Great Lakes Christmas Sail

By Matthew K. Weiland
Based on the Voyages of Bridget Nagle

There has long been a certain fascinating mystique surrounding the notion of a solitary Christmas somewheres – a lighthouse, a forestry service fire tower, a rural AM radio station, the caboose of a 20th century limited smoking through the midnight clear – where a small choir of angels, convened through chance or circumstance, light a candle, exchange a gesture, and toast a nog to peace on earth however distant is their hearths and homes.

Rally in the Galley
Bridget Nagle | Photo by Marianne Mangan

Such came to mind recently while watching a ship slip over the horizon two weeks back, following its own north star on a cold, lonesome lake. Where might they be going? Where will they find their yule port? Where might their midnight choir sing? How would Santa find them?

“Holidays are extra special,” says Bridget Nagle, cook, steward, Santa’s helper and host extraordinaire, who has been aboard the 630-foot Manitowoc since May of 20 aught 10.

“I’m definitely a boat mom. I go crazy cooking and baking this time of year. It’s a three-day feast of gluttony for a crew of 17 along with the captain and first mate. These are my boys. I truly love them and their families.

A Little Corner of Christmas

“I’ve tried 100 different meat loaf recipes until I found the best one. Some of the must loved recipes belong to the mothers, wives, and grandmothers that have been graciously passed along to me.”

Ice Breaker Exercise | Video

In addition to managing inventory and menu planning week-by-week for the expedition, Bridget also does a made-to-order breakfast every morning. Everyday options include: Eggs, any styles; sandwiches, scrambles, omelettes, and burritos (with peppers, onions, mushrooms, tomatoes, and/or spinach); bacon, ham, sausage links and/or patties;  pancakes (blueberry, banana, chocolate chip and buttermilk), French toast; hash brown patties and/or shredded, cubed, or home-fried potatoes;  oatmeal; and breakfast desserts (how great are those two words!) consisting of banana bread, apple cake, turnovers, muffins, donuts, cinnamon rolls, etc.

“My cooking has improved so much since I first boarded,” says Bridget, “when I only knew how to make mac and cheese and Hamburger Helper. You can ask my family and friends about my panicked phone calls during my first season. The upside down turkey, the egg salad in which I forgot to mash the whites. But somehow it all worked out.”

On the day of her dispatch, her lunch menu consisted of broccoli cheddar soup (soup everyday for lunch and dinner); a full salad bar (everyday lunch and dinner); tuna melts & corn dogs (everyday); grilled cheese (a Grand River special); breakfast sandwiches; French fries and onion rings. For dinner: pork roast; cabbage and noodles; baked perch; potato and onion pierogies; steamed broccoli; and  Rice Krispies treats for dessert.”

“I like to try one new lunch and dinner every week,” she says. “Yesterday I grilled flank steak with a dry rub and a topping of an avocado salsa. It went over very well.”

Her current hitch rotation – usually she runs four weeks on, two weeks off- began December 13th and is possibly scheduled to conclude Christmas day. She boarded in Cleveland, they stopped by Cargill salt for a sodium load-up, then headed to Detroit to fuel before taking the salt to Green Bay. Then, off to Marquette for ore to take to Toledo then Detroit for coal to Sault Ste Marie. “When you get to single digits of days until you’re headed home you start hearing ‘9 and wake-up!’ ‘8 and wake-up’!” she says. “It’s always nice to be heading for home

“What’s nice, too,” she notes, “is that we always have extra crew so you meet some terrific people. Wives will travel with us when it’s one of the boys’ wedding anniversaries. Plus, we always have extra crew and service men as well. – Sunrises and sunsets never get old. They always put the biggest smile on my face. So spectacular. Plus the locks we travel through – I never tire of that experience. Just fascinating. We all joke when we’re going through them, people watching the people watching us. We have a slight feeling how zoo animals feel.”

In many ways, the story of Christmas is a tale of travel, from wandering shepherds to visiting magi to expectant parents seeking sanctuary. The journey toward warmth and welcome. And what does that more than food cooked with love. On such occasions, the bond created with fellow travelers births new dimensions of family and connection.

“On a boat like this, you become family quite quickly,” says Bridget. “As I said, these are my boys, my extended family. And this is my home away from home.”

T’was the Nosh Before Christmas
Photos Courtesy of Bridget Nagle

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