Duluth East graduate sails into adulthood
Two days after he graduates high school, Ethan Rentschler will be working in the engine room of a Great Lakes freighter.
SUPERIOR — Just days away from high school graduation, Ethan Rentschler already sounded like a veteran merchant mariner.
“I’ve been chipping and painting on this boat for years,” Rentschler said aboard the Edward H. on Monday.
The Heritage Marine tugboat was docked on Connors Point, and the water lapped at its hull as Rentschler gave a tour and explained how he’ll go from Duluth East High School graduation Wednesday to working aboard the 678-foot Wilfred Sykes two days later.
“I’ve known what I’ve wanted to do since I was in kindergarten,” Rentschler said. “The answer has never changed.”
A graduating senior, Rentschler plans to take the Edward H. under the Aerial Lift Bridge and dock it outside the Duluth Entertainment Convention Center prior to the ceremony. He’ll be joined by several members of the shipping community as they celebrate with a grad party on the deck of the boat.
“He’s going to walk off the boat in his gown and work boots right into the Amsoil Arena to graduate — and the next day he leaves to go on a laker,” said Edward H. Capt. Bryan Rydberg. “He’s the next generation.”
Rydberg alerted the News Tribune to Rentschler’s plans last week. A mentor and admirer of the young man, Rydberg has spent the past few years with Rentschler under wing — from 16-hour days breaking ice to letting Rentschler dock and run the tug.
“He just loves the big boats,” Rydberg said. “He’s taken to it with an aptitude that he wants to learn. He’s so polite and personable, you just automatically like the kid.”
Rentschler speaks in “yes, sirs” and “no, sirs,” and is quick with a smile or a story. His parents, Dan and Sarah Rentschler, met aboard the Roger Blough in the late 1990s, when she was a passenger porter and he was second mate. Dan went on to captain the Edgar B. Speer for 10 years and is now a pilot who guides foreign vessels through the Great Lakes.
“It’s a tight-knit community around this harbor,” Rentschler said. “A lot of it’s built up on stories and tradition and passing it forward.”
Rentschler is already looking forward to the day when he’ll pass his knowledge forward. But, before then, he’s got a career to start.
After graduation, he’ll make his way to Port Inland, Michigan, where he’ll catch up with the Skyes — a boat he expects to sail through to the end of season in January.
He’s starting out as an “ordinary seaman,” and wiper in the engine room.
“It’s the deckhand of the engine room,” Rentschler said.
Below deck on the tugboat, Rentschler is a font of knowledge about the maze of pipes, litany of dials and fuses, and the engine’s overall capabilities.
“I’ve had to memorize every single component of the vessel,” Rentschler said, pointing out how the tug’s Fairbanks Morse diesel engine creates 2,000 horsepower using only 10 cylinders to go with 20 pistons.
“The pistons meet in the middle; there’s no head,” he said. “The pistons meet to make a combustion chamber. They don’t touch — it’s just enough to make that combustion.”
With recitations like that, it’s clear hearing Rentschler talk about his work that he’s learned a ton by working on the docks. He started at 15, earning his merchant marine credential and license to sail from the U.S. Coast Guard at 16.
On busy days in which he was needed to help crew the tug, Rentschler would call the school for an excused absence.
“The school was pretty understanding of that,” he said. “The high school and my mom pushed me to keep on task and stay on top of school. The way I saw it, I was never going to go to college ever.”
College, even trade school, aren’t for everyone, he added.
“Sometimes, you’ve got to find a career you just keep on working if you like doing it,” he said.
He likes that the merchant marine industry features aptitude tests along the way that will allow him to climb in his chosen career. He hopes to one day either captain a ship or work as a chief engineer in the engine room.
While he’s come a long way in a relatively short time, it’s no surprise to anyone who knows him. He was following his dad aboard boats as soon as he could walk. As a second grader learning to sail, worried instructors lost track of him when he sailed from Park Point to Superior.
But for Rentschler, the journey was never in doubt. He learned early that the wind is a sailor’s aid. And for now, it’s at his back — propelling him into adulthood.
“When you run into a new situation, it’s always pretty nerve-wracking, but you’ve got to just trust the people around you,” Rentschler said about working a boat. “You’ve got to trust yourself, too, and let it happen.”