Retired Lake Superior captain enjoys life on the water
by Jenae Peterson
When you drive along Park Point, Duluth, about three blocks after the stop sign, you will pass a house with a big lake freighter wheel in the front yard.
The owner, Tom Mackay, is a retired captain from the Vista Fleet, who bought the wheel at an auction. If you ask him what ship it comes from, he will reply, “What ship do you want it to come from?”
Mackay loves boats. He owns several, including a kayak, a flat-bottom boat, a 14-foot aluminum boat, a 22-foot boat and an iceboat. Some sit in his back yard, facing Superior Bay. Others are in storage.
Mackay and his brother bought their first iceboat in the 1950s. It was named “Sputnic,” and it cost them $25.
Regardless of the weather, you can usually find this 68-year-old, retired captain out on the water.
“[I love] the independence, you know, get out and away from everything,” Mackay said. During the winter, he goes ice boating as much as possible. Almost every day during the summer, he is out fishing in his 22-foot boat.
Elizabeth Mackay, his wife since 1983, likes to join him.
“I take a book, and I sit in one of the back seats and sit in the sun and read,” she said. “I’ve often said I’m in heaven. There’s nothing better.”
Mackay retired about six years ago from the Vista Fleet, a cruise ship company in Duluth. He had been a captain on the boats since the 1970s, and he was, at one time, the only captain of the boats.
“It was fun working with the young people,” Mackay said. Before he left, Mackay had helped train several people to be captains on the ship.
He also performed more than 250 weddings on the Vista Star. Since the idea of having a ship captain marry them was so appealing, many couples asked Mackay to perform the ceremony.
After numerous requests from couples, Mackay was finally ordained by a church in California.
He officiated three different ceremonies and recalls one lady asking him if he could make hers a religious ceremony. When Mackay said yes, she replied, “Good, otherwise Grandma’s not coming.”
“He was fun to work with at the Vista Fleet, always had a wry comment,” said Christopher McKenzie, who has known Mackay since 1986 when they met as captains on the Vista Fleet.
“We continued our association over the years, and we got into a few shenanigans,” McKenzie said. “We’ve been friends for quite a while.”
McKenzie now works as a pilot on the lake, helping to guide ships into the harbor for docking. He recalled one time when he was able to take Mackay out to a ship with him.
“I knew that he was interested in going out,” McKenzie said. McKenzie and Mackay were able to ride the pilot boat out to a big ship that was anchored in Duluth.
In the process they had to contact the Aerial Lift Bridge. They picked up two tugboats on the way in.
“Tom was observing the whole time,” McKenzie said. “It was a different perspective [for him]. I think he had a good time.”
Mackay and McKenzie also enjoy fishing and going to the Shipmaster’s lodge and collecting floating timber from the lake.
The first time McKenzie experienced ice boating was with Mackay.
“I could see the ice bending under the rudders,” McKenzie said.
But Mackay wasn’t worried. They weren’t very far out, and if the ice were to break, they could simply walk back to shore. If you know where you are going, it’s not too dangerous, Mackay said.
“He knows the harbor like the back of his hand,” McKenzie said.
Mackay grew up in Lakeside and attended Park Point Elementary School. His father was a sailor, and from early on, Mackay was a Sea Scout.
A lot of his time was spent at Park Point, playing with his friend who lived on 22nd Street by Hearding Island, a small island nearby. Ever since those days, Mackay knew he wanted to live there.
He waited 11 years after returning from the Navy before a house finally went on sale. He remembers walking into the yard, picking up the “for sale” sign, and going straight to the owner, asking him, “How much do you want?”
Mackay bought the home for $18,000 and has lived there ever since. That was in 1977.
“It’s just fun to have a house that’s so personalized,” Mackay said.
In 1990, he built onto the house, adding more space. On every wall, there is a personalized piece of decoration. One wall holds two large photos that Mackay took of the forest and an old lighthouse that are still in Duluth. In the kitchen hangs a bowl from Jerusalem that neighbors gave to him.
In the bay outside, there is a piece of driftwood that Mackay carved with a chainsaw. He calls the driftwood the “Bayness Monster,” a local interpretation of the Loch Ness Monster.
Commonly found in Capt. Tom Mackay’s house are pictures of or items from ships. On one wall are two windows, one bordered with a ship’s wheel, while the other is a porthole from a ship. The glass is about two inches thick and is made to withstand the wrath of the waves slamming against it
If you walk into the back room of the house, you will find a large ship’s wheel connected to the wall, which spins if you grab hold of it.
“Boats, ships, sailboats, whatever,” Mackay said in reference to his favorite photo subjects. While some of his photos are on his wall, many are in books or magazines about Lake Superior and Park Point.
“When you sell something like a cover of a magazine or something, it’s just as much for the fun and people seeing your work,” Mackay said.
The recipe book “Get Bridged! A Collaboration of Recipes from the Park Point Community” includes about nine photos by Mackay, two of which are photos of ships. One is called a “Great Lakes towing tug,” and the other is called the “Socrates aground.”
Mackay is a member of the Harbor Club, the Propeller Club, ROMEO’S, and the Lake Superior Marine Museum Association. He is active in his community and still loves to go out in his boats.
This summer, Mackay went out in his 22-foot boat with two lifeguards during the Superior Triathlon near the Aerial Lift Bridge. He still loves to fish, kayak and iceboat. He continues to take photographs and submit them to Lake Superior Magazine and other publications.
Editor’s note: this story first appeared in LakeVoice.