By Dorie Cox
This adventure starts with young children’s pleas for a salute from passing iron ore freighter captains. Capt. Michael Schueler was an earnest voice among the herds of cousins and his five older brothers on the banks of Harsen’s Island in Michigan, a 3-by-12-mile island accessible by boat or car ferry.
“We yelled to the captains for a salute,” Capt. Schueler said. “We yelled three long and two short and they would sound a horn and hopefully the captain would come out and wave.”
Each kid chose his own ship.
“I chose the Benson Ford because of the look, the lines, the wheelhouse, the smokestack,” Capt. Schueler said. “I was 7.”
“On the envelope it said, ‘Freighter Benson Ford, Detroit, Michigan’,” he said. “It must have been 1969.”
And he got a reply from the 612-foot Great Lakes freighter, a letter from the captain, Capt. James Van Buskirk.
“Capt. Buskirk wrote back. I kept every letter,” Capt. Schueler said. “He asked, ‘Where are you?’, and every time I got a salute. He would yell over, ‘Hello Michael, how are you?’ ”
Eventually, Capt. Schueler got invited to his home for dinner and met his wife.
“I was so nervous,” he remembered. “I was dressed up, and I got to go on the freighter. The cook rubbed my head and gave me a hot dog. It was heaven.
“When I get a new chef now and he asks what I’d like, I say a hotdog,” Capt. Schueler said. “It brings me right back.”
These memories come easily to Capt. Schueler, and he remembers the feel, and the smell, of his little aluminum boat with a 5 hp engine.
“The first time I was alone in my 12-foot aluminum boat, I was 8 or 9 and I was so happy to be alone,” he said of the boat 1956 Johnson outboard. “I remember feeling complete freedom; total responsibility and power. If I wanted to turn right, I could turn right. My dad said I could go down to so-and-so’s dock and over to so-and-so’s dock, so I went back and forth, from here to there.”
He has that boat today and is restoring it.
“I can’t wait to smell the engine when I get it running,” he said.
Growing up, Capt. Schueler’s father told the boys they each had to pay for half of their college expenses. They all got jobs, and he worked through until college in preparation for law school.
“We mowed lawns, worked at the yacht club and I worked my way from pots and pans, to salad, to dishwasher, to waiter and to lifeguard,” he said. “Then to dockmaster in my last summer at Michigan State.”
This is where his life takes another turn.
“It was a Sunday morning at 5 a.m. I was loading papers when a golf cart with [the previous] Commodore Baughman went by,” Capt. Schueler said. “He called me over and said, ‘My wife and I have watched you through high school. We bought a boat and we would like you to run it for us.”
He did. And he went from Detroit, Michigan, to Longboat Key, Florida.
“Law school never happened,” he said. “I have never looked back.”
The commodore explained what made he and his wife take notice.
“He had said service had been declining and he was going to speak to management. He dropped a napkin on the floor in the restaurant,” Capt. Schueler said. “People walked past it, other waitresses and busboys. He said as I walked by with a tray, I reach down, picked up the dirty napkin, went into the kitchen, brought out a clean one and set it in front of him.”
And that’s how he got started on M/Y Sail Bad The Sinner, a 61-foot Tollycraft in 1984.
“That was living my dream,” Capt. Schueler said. “A napkin got me the job.”
After the heyday of the freighter era on the Great Lakes, and ships were being scrapped, Capt. Schueler wondered what happened to the M/V Benson Ford. He eventually found out that the 1920’s Henry Ford-designed ship was bought by a man in Ohio who cut the bow off and had it lifted onto a cliff for a personal home at Put-in-Bay, Ohio.
“When I make enough money, I want to buy it,” Capt. Schueler said. “That’s my dream, to make enough money to buy it.”
Today, when he visits family on Harsen’s Island, his brothers and cousins still talk about their chosen freighters. Although some are in their 60s and 70s now, they recall running to the shore in hopes that a captain would notice.
“All the cousins with freighters, we’re still here,” Capt. Schueler said. “And even at our age, we still run out for a salute.”
Dorie Cox is editor of Triton Today. Comments are welcome below.
Click for National Archives Video Collection of the launch of the M/V Benson Ford.
Click to see what is left of the freighter M/V Benson Ford.