Photographer and self-professed ‘boat nerd’ describes life aboard a Great Lakes freighter

They’re like floating hotels, but the general public doesn’t usually get the chance to take a cruise on the 1,000-foot freighters that come into the Great Lakes. Roger LeLievre is an exception. The author and speaker will talk about some of his adventures at the Saginaw River Marine Historical Society on Sat., April 20.

Freighters still have a significant presence on the river, says LeLievre, who is also a self-proclaimed boat nerd.

“Over the last 20 years, I've had probably over a dozen trips on various freighters. So this program is kind of a glimpse of life on the boats that I've observed on those various trips. It covers the loading and the unloading, and in the pilot house in the galley in the engine room.”

Graphic courtesy of Know Your ShipsLeLievre is a native of Sault Ste. Marie, where he grew up not far from the Soo Locks. He spent his childhood watching the freighters enter and exit the locks as they navigated the St. Mary’s River. That experience set him up for what would become his life's passion.

Over four decades ago, LeLievre met a man named Tom Manse, a publisher and photographer already doing what LeLievre hoped to do. Manse had published an annual book about Great Lakes ships called “Know Your Ships.” At age 14, LeLievre had a photograph published in the 1969 edition. Little did he know it would lead to his own publishing career.
LeLievre eventually took over the publication of the book he calls a field guide to the freighters.

“Mr. Manse kind of took me under his wing and mentored me,” LeLievre says. “Well, 30 years ago, in 1994 when he passed away, he left the whole book to me –everything. I've been publishing it myself since then. He gave me an amazing gift and I'm carrying on his legacy.”

Along with photographing the Great Lakes giants, LeLievre has also been a guest aboard several of the freighters. He says they’re surprisingly like hotels or little self-contained cities.

“If you look at it from that point of view, you have a little city where people live and they live there for a couple of months at a time. And it's always interesting to me. You've got maybe 20 or 25 people, men and women, on these boats for such a long period of time and they all pretty much get along with each other. You have to because you're working and sleeping basically at your office.”

LeLievre says the food is as good as any he’s found in a quality restaurant.

“The food is fantastic on most of the boats. There are a few, of course, it may not be perfect, but I've had some amazing meals.”

The food isn’t the only comfort.

“Their satellite communication is outstanding. They've got whatever those packages are that they can add on for the NFL or, or whatever. Of course, cell phones have really changed things. In 1973 I sailed on the Great Lakes and, if you wanted to talk to home, you walked up to the end of the dock and stood in line at a pay phone. Now it's so much easier to keep in touch with your family. “

Graphic courtesy of the Saginaw River Marine Historical SocietyFlat screen TVs, workout rooms, and some of the best food, “you know, it's a well-oiled machine on those vessels. Those guys and ladies know what they're doing and they do it super well.”

LeLievre will share his experiences at the Saginaw River Marine Historical Society’s presentation "Hitchin' A Ride: An Inside Look at Life on the Lakers" on Sat., April 20 at 6:30 p.m. at Trinity Episcopal Church, 815 N. Grant St. The presentation is free,

For more on the Saginaw River Marine Historical Society or LeLievre visit the Saginaw River Marine Historical Society Facebook page.

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Read more articles by Denyse Shannon.

As a feature writer and freelance journalist, Denyse Shannon has written professionally for over two and a half decades. She has worked as a contractor for daily and weekly newspapers, national and local magazines, and taught introductory media writing at her alma mater – Central Michigan University. She also holds a Master of Arts in journalism from Michigan State University. She and her husband live in Bangor Township and enjoy sailing on the Bay, and are avid cyclists.