The Unapologetic Voice: Milwaukee author casts off “Sweetwater Sailors” with compelling, untold stories of merchant mariners on the Great Lakes

Milwaukee – The stories of Great Lakes Merchant Mariners, often overlooked in favor of their deep-water counterparts in a profession equally as hazardous, are brought to life in Sweetwater Sailors, a new historical nonfiction book making waves all its own. Published by The Unapologetic Voice, the book is a #1 New Release on Amazon for Ships and Ship History.

Author Bob Ojala, whose father spent 33 years on Great Lakes freighters, brings readers up close and personal with these unique maritime professionals. They lived a nomadic existence on vessels notable for cramped conditions, never-ending vibration and uncountable sounds and smells. His book features pages after pages of photos, many of life aboard ship.

Great Lakes sailors performed the unglamorous task of transporting ore, cement, salt, grain, coal and other cargo across the unpredictable waters, which could turn from hospitable to hazardous on a dime. Ojala points out that while a few highly-publicized sinkings (most notably the Edmund Fitzgerald) captured public attention, the lives of the sailors who always returned home have earned scant retelling.

“These sailors worked weeks straight while at sea, and gave the better part of their lives to a difficult job that was integral to our nation’s economy,” Ojala said. “They might not have ‘sailed the ocean blue,’ but their stories portray a compelling, unappreciated living that deserves to be told.”

Merchant Mariners spent the better part of every year away from their families, missing birthdays, holidays, weddings and other gatherings. Many paid the price in broken marriages and estrangement from children. Yet they returned to sail again, year after year.

Those who crewed the freighters shared a unique personality type, one that felt most at home amid winds, waves and the grueling schedules aboard ship. Even after returning to their families from long trips away, sailors would soon grow antsy for their next tour of duty.

Crews aboard the freighters became like family. They bonded over constant togetherness, strenuous, dangerous working conditions, and pleasures such as near-gourmet food prepared in simple galley kitchens. Their lives intertwined amid the absence of blood relatives.
Great Lakes merchant sailors shared interesting and entertaining stories with Ojala of their years on the Great Lakes. Their tales range from enduring terrible storms on the water, to encountering a motorcycle gang on board, to spending a few hours “up the street” while docked in port.

Sweetwater Sailors also describes the gradual integration of women into freighter crews. Limited early to roles such as cooks, stewards and cleaners, women climbed the ranks to become chief engineers and eventually ship captains.

Ojala, a U.S. Coast Guard veteran, is abundantly qualified to tell these sailors’ stories. Besides operating a marine consulting business for 30 years, he worked 17 years with the American Bureau of Shipping, and nearly nine years with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

Sweetwater Sailors is available on Amazon and other online outlets, plus many museum gift shops.