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Last Sunday, an armada of 60 tourists rumbled through this scenic canal-side town without stopping. Not so much as a brake light for the Onondaga Escarpment, Whisky Run Golf Club, Incredible Shrinking Mill or other charms that snag most visitors.

The only attraction fixed in their brains was a yard full of rust and asbestos at the south end of town.

By 10 a.m., cars with U.S. plates and rooftop VHF antennas lined both sides of the gravel driveway leading to the International Marine Salvage scrapyard, all here for the highlight of the 8th Annual Boatnerd Gathering at the Welland Canal.

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"Any other day of the year, this place is off-limits," says Wayne Brown, a school caretaker who drove three hours and arrived early. "This is really a rare opportunity."

All over the windswept scrapyard, flash bulbs blaze, especially at the yardworker guiding his cutting torch along the hull of the Calumet, a classic straight-decker laid up after 80 year on the Great Lakes.

Other yardworkers hawk flaking portholes off the back of a pickup truck.

"This is history all around us," says Mr. Brown, one of dozens of boat nerds studying rustbuckets as though they were art exhibits. "They cut up history here. It's sad ... but it sure is a treat to see it before it's gone."

To an outsider, this "rare opportunity" looks like a visit to a landfill littered with freighter hulks, deck winches and two listing trawlers from Lithuania. To one of the 30,000 people who call up Boatnerd.com every day, this scrapyard is a museum in a state of perpetual self-destruction.

Launched over a decade ago as the modest pet project of a single freighter fan, the website now registers more than 20 million page views a month and acts as a hub for thousands of hobbyists who can recite every arcane detail about every arcane vessel on the lakes. About 140 freighters, or lakers, currently ply the Great Lakes waterways, each carrying a unique history of mishaps, strange cargo and eccentric owners.

The lure of that lore is infectious, says Dave Wobser, one of the volunteers who run Boatnerd.com.

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The site tracks the location of every ship in the Great Lakes, and reports spills, accidents, launches and scrappings - often before the authorities do. At the scrapyard, that devotion to breaking shipping news was evident in the number of squawking portable radios holstered to hips, all tuned to VHF-FM channel 14.

"It's like air-traffic control for the canal," says Mike Cunningham, a property manager who came from Sarnia with his son, 11-year-old Griffon, named after one of the first commercial ships on the upper Great Lakes.

As a hobby, boat nerding is similar to train- or plane-spotting, but on a much grander scale, as most nerds will gladly point out. Larger lakers - the 1,000-footers with 68,000-tonne cargo holds - can carry the weight of 700 railcars or 2,000 tractor-trailers.

"They are the biggest, cheapest way to move bulk commodities that there is," says Mr. Wobser, looking past the listing Calumet to the 730-foot Frontenac loading salt across the canal. "And yet they slip so smoothly and so quietly across the water."

A boat nerd's devotion knows no geographical bounds. Like birders, many keep life lists, ranking all the vessels they'd like to see before they die.

They are known to skip work, drive for days, sleep in cars, brave blizzards and monitor ship radios throughout the night, all out of affection for the big tubs that glide across North America's freshwater highways.

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The boat nerds are fully aware that some will scoff at this level of obsession. "Most of the professional mariners, they all make fun of us," says Mr. Wobser.

"But I guarantee you they read [Boatnerd.com]every damn day. I know because any time we get something wrong they're on our ass correcting us right away. The Coast Guard, especially, they watch us like hawks."

Not long ago, 400 additional freighters plied these waterways. Larger ships with larger payloads have shrunk the fleet size - a boon for scrapyards, which can gross upward of $1-million from a single ship, but a loss for ship lovers. Every so often, the nerds get to celebrate when a ship is saved from the scrap heap.

Earlier this year, the John Shermin, an 800-foot laker that had been laid up for 25 years, floated back into service.

"That got everyone excited," says Matt Miner who, at 30, is a relatively young nerd. "That was big news."

By noon, the boat nerds begin wandering back to their cars, some identifying each piece of scrap as they go.

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"See that rusty thing? That's a bow thruster from the Tarantau," says Mr. Wobser, feet crunching over iron slag. "That over there's from the Henry Ford II. And that one they use as a fireworks platform in Toronto."

Mr. Wobser drove six hours from Findlay, Ohio, to be here. In June, he drove two days just for a trip aboard a laker, his first.

"It was awesome," he says, but not the same as watching from land.

"You watch one of those ships slide past from the shore and you can just let your mind wander. Where's it going? What's it carrying? Will it get around that hurricane? It becomes a fantasy."

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