January 30, 2013 - Justin Reinert will soon sail off into the sunset—and earn a decent living at it.
In the fall of 2009, Reinert, a 2006 Brandon High School graduate, enrolled at the Great Lakes Maritime Academy in Traverse City. The school was established in 1969 to provide education and training to those wanting a career as a merchant marine. The academy trains mates (pilots), and maritime engineers.
The school also docks the 224-foot training ship, a former Navy vessel known as the T/S State of Michigan in the Grand Traverse West Bay.
Reinert's voyage to the Great Lakes started in a warmer climate.
"For six months I was a "wiper" for the Norwegian Cruise Lines while sailing in the Pacific Ocean near Hawaii," he said.
"It's about as low of job as you can get on ship," admits Reinert. "I spent my work days cleaning, moping or changing the diesel oil. The chief engineer realized that I was willing to learn and suggested I seek a maritime career. While with Norwegian I had a chance to sail to Hong Kong and Japan along with other south Pacific Islands. It's a great job if you like being on the water and don't have a family to take care of back home. If you do, well then it's not so great."
On Jan. 11, Reinert earned the level of third assistant steam and diesel engineer with unlimited horsepower and tonnage from the United States Coast Guard. This spring he will also earn a bachelor of arts degree in business from Ferris State University at the Northwestern Michigan College campus in Traverse City.
Reinert's training, which qualified him to operate the ship's massive diesel or steam engines that propel the vessel, also included some practical experience on the Great Lakes.
In the fall of 2012 Reinert was assigned to the Philip R. Clarke, a 776-foot, 56,240 ton steamship, for 90 days on the Great Lakes.
"It was an awesome experience," he said. "In the engine room where I work we control the speed of the ship—given the command from the pilot house."
With a crew of 24 the Clarke docked at several ports including Duluth, Minn., Ashtabula, Ohio, Erie, Penn. and Gary, Ind. hauling mostly ore and limestone.
"We were in a storm one time with 26-foot waves and had to anchor just off of Sandusky, Ohio in Lake Erie to wait it out," he said. "We could watch roller coasters at Cedar Point. The wind on the Great Lakes impacts water movements. Keep in mind our ship drafted anywhere from 26 to 30 feet of water."
Some waterways in the Great Lakes, such as the DeTour Passage between the eastern tip of the Upper Peninsula and Drummond Island, are impacted by the elements more than others, added Reinert.
"The DeTour area is rock cut 900 feet long and 300 feet wide," he said. "If there is a straight north wind the water can be blown out. We can get pretty close to the bottom of the river. I've been on both the Great Lakes and the ocean and the lakes are much rougher. It is a bath tub effect of water rolling around in the Great Lakes, hitting the shore and returning. The waves are closer together and often meet other waves out there. It's very rough at times."
Reinert has also worked on the icebreaker USS Mackinac in addition to the Great Lakes Maritime Academy ship T/S State of Michigan.
"I will try to stay in the Great Lakes when I graduate, but will look for a job on the ocean to start with," he said. "I'm not planning to start a family any time soon. You have steady work on the ocean compared to the Great Lakes, where ships are laid up for the winter months. It's hard for many to be away from home so long. The average age of a merchant marine is about 55-years-old—so there will be a lot of retirements soon."
The Great Lakes Maritime Academy accepts about 35 deck officers and 25-30 engineers each year—about 50 percent graduate, added Reinert.