The Unseen Helper – Winter 1979

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

By Gerald D. Gilbert

WLC Tower in Rogers City taken in 1958. Image from the Inland Marine Radio History Archive.

The combined letters, WMI (Lorain, Ohio), WLC (Rogers City, Michigan) and WFK are all familiar to Great Lakes boatmen. Without them life on the Lakes would be very dangerous and lonely. WFK from the town of Elberta, Michigan, was one of the earliest radio stations on the Great Lakes, and was located across the Bay from my summer home. The tower for the station was erected in 1906, and C. O. Slyfield, often referred to as “Samp”, was one of the first operators. The radio was installed by the Marconi Company, under the direction of A. E. Jackson. The U.S. Navy took over the station in 1917 and operated it until the fall of 1921. Mr. Slyfield and Mr. Robert O. Koch were, to this author’s knowledge, the only operators on the Lakes to have obtained a Commercial Extra First Class License.

This year WMI has improved radio to the point of direct dial to selected vessels on the Lakes in their operating area. To do this they have fourteen stations—either operator or remote controlled. If the ship has the direct dial system, they can bypass the operator and place their call with no trouble, just as you and I can do at home or at work. If no direct dial is aboard then they can place their call through the operator.

Another function of the WMI group is the transmission of weather reports, storm warnings, hydrographic reports and yes, even pictures of ice conditions, and maps of the Lakes. To use the system, WMI has assigned a “Ship Address Code” to the vessel with the automatic system, and a number to dial. The reverse can be used so that the ship can call ashore phone. However, only phones with “touch tone” can be used in this way.

The radio has not only saved lives, but has helped to take the loneliness out of a sailor’s life by letting him keep in touch with his family and loved ones on shore. The long watch for the mate and the wheelsman is made a little more secure in knowing that there is help at all times via radio to other ships nearby, and to the Coast Guard who monitor the channel twenty-four hours a day, all year long. Eleven Coast Guard stations broadcast their weather and safety messages on a three-hour schedule from their locations on the Great Lakes. These are transmitted on Channel 22, in the VHF band.

Readers who are interested in information on the use of radio are urged to send for a copy of How to Use Your Marine Radiotelephone. Write: Box 19078, Washington, D.C. 20036, for more information.

Some of our readers might ask why I haven’t said much about CB radio, and I do think it is fine for the inland lake boater who is fishing, with a friend close by. The drawback of CB radio on the Great Lakes is that the Coast Guard does not monitor CBS as they do the VHF band. The radio system was setup years ago to use the old channel 51 and then the newer channel 16, so the older channel is slowly going into disuse on the Lakes. Some are still using 51, but mostly in Canada, and some weather reporting is undertaken by the United States.

A very important function of radio is the control of vessels through the locks of both the Soo and Welland canals. Radio scheduling of ships makes possible less waiting time and better use of the locks by shipmasters. Radio can inform ships’ chandlers when to bring the mail and needed supplies to the ships as they pass their station. Look at the log of any ship and see how many radio transmissions were made for one safety item. The list of other requests would stagger the mind of a “shore person” who can reach for what he or she needs, on the shelf of the corner store!

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About the Author: Mr. Gerald D. Gilbert wishes to thank Mrs. Dawn Staley of Lorain, Ohio, Allan B. Blacklock of Elberta, Michigan, and NOAA Coast Pilot No. 6, for assistance in compiling this article. A resident of Ferndale, Michigan, he was raised in the Detroit area, where his family operated the Danto and Sons Fisheries. Mr. Gilbert served in the U.S. Navy from 1944 to 1954, and is now Food Coordinator for the Shedd Corporation Division of Beatrice Foods.

Having a special interest in car ferry service in the Great Lakes area, Mr. Gilbert is Marine Editor of the Ann Arbor Trail, published by the Ann Arbor Historical Society. A Sustaining Member of the Great Lakes Historical Society, he recently wrote an article for Inland Seas® regarding the Ann Arbor No. 4.

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