National Geographic : 2003 May
feet long, passing day and night in front of the J. W. Westcott Company office, a low whitewashed building with blue marine trim on the edge of Riverside Park, just across the railroad tracks at the bottom of Detroit's 24th Street. On a fall day in early October, the sun is glinting off the silver towers of the Renaissance Center a couple of miles upriver, and it feels almost warm enough to light up the barbecue on the neatly trimmed lawn between office and dockside. "It's different in November," says Tanner, a veteran of the U.S. Marines and the Detroit police force. "If the wind is out of the southwest, pushing against the current, you can get water going over the boat." Even in less severe weather, maneuvering beside the big ships can be lethally dangerous, especially if the small boat falls back, cannot pull away, and gets dragged in under the stern, close to the propeller. On October 23, 2001, just before dawn, the Westcott was headed for an oceangoing tanker-a "salty"-moving upriver. But the tanker did not slow down, and, in circumstances that are still unclear, the Westcott was suddenly flipped over. It sank in seconds, drowning the crew of two-Cathy Nasiatka, the experienced captain, and deckhand Dave Lewis. (The West cott has since been refloated and repaired.) "When Cathy and Dave were drowned, we had a tremendous wave of sympathy from around the lakes, messages, calls, visits," says company head Jim Hogan, whose great-grandfather started the business in 1874, using a rowboat to meet ships midstream. "It really showed how close people feel to this operation, even though e-mail and cell phones have cut down on the amount of mail" Not surprisingly, relationships with the addressees on the mail in J. W WESTCOTTCOMPANYCOLLECTION The i. W.Westcott ll uses all of its 248 horses to court the huge ships that ply the Great Lakes. When the boat's namesake, John Ward Westcott (above), began delivering mes sages to passing ships in 1874, he had only two oars and a strong back.