An apprentice pilot on the Great Lakes, Jason Church hops on numerous international cargo vessels in a given year as he transits the Great Lakes and St. Lawrence Seaway out to the Atlantic Ocean as a career.
For the past several years, using the digital sobriquet "Captain Jason Church," he's been delivering insight, imagery and videos of the lakes on social media. His Twitter and Instagram timelines offer a vantage point of shipping life once mostly foreign to the public.
"I hope to promote my industry by showing others a view rarely seen," Church said in a interview with the Duluth News Tribune via Twitter. "Most of my followers are industry professionals, however some are Midwest farmers who want to see where their product goes."
Church was an early adopter among mariners of social media, beginning roughly 10 years ago.
On Nov. 13, Church posted "#GoodFood makes a happy ship" - accompanied by an array of photos featuring a steaming Polish soup, garnished pears and an egg cooked delectably sunny side up. He posted a timelapse video last season from the deck of a ship as it exited the Soo Locks and appeared to race under the Sault Ste. Marie International Bridge and out into the wide blue open of Lake Superior.
"I chose to post shipping info (because) it's what I do," Church said.
He's not alone. For an industry that has fostered online vessel trackers, and long been adored by shoreline enthusiasts known as Boat Nerds, social media has created another, more connected way in which to observe the goings-on aboard the steel hulks knifing through inland seas.
"Used the right way, it brings our industry to life," said Mark Barker, president of Interlake Steamship Co., based outside Cleveland. "It's not just a big metal ship floating through water. You're part of it."
Interlake Steamship and the Canadian giant Algoma Central Corp. are two of the industry leaders when it comes to use of social media. Their feeds are flush with onboard activity and midlake musings.
"It's growing more every day," said Algoma Central spokesperson Hannah Bowlby. "We're kind of a hidden gem of an industry that's extremely important to our economy. People like hearing from us."
The move to social media has been a contrast for an industry which is romanticized by Hollywood and shoreline photographers, but can be difficult to navigate otherwise - what with corporate hierarchies and their mostly on-brand messaging.
Because Interlake Steamship remains a private company, Barker said it's been easier for it to wade into the social media waters - a conscientious move the company made roughly four years ago. Now, it has 28,000 followers on Facebook, more than 2,200 on Instagram and about 1,000 on Twitter. Not to mention a YouTube channel and presence on LinkedIn.
The Interlake Steamship strategy is to post daily - everything from images of its boats, behind-the-scenes content about crew and work aboard the vessels, food pictures from the galley and even sharing information about critical industry issues, such as the need for a second Poe-sized lock at the Soo Locks.
"We move a lot of goods efficiently, in an environmentally friendly, low-impact way and we do it fairly quietly (as an industry)," Barker said. "We have a huge impact to the economy of the region and to the nation and it's important when people see a ship go by they put faces and jobs and people's lives with those ships."
Spokesperson Jayson Hron is new to his job and has been tasked with giving the Duluth Seaway Port Authority a social media presence to go with its traditional North Star Port magazine. He's not there yet, but he understands the importance of building a digital presence for the Port Authority - the go-to voice locally for shipping matters.
"It is certainly reflective of where the world is now and where it's going in terms of more digital communication," Hron said.
One big reason for the shift to social media in shipping: recruitment. The industry is graying and in need of new faces. Those new faces grew up viewing screens and communicating on social media.
"We use it as a recruitment tool," said Bowlby, of Algoma Central. "When a position comes open, we want to get some information out there about working at Algoma. The hope is to raise interest about our industry and our company."
Church's social media posts are often lighthearted and fun. By infusing the mariner life with first-person accounts and images, Church hopes to counteract the sense maritime prospects might have of being disconnected at sea.
"I hope to raise general interest in the marine industry as we are currently having a personnel shortage," Church said. "The younger generation does not want to do this anymore as it takes them away from home for too long."
The access to social media itself can be an attraction to the industry, sources said. Hron pointed to a new program that is giving international sailors technology pods once they get to shore - refurbished cargo containers outfitted with seating, internet, tablets, charging stations and more.
A growing number of ships move about the lakes with wireless internet access. As a result, both Algoma Central and Interlake Steamship said they have internal policies about social media use. For Barker, it's simple: There's a time and place for crewmembers to use their social media accounts.
"It's hard to control - that's part of what makes it appealing," Barker said. "We have a lot of discussions about appropriate use of cellphones and technology on board ship. If you're on free time, it's absolutely appropriate. If you're on watch, it's not. Doing the job in a safe manner comes first and we do make sure that's clear and abided by."
Also, most of the cargoes and places ships dock are private and crewmembers can unwittingly create issues with an innocent post.
"We talk about the perils," Barker said.
All in all, social media is proving to be a welcome frontier for the industry - a place to deliver its story one post, one tag, one share at a time.
"For people on land," Hron said, "it's a rare glimpse."
A starter kit for shipping social
Here are the Twitter handles for a few of the most active and insightful shipping industry accounts on the internet. Starting here can get you to Instagram accounts and other accounts within the industry: