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Great Lakes pilot fees may deter some foreign attraction vessels from returning

Draken Expedition America
The Draken Harald Hårfagre Viking replica ship recently sailed across the Atlantic Ocean for stops in Greenland, Iceland and America. The Norwegian ship's crew said the vessel will not return to the Great Lakes unless it is offered an exemption."

The replica Viking ship Draken Harald Hårfagre has sailed out of the Great Lakes, wrapping up a contentious visit.

The 115-foot Norwegian vessel sailed across the Atlantic Ocean this spring and toured Canadian and U.S. waters all summer. It made stops in Chicago, Detroit and Green Bay where visitors came aboard for tours. But as of now, the Draken has no plans to return to the Great Lakes.

Organizers are still smarting from paying pilot fees that ran into the six-figures. The fees are part of a 1960 federal law requiring foreign cargo vessels to hire a U.S. pilot to steer them through the unfamiliar waters. Captain Bjorn Ahlander said the system needs exemptions for tourist attractions like the Draken.

“This is a wooden ship of a 1,000 years construction and you make it pay like a tanker or a cargo ship today - it’s not fair," Ahlander said.  

The U.S. Coast Guard maintains that the pilots are needed to ensure safety and spokesman Todd Haviland said the Coast Guard has no authority to offer exemptions.

"The Norwegian government registered the vessel as an ocean-going cargo vessel,” Haviland said. “That in and of itself makes all of its activity commercial."  

The Draken charges visitors for tours and sells merchandise from a truck that follows the ship. At a stop in Oswego, New York, some tourists like Emily Bergamo scoffed at the idea that the Draken is categorized as a cargo vessel.

"When I saw this was charged the same amount as the large freighter that's over there, I just couldn’t understand why,” Bergamo said. “But I was grateful that there was a groundswell of fundraising thank you to the Sons of Norway."

The Sons of Norway, a Norwegian cultural heritage group, raised more than $120,000 online to help pay the Draken’s pilot fees. That money ensured much of their journey, but a stop in Duluth was eliminated.

“It was an incredible response from the Norwegian community far and wide,” said Eivind Heiberg, the CEO of Sons of Norway. “I have never seen anything like it before.”

Draken expedition manager Luke Snyder said they appreciated the assistance, but the emergency fund-raising offered only a temporary solution.

"I think that we would be happy to return if there was some sort of legislation written so that it could reduce the cost,” Snyder said. “Right now, we just couldn’t afford another expedition in the Great Lakes.”

Snyder said the bill for the American pilots was $134,370.90 and that was after they had reduced their original schedule.

A spokesman for another historic foreign vessel sailing the Great Lakes, the El Galeon from Spain, said charging these ships for pilot fees will limit their visits as well.

But the Coast Guard recently moved in the opposite direction, raising pilot fees more than 50 percent. That decision is now being challenged in court.

Lakes Pilot Association Capt. Bruce Haynes said the raise is necessary to address the shortage of pilots.

“They need pilots by law and by good practice so that there is no accidents and environmental catastrophes,” Haynes said.

He notes that a ship recently grounded in Lake Eerie because there was not a pilot aboard.

As for the Draken, it’s bound for New York City, where it expects to work out a less costly deal with pilots there because those waters are within the state’s jurisdiction.