Boats & Barges

‘Boatnerd’ Builds Community, Maritime Culture On Great Lakes

Do you like spying Great Lake ships, or “lakers,” from the shore or tracking them on AIS? Do you keep track of what vessels visit any of the ports that line the shores of the five Great Lakes and the rivers that feed them? Do you enjoy trading boat stories and spreading boat rumors?

Then you may be a “boatnerd,” and if so, is the site for you. started as a class project in 1995 when founder Neil Schultheiss was a student at Oakland University in Rochester, Mich.

The popularity of the site grew immensely over the years, with the organization eventually becoming a nonprofit (formally named Great Lakes and Seaway Shipping Online Inc.) that’s now led by a board of directors and its current editor, Roger LeLievre. Funding comes in the form of direct donations and advertising on the website.

Sign up for Waterway Journal's weekly newsletter.Our weekly newsletter delivers the latest inland marine news straight to your inbox including breaking news, our exclusive columns and much more.

“We’re dedicated to Great Lakes shipping and the Great Lakes in general,” said LeLievre, who is also editor and publisher of Know Your Ships, an annual book on the boats that operate on the Great Lakes-St. Lawrence Seaway. “We have the whole range of people from nautical enthusiasts, sailors, people in the shipping industry. We have visitors from all over the world.”

The site features a daily news page, which both features stories submitted by individual boatnerds and aggregates stories related to the Great Lakes. also includes daily port reports that track vessel movements between ports and terminals, along with a “Today in Great Lakes History” page.

Boatnerd logo.
Boatnerd logo.

Every winter, the site carries a lay-up list that details the vessel name, lay-up port, dock and time frame. also has an extensive AIS tracking system that’s free and publicly available that plots vessels on a map of the Great Lakes. The organization also manages an active message board.

“We also have gatherings in the real world of like-minded individuals, LeLievre said. “We call ourselves boatnerds, of course. We have gatherings around the Great Lakes when we get together, take pictures, swap sea stories and news and rumors.”

One of the group’s most popular events was held June 23 when a fleet’s worth of boatnerds gathered near the Soo Locks at Sherman Park in Sault St. Marie, Mich. The event—and food—were free and open to the public.

“We’re a friendly bunch,” LeLievre said. “We like to talk about boats, and that’s what we do.”

After the picnic, attendees went down to Mission Point to watch the ships go by en route to and from the St. Marys River.

“We get our lawn chairs out and our cameras are at the ready,” he said.

The following day was Engineers Day at the Soo Locks, which LeLievre expected to be well-attended following an extended COVID-19 hiatus. Later on June 24, Boatnerds sponsored a freighter-chasing cruise on a Soo Locks tour boat. The group gathered again at Mission Point on June 25, with the boat nerds heading home the following day.

Boatnerds gather to greet an American Steamship Company ship with a company flag.
Boatnerds gather to greet an American Steamship Company ship with a company flag.

LeLievre said, while times have certainly changed on the Great Lakes, with larger yet fewer ships sailing on the lakes these days, it’s still exciting to enjoy the history of the region and celebrate the industry that’s thriving there. Passenger cruising is having a renaissance on the lakes, he said, and crowds are eager to celebrate the seasons, from the summer gatherings and winter lay-ups, to this year’s reopening of the Soo Locks after the winter shutdown.

“About 200 people this year traveled to Sault St. Marie in the dead of March—it was freezing—to go stand on an observation platform to cheer the first boat through the locks at midnight,” LeLievre said. “And I was there too—crazy.”