The Last Strange Voyage of Capt. Roman Ufig – Fall 192


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The Great Lakes… 84% of the continent’s fresh water… a different story in every drop.

By John A. Young

This story is not a sea tale. Aboard the U.S. Steel Great Lakes vessel SS Horace Johnson, it was a beautiful sunny spring day, June 20, 1973. As third mate, I had been ordered by Capt. Roman Ulfig, to leave the pilothouse and go below on deck to attend to preparations for docking, and to supervise the landing of the deckhands on the dock to handle mooring lines of the vessel. We had just passed Pt. Aux Pins and were proceeding downbound above the Soo Locks at Sault Ste. Marie.

At that time the means of communication between the captain in the pilothouse and the mate and boatswain on deck near the forward and aft mooring stations was by walkie-talkie. Captain Ulfig, as everyone who knew him will attest, was generally a jovial, “merry ole soul” who cut a romantic figure. (Although a lifetime bachelor at that time, it was said he courted the same gal for forty years and she was still his sweetheart, but would not marry him unless he gave up sailing!) However, that day, as if by intuitive foresight (common amongst captains of our Inland Seas), the Captain was, in the jorgon of the beer brewers of Milwaukee, a bit yeasty in his manner.

He bellowed over the walkie-talkie, startling all those within earshot: “How far off is she?”

“A hundred and twenty-five feet off on the starboard bow, Sir,” I replied. We were approaching the west pierhead north of the locks and had received permission from the lockmaster to proceed directly into the MacArthur lock,

the lock closest to the American side of the river.

“One hundred feet off on the bow,” I reported over the walkie-talkie, as the deckhands donned their lifejackets and prepared to mount the bosun’s chair that was rigged to the landing boom near the forward cabins.

“Seventy-five feet off on the bow.. .50 feet.. .36 feet.. .24 feet.. . 12 feet.” It was then we landed two deckhands on the north pier to handle the mooring lines, “Six feet, sir.. . 3 feet.. .a foot off.. .coming up.. .right against!”

The vessel slid down the canal, rubbing the dock as she went – a perfect landing. Proceeding downbound from here there is a slight bend in the canal just after passing under the International Bridge. “Up against,” I reported, so the Captain would know the vessel was not leaving the dock while still moving forward.

Just before we arrived at the aforementioned bend in the canal, the Captain, returning to his merry mood, decided to have sport with the wheels- man, Felix Cajewski, who reported this to me later. He was, like the Captain, a longtime sailor and of the same ethnic descent. Since it was warm weather, the pilothouse doors were hooked open so the Captain could easily go out on the Texas deck to observe the position of the vessel along the dock, if necessary. In a mocking attempt to heap more responsibility on the wheels- man than was normal, the Captain, walking toward the open door of the pilothouse in order to get a better view, and jestingly, with a sardonic smile, cracked to the wheelsman, “OK, Felix, you got her,” jokingly meaning, take over for him. You can imagine how Felix must have felt at this point as he was not trained or licensed for this responsibility, and the Captain was leav- ing the pilothouse!

As he said this, Captain Ulfig was walking toward the door, head turned toward Felix. Since he could not see the six-inch raised transom of the door, he tripped, fell and hit his head against the handrail outside the pilothouse! He was stunned by the fall and Felix had indeed “got her.” Fortunately, Felix was of able mind and body to size up the situation. He ran out on the Texas deck and yelled to me in a frantic voice, “Tie her up! Tie her up!”

We were approaching the aforementioned bend in the canal and if the vessel was to proceed on her present course, she would not have made the turn, but would have fetched up against the canal dock on the port bow. Immediately, sensing Felix’s urgency, using my left hand for the walkie- talkie, I gave the order to tie up the vessel. The boatswain at the aft mooring station acknowledged the order by repeating it, “Tie her up!” At the same time I gave the payout signal for the #2 mooring line to the winchman with my right hand, and yelled to the deckhand handling the line to “put it on the next spile!”

While the deckhand was doing this I yelled to the third deckhand, still on board, to immediately call the first mate and tell him to report to the pilot- house as fast as he could get there ! As it was, he was completely naked when the deckhand called him and I recall him leaving his room with just a pair of pants, that he hurriedly donned, still buckling his belt as he ran up the outside stairs to the pilothouse with a puzzled look on his face.

In the meantime, I signaled to the winchman to pay out the second forward mooring line, and tied up the vessel. The boatswain had done the same with the two aft mooring lines.

When the vessel was securely tied up against the dock, I went to the Texas deck to see what had happened. Captain Ulfig was still prostrate on the deck with a swollen gash over his eye that trickled blood. The First Mate, Jerry Zyp, took charge at that time and locked the vessel through the Soo. As we tied up inside the MacArthur Lock and awaited lowering of the vessel to the lower St. Marys River, Captain Ulfig was taken off the vessel in a wire basket stretcher. It was not known immediately how badly he was hurt, and he was hurried to a waiting ambulance that took him to the hospital. I remember being slightly horror stricken as I saw him lifted over the side, but he saw my expression and calmly nodded his head that he was all right. We then anchored below the Soo to await the Coast Guard’s swearing in of First Mate Jerry Zyp as captain, so we could proceed downbound to South Chicago, Illinois.

On the next trip downbound, Captain Ulfig had been released from the hospital and he boarded at the Soo to pack his belongings as a passenger and depart with them upon arrival at the next port. He gave us this account of his hospital stay at that time. After his admission to the hospital it was discovered he did not have a concussion, as originally suspected, and his wound healed easily. The U.S. Steel Marine Superintendent, had traveled from Duluth, Minnesota, to the Soo hospital to check on Captain Ulfig. Upon seeing him, Captain Ulfig reported he would recover all right but this “‘omen” convinced him he should retire immediately rather than wait one more month to receive his 40-year gold watch from the Company! “Well, Sir,” the Marine Superintendent said to Captain Ulfig, “With your vacation time, which you have coming, you will have more than enough time for your gold watch. You will receive that watch!”

This, of course, delighted Captain Ulfig. He was quite jovial, and in a merry mood as he rode the vessel downbound as a passenger while packing his belongings.

While he visited in the pilothouse during that trip out on the Lake, I inquired of him as to a minor matter and his words were, “I am only a passenger here, John, check with the Captain!”

Captain Ulfig wrote a letter to the crew of the vessel later, saying he missed sailing but was quite happy being busy on his farm in Michigan and with his hobby, restoring old steam engines and tractors and trucks.

This is a true story and I witnessed it with my own presence – so help me!

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About the Author: As third mate on the Horace Johnson at the time of the above “voyage” in 1973, John A. Young in off seasons resides in Menard, Texas, on a ranch where he raises sheep and goats, and has recently built a ranch house. He has been a licensed pilot on the Great Lakes for ten years, most of this time with U.S. Steel and Bethlehem Steel Corporations.

Mr. Young was born in Cleveland, Ohio, and he graduated from Case Institute of Technology (now part of Case Western Reserve University) with a B. S. degree in Mechanical Engineering in 1961. While stationed in Huntington Beach, California, on the Apollo moon landing program, he also attended Long Beach State College, taking post graduate courses in business administration. Two years were spent in the U. S. Army where he served as a project engineer in cryogenic testing while in Yuma, Arizona, and Fort Greeley, Alaska.

With special interests in music, composition, sports, and a thorough study of the Bible, Mr. Young also contemplates compiling a book on several new interpretations of the latter, sometime in the future. He is a member of our Great Lakes Historical Society and this is his first contribution to Inland Seas®


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