It’s the time of year when the Great Lakes freighters come in to Sturgeon Bay, Wisconsin for their winter layup.  During this time they will receive repairs and upgrades at Fincantieri Bay Shipbuilding that will get them ready for the upcoming year.  It can, however, be a challenge to plan for their arrival if you want to photograph them.  In the past, I would just kind of get lucky and be out and about and happen to see them in the bay.  This worked well enough and I have some cool shots from the past couple of years but it doesn’t really help me if I want to plan specific shots.

I learned some tips and tricks that help really help me out.


Check the Arrival schedule

The most important thing to know is when the ships will arrive in town.  Luckily, Bay Shipbuilding often releases the list of ships to Destination Sturgeon Bay and Door County Maritime Museum who will post their list to their Facebook pages.  

It is important to note that as of recent years, they do not release an arrival and departure schedule.


Check the Map

Since they do not announce when the freighters will arrive, we need a way to find out when they will arrive.  Luckily there are ship tracking websites out there that will help with this.  I only found out about these sites this winter when they were posted on Facebook.  The sites to check are BoatNerd, Marine Traffic (mobile app links), and the app Boatwatch (iOS | Android).  All these resources shot a live map with a search function to find the ships, course and speed information, and present coordinates.  

I found that you might have to check more than one of these sites to find the ship.  I don’t know if they draw from different databases, but sometimes a ship will not show up on BoatNerd but will be on Marine Traffic or Boatwatch.  Sometimes it won’t be on any of them, which means the ship could be out of range.  I always check these sites in this order until I find the ship: BoatNerd, Marine Traffic, Boatwatch.

It’s kind of fun to watch the ships travel around the lakes.  Last weekend I was waiting for the Joseph S. Pierson to arrive in Sturgeon Bay and saw that it was completely stopped in northern Lake Michigan.   Apparently, it was stuck in the ice up there.  Then I watched (on the maps) the CSG Mobile Bay leave Sturgeon Bay and head right up to the Pierson, and break the ship free.  I could see on the map when the ship was right outside of the shipping canal, which let me know the right time to head out with my camera.

When using these maps, you can easily watch the ships you know are scheduled for Sturgeon Bay and make sure you are ready when they are close.


Find A Good Viewpoint

Once you know when the ship is coming into the canal, it’s time to find a good viewpoint.  Here is a list of some good spots around Sturgeon Bay.


Shipping Canal Entrance (North Side)

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The Coast Guard Station has a long pier that is open to the public.  You can get up close and personal with the freighters as they come though.  The red North Pierhead Lighthouse is there to include in your shots as well.  

Below is the map location where you can park.  There is clearly marked visitor parking spots.  Then head towards the beach using the walking path.  Be sure to stay on the path or the Coast Guard will not be too happy with you. 


Shipping Canal Entrance (South Side)


On the other side of the canal is a beach area owned by the Door County Land Trust that gives you a slightly different angle of view.  Once you park you’ll see a path to the beach.  Please stay on the path as the surrounding area is sensitive.  But once down to the water you’ll have plenty of room to find a good viewing spot.  There is a pier on this side also.


Memorial Drive

Memorial Drive is a road that hugs the shoreline.  You are able to park along this road and follow along with the ships.  Please note that both sides of the road are private property so please stay on the road/sidewalk.


Oregon Street Bridge


The Walter J McCarthy Jr arrives in the Port of Sturgeon Bay to join the winter fleet at Bay Shipbuilding.

This is my favorite place to watch the ships.  From the Oregon Street Bridge, you get a head-on view of the ships as they approach and stop.  Be sure to stay off the actual drawbridge part, or the bridge tender will scold you on the loudspeaker.


Michigan Street Steel Bridge

The Michigan Street Bridge is another great place to get up close and personal with the ships.  From here you can get almost a straight on view of the ship as it goes through the Oregon Street bridge.


Graham Park

Graham Park is right next to the Oregon Street Bridge.  This is a good spot to watch the tugs help align the freighters so they can make it through each bridge.


Old Railroad Bridge

This is probably the best spot to watch.  The old railroad bridge sticks way out in to the water and you get a great view as the ships come through the historic Michigan Street Bridge.  The ships are very close to you as they pass on by.


Stone Harbor Resort 

There is a public walkway around Stone Harbor where you can get up close to the water.  This offers another view of the ships as they come through the Michigan Street Bridge.