was manipulated with a joystick.

They chugged along at a top speed of 13 mph, under the Mackinac Bridge, on Lake Huron for 40 miles, and a left on the St. Mary’s River. Weather forecasts stalled the trip in Michigan for a few days. Ares pulled in behind the Duluth Entertainment Convention Center on Oct. 28, and the crew members met with friends and family.

Ojard’s other tug, named Edward H. after his father, who was also in this business, managed the early season work through this past week. Nels J. will be added to the fleet in the spring.

There are no plans to make another similar journey. In fact, von Goertz said the story of picking up Edward H. is more harrowing than this one. That tug couldn’t even go in reverse.

“I don’t know if we will want to do this again for a while,” von Goertz said.

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