In the Spotlight

News & Features
Boat nerds
By Chris Julin
Minnesota Public Radio
August 27, 2002


People tend to think Minnesota is a landlocked state, out here in the middle of the continent. But more than 1,000 ships come to the Duluth harbor each year. It's hard to tell if a ship is carrying wheat to Taiwan, or corn to Algeria, but Ken Newhams can help. He runs the Duluth Shipping News. All summer long he puts out a daily schedule for the Duluth harbor. And he gives the two-page paper away - free. The Shipping News tells boat watchers where the ships are going, and what they're carrying.

The Laurentien
The Laurentien, a Canadian ship, in the Duluth harbor. This is only one of 15,000 photos of ships that Ken Newhams has taken. Take a multi-media tour of the harbor (RealAudio)
(Photo courtesy of Ken Newhams)

On a sunny afternoon in late August, Canal Park is packed. It's the peak of tourist season in Duluth, and this is where Lake Superior meets the Duluth harbor. It's the place landlubbers come to get a close look at ships.

Most of the boat watchers are from out of town, and many of them are holding copies of the Duluth Shipping News.

Jackie Carry is writing on her copy. She's inking in updated departure and arrival times. She and her husband, Dale, live in Crosby, Minn., and they visit Duluth every August.

"We just love watching ships go in and out," Dale says.

"Just to watch them go in and out," echoes Jackie. "Because they're so big, and at night they're really pretty with all the lights on."

The Carrys do a bunch of things while they're in Duluth, but watching ships is near the top of their list. Right now they're watching the Laurentien leave the harbor. It's a Canadian ship, and it just picked up a load of iron ore. It's headed for a steel mill in eastern Canada.

Artaki loading grain
Ken Newhams captured this shot of the Artaki taking on grain in Duluth. See larger image
(Photo courtesy of Ken Newhams)

The Laurentien slides through the narrow canal, and ducks under the Aerial Lift Bridge, and it's so close you could yell to the crew members. It's so big, the pilot house looks like a five-story apartment building gliding over the water.

"They're just huge," says Kelly Prebble. "It's just amazing."

Prebble is here from Willmar with a car full of relatives. They come to Duluth every summer, and they always spend time looking at the boats. The Prebbles have a copy of the Duluth Shipping News.

Just a few feet away, Ken Newhams is snapping pictures of the Laurentien as it sails out into the lake. Newhams is the entire staff the of the Shipping News. He prints 1,000 copies each day during the summer, and they almost always get snapped up.

Newhams says he has a few local fans, but most of his readers come from out of town. He says people who grow up in Duluth get used to seeing ships from Cleveland, and Hong Kong and Turkey.

"I was one of those people that came up here and probably didn't even know that there were ships from Turkey up here. It just blew my mind."

- Ken Newhams of the Duluth Shipping news

"Like people in a lot of towns, they take what they have for granted," he says. "But somebody comes in here from the outside and sees a ship from Turkey - in Minnesota - it's kind of awe-inspiring."

Newhams used to live in Minneapolis and take trips to Duluth.

"I was one of those people that came up here and probably didn't even know that there were ships from Turkey up here," he says. When he saw one, he says, "it just blew my mind."

Newhams moved to Duluth 11 years ago and went into business as a computer consultant. And he got more serious about looking at at ships.

"I opened the second page of the paper," Newhams remembers. "It said 'Ships and Times,' and I said, 'Oh great, there's a schedule of the ships!'"

But the schedule was for the previous day's ship traffic. Newhams was disappointed.

"I wanted the schedule for today's and tomorrow's," he says. "And now I do that. I provide that."

Ken Newhams
Ken Newhams has a small, crowded office with a window overlooking the Duluth ship canal.
(MPR Photo/Chris Julin)

There's an entire subculture of ship-watchers around the Great Lakes. They call themselves "boat nerds." They have a convention, and they publish books with facts and figures about all the boats that pass through the lakes. Some boat nerds run websites. There's even one called

Ken Newhams runs a Duluth Shipping News Web site, and he has 15,000 photographs of ships in his computer - but he says he's not a real boat nerd.

"I don't care a whole lot about how wide the ship is," Newhams says. "I don't know every detail about how it was built, or when it was built. I'm more concerned about what it's doing now. If it's taking out grain, that's of interest to me because the grain was grown in North Dakota and farms in Minnesota. If it's taconite, I grew up in Pittsburgh, and US Steel is housed there, and a lot of the early iron ore that came down from here went down by boat to Pittsburgh, and I make that connection."

Newhams says he's at least as interested in the crew members as he is in their vessels. He says the best part of his work is getting to meet the crews and making friends from all over the world.

The Duluth Shipping News isn't a money maker. Newhams still does computer consulting. He's started selling his photographs of boats. For dedicated shipwatchers, he puts out a monthly newsletter with collections of his stories about boats and the people on them.

And he spends a lot of time at the ship canal, watching the boats go by.

More Information
  • Duluth Shipping News