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Meet Great Lakes' newest arrival: Mark W. Barker

The first U.S.-built lake freighter in almost 40 years nears completion at a shipyard in Sturgeon Bay, Wisconsin.

On the Mark W. Barker.
A distant crane lifts material to the stern of the 639-foot-long M/V Mark W. Barker at Fincantieri Bay Shipbuilding in Sturgeon Bay, Wis., on March 15. It is the first Great Lakes bulk carrier built on the lakes in more than 35 years and the first laker built for Interlake Steamship Co. since 1981.
Steve Kuchera / Duluth News Tribune
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STURGEON BAY, Wis. — Mark Barker never set out to have a Great Lakes freighter named after him.

“This is about more than one person,” said Barker, president of the family-owned Interlake Steamship Co., based outside Cleveland, Ohio.

But when a customer asked about building a new Great Lakes vessel — one outfitted for maneuverability and versatility — Barker listened intently, like he had while growing up around shipping conversations at the dinner table.

The Wisconsin city's history with boat-building began almost 200 years ago.

The results of those talks have come to life at Fincantieri Bay Shipbuilding on Lake Michigan’s Sturgeon Bay.

Floating and sandwiched alongside a dozen wintering ore boats, the freighter sat high in the water. Even on a gloomy day, its hull shone with a fresh coat of paint, highlighted by the name on the stern: Mark W. Barker.

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It’s the first Great Lakes ship to be built by an American company since 1983, which marked the end of a lengthy boom time that included the arrival of the immense 1,000-footers.

Interlake’s new boat is something different than a standard bulk-cargo hauler like those built four decades ago.

At 639 feet long, the Mark W. Barker will be the smallest vessel on the Interlake roster. It’s designed to carry oversize project cargoes, like wind turbine blades, in addition to things like taconite iron ore, limestone or salt.

Mark W. Barker will sail with a safer lifeboat, gender-specific changing rooms, and private staterooms for each crew member.

Scheduled to launch its working life later this year, the Mark W. Barker will enter sea trials soon this spring. Its construction has stretched for more than two years, slowed only by some supply chain issues. Planning and construction has been closely observed by the U.S. Coast Guard and American Bureau of Shipping.

When the News Tribune met with both shipyard and Interlake officials for an exclusive tour of the boat in March, the ship remained a construction zone. The sizzle of welding and whirs of grinders filled the ship. There were electricians everywhere one looked.

On the Mark W. Barker
Three men work near the pivot point of the Mark W. Barker’s unloading boom March 15.
Steve Kuchera / Duluth News Tribune

The two-hour tour plunged into the depths and scaled metal staircases to the heights of the Mark W. Barker — from inspection of the 8-foot-wide rubber self-unloading belt that runs between two 400-foot tunnels in the bowels of the ship, to the open-layout pilot house atop the stern of the vessel, where soon a captain will direct a wheelsman where to turn.

“Here’s your best view in the house — virtually floor-to-ceiling windows,” said Amelia Ott, Bay Shipbuilding’s project manager, as she approached a pilot house view framing the Barker’s weather deck and 63-acre shipyard below.

In the days following Ott's tour came an answer to how the newest Great Lakes bulk carrier got its name.

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“My dad felt strongly that it should be named after me,” Mark Barker said.

Mark Barker.
Mark Barker
Contributed / Interlake Steamship Co.

Barker grew to love every part of shipping, becoming a marine engineer at college in New York, and later adding more schooling to learn the business side of things. In between, he worked in shipyards, even sailed for a spell on the Great Lakes, before beginning his rise into leadership at Interlake.

With 400 employees and a fleet of 10 Great Lakes vessels, it’s the largest privately held American fleet working the Great Lakes.

Barker told about how, around first grade, he rode the James R. Barker, named for his father, shortly after its launch in 1976. James continues to serve as chairman of the company. The fleet’s Kaye E. Barker is named for Mark’s mother.

“It’s hard to say no to a person who’s been in this industry a long time, running this company and he’s your dad,” Mark Barker said. “So, I accepted.”

Fincantieri Bay Shipbuilding.jpg
Gary Meader / Duluth News Tribune

The company has been tight-lipped about how much the vessel cost to build, and the identity of the customer that sought Interlake about building it.

“The Great Lakes has unique docks and harbors and rivers, and we had to make sure it fit into certain locations,” Barker said. “So that drove the dimensions of the vessel.”

It’ll be the fastest boat in the Interlake fleet, capable of 15 mph.

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Scores of decisions went into making the vessel maneuverable and efficient when slicing through water.

“It’s not just one big a-ha thing,” Barker said. “There’s a bit of art, science and engineering all put into this ship, which makes it an efficient and modern vessel.”

In addition to familiar bow and stern thrusters, which allow better turning at lower speeds, the rudder also has an additional flap, so both the flap and rudder can turn.

There’s other ingenuity, too, like a unique hull shape that’s characteristically boxy above the waterline, but “gets really curvy in the back end, allowing the water to flow nicely through the propeller,” Ott said.

Ott studied naval architecture and marine engineering in college, and went to work at Bay Shipbuilding in 2012 right after graduation.

On the Mark W. Barker
Fincantieri Bay Shipbuilding program manager Amelia Ott stands near one of the Mark W. Barker’s two 16-cylinder diesel engines during a tour of the vessel March 15.
Steve Kuchera / Duluth News Tribune

“She’s a good leader within the organization,” Bay Shipbuilding General Manager Craig Perciavalle said. “We’re very happy with what she’s done, and think she’s got a very bright future for us going forward.”

The blueprints of the Mark W. Barker hung in Ott’s office.

“That’s my life on the wall,” she said. “All I see when I close my eyes is that boat.”

The Mark W. Barker.
Plans for the Mark W. Barker hang on a wall in program manager Amelia Ott’s office March 15, just above a piece of steel from the first sheet of metal cut for the ship.
Steve Kuchera / Duluth News Tribune

Experienced boat watchers will notice a couple of features on the new ship right away. First is Interlake’s telltale black exhaust stack wrapped in an orange stripe located at the stern behind the five-level deck house.

“It’s a big stack,” Ott said. “You don’t feel the gravity of it until you’re on board standing next to it.”

The next detail that will stick out to seasoned observers is the ship’s profile, which reveals a self-discharging boom fixed at the bow of the ship, opposite the deck house.

“Very unique design,” Ott said. “The boom being on the forward end allows more versatility for Interlake as an operator as to what ports they can go into. You can kind of typically nose into something a little better and offload your cargo.”

On the Mark W. Barker.
Fincantieri Bay Shipbuilding program manager Amelia Ott.
Steve Kuchera / Duluth News Tribune

The self-discharging system draws bulk cargo from gates located in the floor of the cargo hold. The cargo rides belts through the underbelly of the ship up to the boom, which swings 90 degrees to either side to unload onto a dock.

The triangular boom on the new Mark W. Barker was taken from the American Victory.

“We bought that boom,” Interlake spokesperson Chrissy Kadleck said. “It’s a recycled piece.”

Most of the rest of the vessel was built in modules and assembled in a dry dock, starting from the middle outward in both directions in order to maximize crew efficiency. Construction required 15,000 tons of steel from ArcelorMittal, an Interlake customer.

The shipyard workers, many of them second and third generation, know well the life cycle of the material — from taconite pellets mined in the region, to the steel plates that entered the yard’s fabrication building.

On the Mark W. Barker
Two men walk on the Mark W. Barker’s hatch covers near the end of the ship’s self-loader boom March 15. Unlike many lakers the boom is located near the forward end of the deck, giving the vessel greater versatility in shallow areas.
Steve Kuchera / Duluth News Tribune

“They’re very familiar with what these boats do and what they mean to the community and our region,” said Justin Slater, Bay Shipbuilding’s director of sales and marketing. “They do feel something special toward the boat. It’s more than just a paycheck and the job. There’s pride in being part of it.”

The shipyard employs 600 people regularly and 1,000 during the Great Lakes winter offseason, when working lake freighters go to yards for maintenance and repair.

On the Mark W. Barker.
Fincantieri Bay Shipbuilding director of sales and marketing Justin W. Slater.
Steve Kuchera / Duluth News Tribune

Not building lakers for decades hasn’t dampened Bay Shipbuilding, which turns out a variety of vessels, including ferries, natural gas barges used to refuel other ships, and military defense frigates at its neighboring shipyard in Marinette, Wisconsin, just across Green Bay.

“We’ve built probably more articulated tug barges than anyone else in the country,” Slater said. “Most of those were for the petroleum and chemical industry.”

On the Mark W. Barker.
One of the staterooms on the Mark W. Barker. Every crew member will have their own room.
Steve Kuchera / Duluth News Tribune

In the decades between U.S.-flagged lakers, the Canadians have undergone a ship-building renaissance of their own, starting with the 740-foot Algoma Mariner in 2011 — the first of several new builds for companies in that country.

Eric Peace is the vice president for the Lake Carriers’ Association, based outside Cleveland. The Lake Carriers represent the U.S. fleet on the Great Lakes, and Peace said the Mark W. Barker could be the start of something.

“This won’t be the last one built,” Peace said. “There is still strong trade here on the Great Lakes.”

On the Mark W. Barker
Two men work on wiring in a section of the Mark W. Barker’s engine room March 15. The vessel has in excess of 400,000 feet of wiring, program manager Amelia Ott said.
Steve Kuchera / Duluth News Tribune

Interlake owns vessels built as far back as 1942. Barker said the company has had great success in retrofitting ships with technology such as new engines and self-discharging systems.

“These ships continue to work well and safely,” Barker said. "Time will tell the story."

Bay Shipbuilding's Perciavalle noted the Mark W. Barker's arrival as an encouraging sign of things to come.

"Folks are getting a lot of life out of the existing vessels," Perciavalle said. "I do believe there will be other opportunities going forward. Sooner than later now, it’s safe to say, the fleet will need to start being replaced more."

On the Mark W. Barker.
A worker walks by the far side of a partially open cargo hold on the Mark W. Barker while others work on the hold’s deck. The ship can carry 26,000 gross tons of cargo.
Steve Kuchera / Duluth News Tribune

Brady Slater covers St. Louis County and transportation for the Duluth News Tribune. He's a veteran journalist, and a University of Pittsburgh graduate who was born and raised in the Northland. He can be reached by emailing bslater@duluthnews.com or by calling or texting 218-721-2724.
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