By Mike Creger

Duluth News-Tribune

A ship built for the ocean, coming from Brazil, was no match for icy Lake Superior this week. And so it was for the Diana, the celebrated first saltie in Duluth for the season that was rudely welcomed late Wednesday by ice - just outside of the shipping canal - that rendered it stuck twice.

Things were warmer at the CHS grain elevator Thursday afternoon, where the Diana was being loaded with 11,550 metric tons of wheat. The Duluth Seaway Port Authority conducted its official welcoming party for an overwhelmed Capt. Gheorghe Panait.

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“This is not for me,” the Romania native said of all the fanfare for being the first saltie in port. He said he didn’t expect to speak and hadn’t brushed up on his English.

“You’ve now entered the history books,” said port authority spokeswoman Adele Yorde.

The Diana is the latest of the first ocean-going ships since they began plying the St. Lawrence Seaway in 1959. Last year was another record year when the earliest saltie came in on March 30.

The captain was laden with gifts of books, coffee, mugs and other items reflecting the Twin Ports.

“I’m honored,” Panait said.

While this was the captain’s first trip in the Great Lakes, he’s no stranger to ice.

“The ice is soft, but we aren’t an ice class ship,” he said. He’s seen much more difficult ice in running ships in Finland and Sweden for five years. But the soupy ice just outside of the Duluth harbor squeezed in on the ship Wednesday night. Icebreakers, tugs and a 1,000-foot laker were required for moving ice around and getting the ship into port.

The delays for the 16-crew Diana began with the iced-over seaway, as the ship had to sit and wait on Lake Huron for things to open up. Then there was a backlog of ships through the Soo Locks and more waiting in Superior’s Whitefish Bay for an icebreaker escort across the lake. The final delay occurred Tuesday at Isle Royale. It was mostly clear sailing until seven miles out of Duluth, Panait said. At 7 p.m., the ice started. Five miles into it and two miles from the canal, the Diana got socked in.

Despite all those headaches, Panait was delighted to be in port and looking forward to a voyage of just more than two weeks to Algeria.

“It’s a very nice route,” he said of the seaway. “It’s interesting.”

Gene Shaw from Visit Duluth said the winner of the “First Ship Contest” guessed that the first saltie would come in during the afternoon on May 7. Shaw said a woman from Erie, Pa., made her guess on Feb. 27 and chose the date because it is her daughter’s birthday. Shaw said he suspects she took a look at Lake Erie and knew there wouldn’t be a saltie coming by any time soon.

The Rev. Tom Anderson of the Twin Ports Ministry to Seafarers also presented gifts to the captain. Some of them included Easter cards made by area schoolchildren. Easter was on April 20.

A chagrinned Anderson said that was indicative of how late the first ship came in.

“We’ve been waiting for you quite a while,” he said.