Retired Vista Fleet captain enjoys life on the water

When you drive along Park Point, about three blocks after the stop sign, you will pass a house with a big lake freighter wheel in the front yard. The owner of this house, Capt. Tom Mackay, is a retired captain from the Vista Fleet, who bought this wheel at an auction. If you ask him, “What ship is it off of?” he will reply, “What ship do you want it to be off of?”

Tom Mackay loves boats. He owns several boats, including a kayak, a flat-bottom boat, a 14-foot aluminum boat, a 22-foot boat, and an iceboat. Some of them currently sit in his back yard, facing Superior Bay, while some are in storage.

The first iceboat Mackay and his brother bought was 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 (Liz) 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,” Liz 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 so many couples started asking, Mackay was finally ordained by a church in California. He had three different ceremonies and recalls one lady asking him if he could make hers a religious ceremony. Mackay said yes, and 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 (Shawn) 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 not too long ago 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.

They climbed the pilot ladder, which is a rope ladder that they hang over the side of the ship. After boarding the vessel, they went into the pilothouse, heaved up the anchor, and started into the harbor. They had to contact the Aerial Lift Bridge, and 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.”

Other activities that Mackay and McKenzie have enjoyed together are fishing, going to the Shipmaster’s lodge and collecting floating timber from the lake. They also enjoy spending time with some of their elderly friends. The first time McKenzie experienced ice boating was with Mackay.

“I could see the ice bending under the rudders,” McKenzie said.

He wasn’t worried, though. 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," which is a local interpretation of the Loch Ness Monster.

What is most common to find in Capt. Tom Mackay’s house are pictures of or items from ships. On one wall are two windows. One is 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.

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