High atop the John J. Boland, a 680-foot-long lake freighter, there’s a fevered rush to finish the off-season repairs and get the ship back to the open lakes where it can start making money.
“It’s hell week,” said Daniel Hutchison, the assistant vice president of engineering for the American Steamship Co., which owns the Boland. “That’s what we call getting the boats out — hell week.”
It’s March 21, and within days the John J. Boland will be loaded with coal at the Port of Toledo and set course for the heavily industrialized Zug Island just south of Detroit.
For the past three months, the Boland has been tied up in Toledo, where H Hansen Industries has been overseeing hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of work, ranging from hanging new steel inside its cargo hold to adding 12 feet to its already massive unloading boom.
A worker welds on the boom crane of the Great Lakes freighter the John J. Boland as she is docked alongside other Great Lakes freighters for repairs and modifications.
Strolling across the deck, Scott Shealy, the vice president of business development for Hansen asks: “You get a different size up here, don’t you?”
The freighters look big when they’re coasting down the Maumee River. They are absolutely enormous up close.
Mr. Shealy, who gave up a career in software development to come back to Toledo and slowly take over the Hansen business from his father-in-law, is giving The Blade a tour of a part of industrial Toledo few people know about — let alone have the opportunity to see.
Founded in 1922 by Norwegian immigrant Hans Hansen, Toledo-based H Hansen Industries has grown into the largest maintenance provider on the Great Lakes. This year, 18 freighters, including a record six thousand-footers, cruised into Toledo for work ranging from shoring up bulkheads to engine overhauls. The firm, based on Summit Street, has freighters stowed at slips all the way up the Maumee River to the mouth of Lake Erie.
Like the ships themselves, the size of the work can be mind-boggling. Hanson will remove main propulsion gears weighing upwards of 30,000 pounds. One ship received a new rubber conveyor belt weighing 58,000 pounds. Frequently, welders will cut holes into the sides of the ship just so work crews can get large parts out, serviced, and back in.
Even as the repair season winds down, there are still dozens of Carhartt-wearing laborers toiling away both onshore and on the ships. Workers at large cutting tables precisely trim thick sheets of steel that will soon be hoisted up and welded into place. Officials say they will hang more than 1 million pounds of new, American-made steel by the end of the season.
Tony La Mantia, the president and owner of Hansen, estimates that between his firm, various subcontractors, and other vendors, the winter work brings in $100 million in annual revenues.
“It may be that the best kept secret in Toledo, Ohio, is the amount of work that goes on here in the wintertime,” said Paul Toth, president and chief executive officer of the Toledo-Lucas County Port Authority. “It’s pretty impressive.”
Workers enter through a doorway cut into the hull of one of the several Great Lakes freighters docked for repairs and modifications. About a dozen large cargo freighters are docked at the company's yard to undergo repairs while the Great Lakes remain covered in ice. The shipping seasons ends the day the Soo Locks close for the winter.
Hansen has about 75 full-time, year-round employees but its workforce swells to 400 over the winter as it brings in seasonal union labor. Including subcontractors and other specitaily vendors working on the same ships as Hanson, employment can top 1,000 from January through March.
“In many years they tap out the entire local labor market and have to bring people in from outside in order to get the work done because of the compressed timeframe,” Toth said. “Those people fly in here, they spend money at hotels and restaurants. I know their first priority is to try to hire as many local folks as they can but sometimes there’s not enough locals to hire on.”
It’s not work for the faint-hearted.
For late March, the weather’s not awful. It’s in the upper 30s, but the wind off the lake is brisk and the cold steel of the deck quickly soaks through your shoes to chill your bones. But Hansen is under the gun to get the projects finished on time. Delay isn’t acceptable. Once Michigan’s Soo Locks — which connect Lake Superior and Lake Huron — are open to traffic, the shipping season begins in earnest.
“They’ve gotta get all this work done no matter how cold it is, no matter how rough the winter is. These guys are tough, tough hearty dudes,” Mr. Shealy said. “When it’s minus 10 they’re still up here working. It blows me away.”
The company began as a shipbuilder, making a variety of craft that included police boats for Philadelphia and a ferry used at Mackinac Island. As the years went on, the firm shifted toward repair.
Mr. La Mantia started working at the firm under Hans Hansen in 1956 when he was just 17 years old. Eventually, he became vice president and in 1980 purchased the business after it fell on hard times following Hans Hansen’s death.
“When I started here there were seven companies in Toledo that did the same thing,” Mr. La Mantia said. “Over the years they all went by the wayside, but we were able to survive by diversifying.”
In addition to the work on ships, Mr. Hansen also does an array of heavy industrial work for the likes of refiners, utility companies, and stone quarries.
Still, three-quarters of the firm’s annual revenue comes from ship repair. Although Hansen will meet ships all over the Great Lakes for in-season repairs, the bulk of that work happens from January to March.
Vice President of Business Development Scott Shealy discusses some of the projects H Hansen Industries is completing.
There’s no shortage of jobs.
Individual ships will regularly ply the Great Lakes for 40 years or more. The Boland, for example, was built in 1973. The American Century, a 1,000-footer also owned by the American Steamship Co. and also in Toledo for maintenance, was built in 1981.
Part of that longevity is the fact that freshwater is much less taxing on the boats. But it’s also a reflection of the costs associated with a new ship. Mr. Hutchison, who also serves as a shore chief for American Steamship, said duplicating the Boland would cost upwards of $100 million from an American shipyard. That investment would be difficult to recoup.
While foreign shipbuilders might be able to produce a comprable freigther for a lower cost, U.S. maritime law effectively makes that impossible. Because of the Jones Act — the 1920 law that received renewed focus in the aftermath of the Hurricane Maria’s destruction of Puerto Rico — ships transporting goods between U.S. ports must be American-built, American-flagged, and American-crewed.
So U.S. fleets are pouring big money into repairs.
“Each ship could go anywhere between $800,00 to $1.5 million worth of work every year. It just depends on what work is due. We did some extensive machinery repairs on her this year,” Mr. Hutchison said of the Boland. “If you keep up with the maintenance and some painting they stick around for a long time, but it takes a lot of effort.”
American Steamship — the name is a relic from earlier days; the entire fleet is diesel — has 12 ships on the Great Lakes at the moment. Eight of them were in for service at Hansen.
That loyalty speaks to the kind of opeation Mr. La Mantia and Mr. Shealy run. There are other operators spread across the Great Lakes, but shipping companies are frequently bypassing them to come to Toledo.
“We’re really trusted. We’ve got a good reputation,” Mr. La Mantia said. “If we could get more boats in here we’d bring them in. We’re working with the Port and trying to get more dock places where we can bring them in and bring more economy to Toledo.”
But for Mr. La Mantia, who has done nearly every job there is to do at the company, it’s time to start thinking about retirement. He’s a spry 80, and he’s looking forward to spending time as a gentleman farmer.
“I’m going to feel well about leaving it where I’m going to leave it.”
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