CLEVELAND, Ohio — Cleaning the toilets wasn’t exactly the “fun summer job” that college student Jordan Kit imagined when he applied to work as a deckhand on Cleveland’s sightseeing pleasure ship, the Goodtime III.
But that’s the only job that was available and he took it, swabbing toilets, vacuuming the main deck and doling out popcorn and Pepsi at the snack bar. He did windows. Lots of them.
It was the summer after the West Geauga High School grad’s final full year at Baldwin Wallace, where he majored in International Relations and planned to work after graduation in the fall as a teacher near Beijing, educating the children of migrant workers.
But his China plans fell through — the financing didn’t work — and he found himself after graduation back on the Goodtime III, doing winter maintenance and helping to build a new bar. And before he knew it, May was coming and another sailing season, so he re-upped, this time as a deckhand.
As summer waned and the college kids on the ship headed back to school, Kit stayed on and turned into what he calls an “hour hound,” working every available shift doing any available job. By the time the season ended in September, he was working as an assistant manager.
He grew up in Boston and Cleveland, never far from water, but he’d spent his life as a landlubber. And now, just on the horizon, his new life’s goal was coming into focus: He wanted to become the captain of the ship.
A young captain
It’s just a few years later now, and Kit stands in the pilothouse. His white captain’s uniform is perfectly pressed and cotton clouds against a deep blue sky high above the slate gray river water are reflected in his mirrored sunglasses.
He’s in charge of 500 tons of steel and passengers, squeezing past freighters and pleasure boats, jet-skis and rowing shells, all while delivering the most thorough Cleveland history lesson you’ll hear outside of a classroom.
And he’s 26.
“His maturity level is beyond his years,” said Captain Rick Fryan, third generation owner of the Goodtime. “I don’t want to say he’s an old soul, but even when he started with us, I could just tell this guy is going to be a Fortune 500 Company CEO, or whatever he does, he’s going to be successful. And then he got the bug. He got the boat bug.”
“I’m tickled pink. He’s 26, he’s smart, and he has the right temperament for the job,” said Fyan. “He doesn’t get easily rattled.”
Learning from a great teacher
Piloting an excursion vessel like the Goodtime III is never “Deadliest Catch” dangerous. But there are days that could rattle a captain, when weather crops up, freighters crowd the river and novice kayakers seem to forget they’re sharing the river with ships that can swamp them in their wake.
Kit is vigilant, eyes always scanning, on the horn to the bridge tenders, communicating with deckhands on the two-way.
“Driving the boat always comes first,” he said.
He had great teachers. Longtime Captain Bruce Hudec, who started as a deckhand in 1971, saw potential in him during that “hour hound” summer of 2013 and had him sit next to him on a stool in the pilothouse, learning the chess match of navigating the river, passing under more than a dozen bridges, turning around at Collision Bend or at a tighter spot even farther up river.
He encouraged Kit to get his merchant mariner credential and his 100-ton Great Lakes Master License. He logged the requisite hours on board, took an intensive class and earned his license.
And then, suddenly, in December 2014, the 71-year-old Hudec died.
“That was a real blow. Captain Bruce was the kind of person who knew the hopes, dreams and aspirations of everyone who worked on the boat. And he was such a character,” said Kit.
Kit was licensed, but not ready.
“We had a relief captain, Bob Gamber. He basically called me that afternoon and said, ‘Are you ready to take it?’ And there is a part of me that wanted to say, ‘Yeah, I am ready.’ But I recognized that that was way too much to take on at that point and I had to suck it up and say, ‘Listen, I’m gonna need more coaching before I can take over.'”
Gamber retired from his job at Eaton Corporation and took over for the 2015 and 2016 seasons. For most of the latter, Kit piloted the excursions. This year, the ship is his. Gamber is happily back in a relief role.
If Kit does his job right in piloting the boat, passengers on the daily noon and 3 p.m. cruises — and the weekend dinner, dance and happy hour cruises, won’t notice the difference.between. But when the speakers crackle to life and the story of Cleveland as seen from the water is told, the difference is obvious.
A new voice on the ship
For decades, a mini-disc recording — narrated by Cleveland radio legend Larry Morrow — has delivered the history lesson as the ship navigates its route. But that had problems. If a train crossed and railroad bridge blocked the channel, the ship would be slowed and the narration would be out of sync with the sights. And with development along the waterfront in high gear, the facts could quickly become outdated.
“The last time we recorded with Larry, in 2015, we recorded it in April, and by mid May there were already six to seven minutes that were totally unusable,” said Kit.
So he went to work researching modern developments and sussing out more detail about historic structures and events and recorded new tracks. They’re digital files, which he can order up on command with an iPhone. If something changes in real time, he just gets on the ship’s microphone — same voice — and delivers the update. In the old days, when the captain came on, there was a stark difference between his words and those delivered by the silky voiced Morrow.
“Now, no one knows if it’s live or if it’s Memorex,” said Fryan.
Kit says that part of the job makes his folks happy.
“My parents are excited that I kind of get to use, to some extent, my college degree. I am doing the research and the narration, and they’re like, ‘Hey, there it is, the history minor!'” he said.
A lesson in Cleveland history
We learn from Kit that the breakwall was begun in 1870 and is four-and-a-half miles long. We gain insight into the Port of Cleveland’s foray in 2014 into container shipping to compete with rail. We learn that Terminal Tower was the skyline giant until Key Tower came along. We get an education on Whiskey Island and Irishtown bend. We are schooled on the various styles of bridges that cross the Cuyahoga, and about the landmark court case — one that involved a young lawyer named Abraham Lincoln — that ruled a bridge owner is responsible for the costs of opening and closing to let ships pass.
We sail past restaurants and residential buildings, past the place Kit shares in the Flats with his fiance, Samantha Landgraf. He can see his window from the boat, but he’ll never find his fiance waving to him from there.
She’s too busy for that. Landgraf, Fryan’s niece, is now manager of the Goodtime III.
They met on the boat.
Asked about how he started on the boat by scrubbing toilets, she responds quickly: “Everybody has to clean the toilets.”
Even the captain?
“Well, he doesn’t have to now,” she says. “But he would.”