The Port of Milwaukee bid farewell this month, to its final international visitor of the season.
The ship “Federal EMS” deposited a load of steel and then hurried off to other Great Lakes ports – needing to pass through the St. Lawrence Seaway before it closes for winter.
Before the ocean-going vessel departed, I visited Captain, Andrzej Lasota to learn about life at sea.
I climbed aboard the Federal EMS via a narrow staircase. A crewman logged my name on a clipboard as I stood on the deck that’s longer than two football fields. Next, he escorted me to the Captain’s office. I was huffing and puffing after climbing four stories to get there.
Andrzej Lasota was dressed in dark pants and a white shirt with epaulets on the shoulders. He offered me a seat on a blue upholstered sofa, especially cozy as icy rain dripped off the porthole windows.
The Captain has worked and lived on the water a long time - he began his sailing career at age 14, as a maritime cadet in his native Poland. "Since then, no breaks, 42 years at sea, including school," he told me.
Lasota has piloted vessels ranging from fishing factories in the Bering Sea –ships that process their catch, to cargo ships visiting ports in South America. Yet, the Captain says sailing the Great Lakes takes a special level of expertise.
"You have to be prepared for locks and shallow waters," he said.
The 10-year-old ship is outfitted sophisticated gear to help the Captain and crew navigate anywhere in the world. The equipment is located on the bridge, one story above Lasota’s quarters. He says he’s never far away.
"I can go sleep and after a half hour they have a right to call me back there, if there is something to do, that’s captain’s life," he said.
LaSota and his crew work on the boat for six months, get four months off, then return to duty for another six months.
"It’s tough work," he said. I asked him what makes it so hard. He told me, " Well, first of all, separation. These days it’s no big deal you can pick up phone, you can talk with family, you can have internet, things like that. But, if you go back 10 years, then it was only letters, and if not you haven’t any communication with your family, nothing," he recalled.
LaSota says his long absences from home mean his wife heads the family, while it depends on the money he sends.
Because the crew spends months on the water, there are places aboard to recreate. A small living room features a large, flat screen t-v and sofas. Then there’s an exercise room equipped with treadmills and weight benches. The Captain says he sometimes organizes group activities.
"We do exercises, we’re watching something, we’re playing something, just to keep fit. Most people, read for free time, which is very short in the moment, as I told you on the lakes, it is usually 12 hours work," Lasota said.
Lasota describes the job as more demanding now than in years past.
"It is a rush. Before, loading was three days, discharging four days. These days the same cargo is 18 hours loading and let’s say 24 hours discharging. Time is money, they’re paying and they want it quickly," he said.
The fast turnaround in most ports means the Lasota’s international crew does not usually get to shore.
"At the moment is three Polish guys, one Russian and 18 Filipino, a total of 22. You have to also remember that when you manage the crew that there are different cultures, they even eat different than you," he said.
For instance, Lasota says the Filipino sailors cook rice for their meals, whereas the Europeans prefer bread. Despite different nationalities, Lasota says, language does not present a problem.
"Our official language is English of course, and between them other nations speak their own language. I talk with Polish guys in Polish, Russian guy in Russian, because I know perfect Russian, I was in Russian navigation school. And with the Filipinos, I use English," Lasota explained.
The crew must work as one to tackle not only the ship’s loads, but also its housekeeping needs. They seem to have mastered the art of cleaning - everything I saw aboard the vessel from the engine room to the brass edges on stairs was spotless.
Captain Lasota seems to relish it all. I asked the 56-year-old if he’s thinking of retirement.
"Nope, what should I do as retired guy. I’m used to wake up and work, wake up and work. So (shrugs), I don’t know how long more," he told me.
Years ago, sailors visiting the Port of Milwaukee made a beeline for a popular stop on Jones Island. The “Seamen’s Club” was a welcome retreat for crewmen who spent most of their time on the water.
Jeff Fleming is spokesman for the Port. He says the Seamen’s Club closed years ago, as the industry changed.