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The Winter Fleet in Sturgeon Bay


What is the Winter Fleet?

Similar to birdwatchers eagerly waiting to catch sight of flocks heading south for the winter, the community of Sturgeon Bay awaits the winter fleet arrival. "Fleet" refers to a group of large ships that range from 500’ to more than 1000’ feet long. Unlike our feathered friends, they don’t travel together, but each one separately and on its own schedule. The destination of these ships is Fincantieri Bay Shipbuilding in Sturgeon Bay, also known as the “Shipbuilding Capital of the Great Lakes,” where they will receive winterizing, repairs, and upgrades. The shipbuilding history of Sturgeon Bay extends back in to the 1850s with the area's first settlers.

A winter freighter moves through the ice, heading toward land.

What Makes it So Exciting?

The reason the arrivals of these behemoths is so exciting is that these are ships that normally can only be spotted far in the distance, when gazing from shore. They are very large, serving to carry tons of weight and shipping containers. Therefore it’s not often possible for these ships to come near shoreline except in shipping (or shipbuilding) ports. The canal is deep enough to facilitate these large ships and allow for up-close viewing from the shores of the Sturgeon Bay canal. The only trick is knowing when to be on the lookout.

A closeup view of the freighter, encased in ice.

When Can I See the Fleet Arriving?

With the start of each winter season, Fincantieri Bay Shipbuilders provides a schedule of estimated arrivals, but these dates often change due to weather. The Sturgeon Bay Visitors Bureau keeps updated timelines of these arrivals, and you can check for schedule updates on its website or watch a live feed of the canal on the website. Our Facebook page also posts live video updates on ship arrivals when possible.

Once a ship reaches the canal mouth on the eastern side, the barge is guided by a tug boat safely into the channel. Onlookers watch as the boat is guided through three bridges, which must each raise the drawbridge sections to allow clear passage. Once docked, workers have 70–90 days to make repairs and get the ships ready to set sail once again when spring arrives.

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