Leave your boat and worries behind
Chicago to Montreal aboard the MS Saint Laurent in its maiden season
By Steven Bull
I grew up near the shores of Lake Ontario and spent far too much of my youth in and around its waters. When I moved away to attend the University of Windsor, Lake Erie and Lake St. Clair became more of my splashing pads. Now, having a 2001 Sea Ray 380 Sundancer based in Toronto I’m back to my “home lake.” I have travelled the length of it and crossed it, but still haven’t seen anywhere near enough of it.
As for Lake Erie and Lake Huron, I would visit while at journalism school at Western University in London. Those were brief stays, though, experiencing but a tiny sliver of the massive bodies of water. When I heard that Haimark Line was introducing the cruise ship MS Saint Laurent to the Great Lakes I was intrigued.
As a boater, based in Lake Ontario, with a vessel large enough to comfortably make long runs, I have seen only a fraction of just one of those lakes. The chances of me doing a loop are slim and the odds for the majority of the population are even slimmer. Either they don’t own a boat or, those who do, aren’t based in the Great Lakes or don’t have something big enough to do long voyages in.
When I boarded the blue and white Saint Laurent late in the summer of 2015 the first group of passengers I met were all fellow boaters. Most had wanted to explore the big open waters of the Great Lakes, but felt it to be too daunting or just too far away.
I met Californians and people from various southern states and a woman from Holland. There were some like me, who grew up with one of the massive lakes in their backyard but, like me, they hadn’t explored much further than their favourite beach or waterfront city.
The Great Lakes was my on my bucket list
“The Great Lakes was my on my bucket list,” the uniquely named, Worth Camp told me. He and his wife flew up from Arkansas for this trip. “We’ve been to a lot of places but the Great Lakes are the great mystery in the south. We don’t have a clue what it’s all about.”
As we stood on the upper deck surrounded by blue lounge chairs, with the bridge in one direction and the monotonous rumbling hum of the exhaust stacks in the other, he told me he grew up boating on what would be deemed “vintage to me” boats on small lakes and rivers.
He loved life on the water and is a retired captain of the US Naval Reserve. Water, boats and exploration are in his blood. “I’ve cruised on three different oceans, the Baltic, the Mediterranean, the Caribbean and even the Yangtze River,” he said through a smile I’m convinced you’d have to chisel off. “But this has been fantastic. I’ll be telling this story back in south Arkansas!”
He had done his research. He knew the areas the ship would be visiting on its 10-day Chicago-to-Montreal cruise, but admitted he wasn’t really prepared to be out of sight of any shorelines for so long while underway.
“A lot of people are really taken back by the size, comparing it to oceans,” cruise director Ken Davis said with a knowing smile. “A lot of people also don’t realize all the lakes are connected.”
Davis says every voyage, whether it’s starting or ending in Montreal, has that same theme. People are taken aback by the scope of the lakes and amazed a ship this size can sail for 10 days and never leave the lakes.
The crew, and Davis, are no exception to that wow factor.
“I grew up in central Illinois and we never made it up to the Great Lakes so this has been a whole new experience,” he said looking out over Lake Huron’s horizon disappearing into the sky. “It’s pretty amazing actually.”
The ship is smaller than the mega-liners that likely spring to mind when you hear the words: cruise ship. The activities aren’t what you’d expect from commercials of young kids on waterslides and bustling adventure, either. They are instead geared towards the average demographic of the 180 passengers on the 16 sailings.
Davis told me the average age was 50-plus but that was on the generous side from our experience. It looked more like a 60-plus average crowd, but that’s not a bad thing – just something worth noting if you have young teenagers and want a break from the Caribbean circuit. This is not an adventure-based vacation; this is, as Haimark says, a refined and elegant small ship.
There is entertainment on board, including live music every night, as well as bingo and lectures of upcoming destinations, plus great food. There is a large Shearwater dining room on the lower level at the stern, surrounded by windows, a bar and, on the upper aft deck, the popular outdoor Cliff Rock Bar & Grille. Here, by reservation only, you can have the “hot rock” meal where the meat, or fish, cooks on super hot slabs of volcanic rock served right to your table.
Along with scenic cruising there are stops at Mackinac Island, Sault Ste. Marie, Manitoulin Island (with visit to a First Nations Cultural Foundation), Windsor (with bus tour to Detroit) and Port Colborne (with tour of Niagara Falls and wine region).
Niagara Falls is a well-known stop even for those from Arkansas, but there was a lot of positive chatter on the bus ride back form the Ojibwe Cultural Foundation on Manitoulin Island while the ship was moored in Little Current. The informative walk through history of the region followed by traditional singers and dancers had cameras snapping away and, seemingly, a lot of eyes opened to something that would otherwise never be experienced.
My tour of the ship would not be complete without a “Power Profile” test of the vessel. I wanted a closer look at the engines and the helm – er, bridge.
Luckily, that was arranged and I was able to meet Staff Captain Vladimir Velkov as the Saint Laurent slid gently through a wide-open stretch of water.
He told me the Scheutel engines, giant pod drive systems, and the addition of cameras makes the locks easier to navigate, though that’s all relative.
“It is stressful every time because you don’t want to touch the walls,” he said while working his eyes from the auto pilot light – which was on – around all the controls and monitoring screens. “With the cargo ships in the locks they just slide the ship along the wall. They don’t care about the sound; they don’t care about the paint. They will paint the ship again.”
That’s not an option on a cruise liner. Not only would that mean extra work to constantly repaint the ship to keep it looking like the elegant vessel it is, but the sound would terrify passengers.
He told me that the logistics of the 80-person crew is staggering. Not only is managing a vessel a 24/7 job in terms of the machinery but they have to deal with things like garbage. For the record, waste is managed by bringing garbage trucks right up to the ship while it’s at one of the stops after the passengers are off on the tour. Timing between stops must be carefully planned as space on the ship is finite.
Before disembarking, Staff Captain Velkov said he had a treat for us knowing that we were filming for PowerBoat Television.
Leaving the bridge in the capable hands of one of the other officers, he walked us from the upper deck into the ship, down the central stairway and to a hidden stairwell access below the waterline. Before opening the door he said in his thick Bulgarian accent, “You need power in PowerBoat.”
The engine room!
Admittedly most passengers wouldn’t care too much about it, but if you’re like my father-in-law you would be incredibly jealous of this experience as it’s not one the general public ever gets to see.
For propulsion and power generation there are four Caterpillar 3516 B engines. In a word: massive! In another two: loud and hot. They pump out a couple thousand horsepower and are 70-litres each. Even with ear protection this was a thunderously loud room.
Back above decks, watching the sun sink below the horizon I, a Great Lakes boater, forgot where I was and became overwhelmed with the serenity and size of the lakes I spent most of my life taking for granted. Though now I have a serious case of engine-envy.