Like a salmon returning to its spawning ground, the U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Mackinaw sailed regally up the Maumee River to Toledo yesterday afternoon for what is expected to be her final visit to the port where she was launched more than 61 years ago.
This is an amazing ship. It s an honor for all of us to serve as the big red icebreaker s final crew, said Lt. Cmdr. Mike Barner, the ship s chief engineer, during the day s voyage from Port Huron, Mich., to Toledo.
The Mackinaw sounded a three-blast salute on her horn as she passed the Toledo Shipyard, where she was built in 1943 and 1944 to keep Great Lakes shipping lanes open throughout the icy winter months and thus keep domestic military supply lines open during World War II.
For the six decades since, the Mackinaw has become one of the most storied vessels on the lakes, both for her icebreaking prowess and for the warm-weather training and publicity missions she has made.
Duluth, Chicago, Toledo anyplace you go, people want to see the Mackinaw, said Cmdr. Joe McGuiness, the icebreaker s captain for nearly three years. After 62 years of stories and reliable service under daunting conditions, she really has made quite a few friends.
A small knot of onlookers greeted the Mackinaw as she sailed toward the LaFarge Cement dock on Water Street just downriver from downtown Toledo, with several clapping during the final approach to dock. While most of the vessel s trip across western Lake Erie and Maumee Bay was done under cloud cover, the sun shone brightly for the home stretch up the river.
It was just an amazing, surreal experience to watch the famous icebreaker arrive, said Debbie Serban, of Flushing, Mich., who made a point of visiting her sister in Lambertville yesterday and wondered aloud why the city didn t provide a bigger reception.
It s a moment in history. Where is everybody? she said.
The Mackinaw, which was the world s most powerful icebreaker when built and is still the largest on the Great Lakes, will stay at the LaFarge dock until Sunday morning, when it will depart for Cleveland. It will be open for public tours today from 1 to 5 p.m.
Not present at yesterday s arrival, but likely to be among those visiting today, is Terry White, 68, of Fremont, who was a Coast Guard seaman fresh out of basic training when he served on the icebreaker in 1955.
I want to be there for sure, he said in a telephone interview this week. Serving on the Mackinaw was one of the best experiences I ever had.
More vivid than any icebreaking memory is Mr. White s recollection of a storm that struck Lake Michigan while the Mackinaw was on escort duty for the annual Chicago-Mackinac Island sailboat race. The Mackinaw ended up helping several of the racing yachts, including one that lost its mast and had to be towed to safe harbor.
It was rough. A lot of the crew members on the Mackinaw got sick, and the fuel tank for our helicopter fell overboard, Mr. White said.
Tony Camacho, a Dayton resident working as a fireman on his own first assignment after Coast Guard basic training, said yesterday he had not known of the Mackinaw s legend when he enlisted, but he has come to appreciate her.
My [boot camp] company commander told me it was a privilege to serve on the Mackinaw, Mr. Camacho said. It s a beautiful ship and a piece of history. I m glad to be on it. I love this boat, and I love this crew.
And during Mr. Camacho s tour too, the Big Mack came to a yachtsman s aid during the Mackinac Race last summer. The Mackinaw s doctor provided first aid to a sailboat crewman who suffered several broken ribs in an accident and prepared him for airlift to a hospital, the fireman recalled.
During the mid 1990s, the Mackinaw s retirement, without a replacement, appeared imminent. But after the particularly severe winter of 1993-94 proved that Great Lakes shipping could not make do without a heavy icebreaker, Coast Guard officials agreed to order construction of a replacement instead of assigning the Mackinaw s ice work to smaller vessels.
The new Mackinaw, built at Marinette Marine in Wisconsin, is undergoing sea trials and is scheduled for commissioning in June, at which time her Toledo-built namesake will be decommissioned.
A volunteer group based in the icebreakers homeport, Cheboygan, Mich., hopes to acquire the Big Mack as a museum ship.
Legislation permitting the transfer is included in a Coast Guard appropriations bill pending before Congress, said Carol Stevens, a member of the Icebreaker Mackinaw Maritime Museum s board.
Until they sign the bill, we won t know for sure, Ms. Stevens said. The group has been raising money to buy land and develop a docking area for the vessel, but so far is nowhere near the $1 million in donations it hopes to raise by June 1.
Commander McGuiness said that during his command, the crew has relacquered the Mackinaw s woodwork, polished its brass, and otherwise prepared it for museum life.Anyone visiting the Mackinaw during its open hours today who was involved in her construction six decades ago can expect a warm welcome from the commanding officer.
I would love to shake their hands and tell them what a tremendous ship they built, Commander McGuiness said.
Contact David Patch at: email@example.com or 419-724-6094.