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Future unclear for the Cuyahoga, one of the oldest Great Lakes ships, after engine room fire

The MV Cuyahoga reported a fire in the ship's engine room in the evening of Tuesday, May 23, 2023. The fire was extinguished and Canadian and U.S. Coast Guards responded.  (Submitted by the U.S. Coast Guard/Twitter - image credit)
The MV Cuyahoga reported a fire in the ship's engine room in the evening of Tuesday, May 23, 2023. The fire was extinguished and Canadian and U.S. Coast Guards responded. (Submitted by the U.S. Coast Guard/Twitter - image credit)

It's hard to say what comes next for one of the oldest ships to travel the Great Lakes, one expert said, after a fire in the engine room of the MV Cuyahoga Tuesday evening.

Eight of the Cuyahoga's 20 non-essential crew members were evacuated and brought to shore for safety purposes, a spokesperson for the Canadian Coast Guard told CBC Windsor, after a fire in the engine room of the ship while it was near Pelee Island on Lake Erie Tuesday evening.


"The fire was extinguished, and there are no reports of injuries or pollution," said Jeremy Hennessey of the Canadian Coast Guard.

Ship remains anchored near Pelee Island

A U.S. Coast Guard spokesperson confirmed their agency also responded with an additional boat and helicopter to monitor the situation. Crews aboard the Cuyahoga were "able to successfully contain the fire and they were all accounted for with their twenty people on board," said Petty Officer Jessica Fontenette.

According to the U.S. Coast Guard and online marine traffic monitors, the Cuyahoga remains anchored in place near Pelee Island Wednesday evening.

Lower Lakes Towing owns the Cuyahoga and the company declined to comment Wednesday morning.

Cuyahoga is the oldest Canadian lake boat: Expert

Fires aboard ships are more common when the ship is docked, said Andrea Guerriero, an associate member of the International Ship Masters' Association and a photographer of ships on the Great Lakes.

Josiah Sinanan/CBC
Josiah Sinanan/CBC

She said she's never heard of a fire aboard a ship while it's in the middle of open water.

"I can't begin to imagine how scary that must have been for everybody on board," Guerriero said. "But the good thing with all of these crews across the Great Lakes, they are all fire trained, they take courses in fire prevention, what exactly to do in this sort of scenario.

"Obviously in real life when it happens in real time, it would be completely different than any sort of scenario that you can make up. But the fact that they have that background … is really helpful and I think it really speaks well to what happened last night. They knew what to do."

The ship was built in 1943 for the purpose of carrying steel to be manufactured into supplies, like artillery and aircraft, for the Second World War and was originally named the J. Burton Ayers, Guerriero said.

The ship was purchased by Lower Lakes Towing in 1995 and renamed the Cuyahoga, a tribute to Ohio's difficult-to-navigate Cuyahoga River.

Today, the Cuyahoga is the oldest Canadian registered lake boat still in operation, Guerriero said, and one of the oldest boats on the Great Lakes, period: Two other ships are just a year older, at 81 years in service.

As for what comes next, Guerriero said from her perspective, it's an open question.

"As I say, the majority of the time where I have seen this happen, they've already been at a dock. I don't know what they do when a vessel is actually out in the middle of the lake," Guerriero said.

Officials may tow the ship to a port — whether that's one nearby or further afield — so the ship can be boarded and the damage assessed when it's safe to do so, Guerriero said.

"Then they can look at it and it'll take a long time because every other one has taken quite a long time.

"So I don't expect any answers anytime soon."