Michigan's first state research boat prepares for its farewell tour
It’s a warm, hazy afternoon in the Elk Rapids harbor. The smokey weather makes it so the sky and Lake Michigan blend into each other on the horizon.
Sticking out like a sore thumb among all the yachts and pontoons is the bruised, royal blue hull of the Steelhead — the state of Michigan’s first research vessel.
The 65-foot boat has served generations of state researchers from its home port in Charlevoix and in the waters of Lake Michigan.
The Steelhead was constructed in 1967 as a commercial trawler in Escanaba. The T. D. Vinette Company designed the vessel for the Department of Natural Resources for sampling fish populations.
It’s still used for fish surveys to this day. The data that come off of the boat help inform anglers and commercial fishermen on what’s safe to catch.
But Charlevoix Fisheries Research Station manager David Clapp says that mission has changed over more than 50 years on the water.
It sailed from its construction port in Escanaba in 1968 just in time to join in on the salmon stocking program, one of the state’s most renowned conservation efforts.
“Salmon were introduced to help control alewives and to create a sport fishery,” Clapp said. “The boat and the research stations around the Great Lakes were all established about that time.”
If the Steelhead was an Army general, participating in the salmon stocking program would just be one of its many medals.
It’s been used to control invasive species, research fish diseases, break sheets of ice and assist the U.S. Coast Guard in search-and-rescue missions.
The boat has seen a lot of the Great Lakes and so has its five-man crew. Clapp was a biologist on the Steelhead before taking on his current position.
“There was water coming in through the windows, everything fell off every shelf. Every once in a while it feels a little bit like ‘Deadliest Catch.’”
— Kris Snyder, technician aboard the Steelhead
Below deck is a living quarters with bunk beds, a small kitchen and shelf full of snacks. Clapp says the crew can spend days and weeks at a time living on the boat. He likens it to living in a college dorm room.
“It's tight, you know, and it's hard to have one person who wants to go to bed at 8 p.m. and one who stays up to midnight,” Clapp said. “So you've got to respect everybody.”
It’s a lifestyle Kris Snyder has gotten used to after nine seasons aboard the Steelhead. He said he’s gotten some crazy stories out of it, mostly revolving around severe weather, like the thunderstorm they were caught in last year.
“There was water coming in through the windows, everything fell off every shelf,” Snyder said. “Every once in a while it feels a little bit like ‘Deadliest Catch.’”
After more than a few bad storms, the Steelhead is finally gearing up for retirement. The crew says replacing parts of the 1960s motor has become increasingly difficult.
A new boat, called the Steelhead 2, is in the works with updated technology thanks to $4 million from the state. It’ll have an expanded lab, new navigation technology and more environmentally friendly engines.
The crew say they’re looking forward to a new boat. But for the vessel's captain, Pat O'Neill, it comes with some conflicting feelings.
He served on the Steelhead for over a decade and became captain three years ago.
O'Neill knows this boat port to starboard, bow to stern. Sometimes when he looks at old photos, he can feel the history.
“Believe it or not, if you're on a boat long enough, a different pitch sound of an engine will trigger your brain,” he said. “Just seeing some of the guys that were on the boat that I have so much respect for, that have now retired, is an amazing thing.”
Clapp said the Steelhead’s next step is not clear yet. It could end up in a surplus auction or another organization may choose to inherit it.
O'Neill said whatever the next step is, his boat has definitely fulfilled its mission.
“The Great Lakes have changed dramatically since his boat started,” O'Neill said. “For us to be a part of this step in its life is a big deal. All I can ask is that the next boat is half as good as this boat.”