‘People steer the same section all the time in daylight and in good visibility,’ the captain tells the third mate who is learning how to pilot this stretch of the river. We are in dense fog, down bound on the St. Clair River. ‘The mistake they make is suddenly slowing down when the fog closes in. You’ve got this and you’ve got this…’ he points to the radar and the ECDIS (electronic chart), and here he turns to the mate and me, at the wheel to really make his point, ‘and I don’t care if you run her up on the beach at 6 knots or at 10, the results going to be pretty much the same.’ He is a preternaturally confident man, and one gets the impression he could navigate any portion of the seaway blindfolded, without breaking a sweat.
I wish I had his confidence, because from behind the wheel I can’t help but feel a little nervous, knowing what tight quarters we are in. I’m no longer steering on a mark, as there is no mark for me to see. I am focused on the compass course instead, and the directions given to me by the captain or the mate. The fog is amorphous. Sometimes it opens a little and I can see our bow 600’ ahead. Other times it closes in utterly and all you can see is whiteness, as though we’re afloat in an odd limbo. The whiteness itself is ever changing. It has depth and dimensions and it moves, but there is nothing to see within it and one’s eyes begin to hurt if you try too hard. They are tracking a ship on the ECDIS which is approaching us.
‘Do you see it yet?’ the mate asks.
‘No,’ I say.
‘What about now?’
And then out of the whiteness and just next to us, I see the dark forward house of the ship appear out of the mist.
‘Holy shit.’ I say softly, my disquietude not registering at all with either the captain or the mate. This is nothing out of the ordinary.
We are bound for Hamilton with a load of stone. There is a crew change scheduled and I will be getting off after 46 days at sea. The corridors of the crew’s accommodation smells of disinfectant and floor cleaner as the guys prepare their cabins for the incoming crew. One of the deckhands has even painted his head (marine bathroom) and whatever paint he used smells like wet, dirty dog and stinks up his section of corridor.
I was watching a documentary recently about the puffin. It said they spend 8 months of the year alone out at sea, but for their four months ashore they are very sociable and I chuckled to think how closely this describes the lives of many mariners, though in these COVID times the sociability has become a tricky avenue to negotiate.
A little over a day later and we’re safely tied up in Hamilton. I give my cabin a final check. My bags are packed and sit outside the door. For the first time in over a month I put my wallet in my back pocket and clip my keys to my belt loop. These things, the tools of my shore-based life. I look briefly in the mirror, my appearance now something of concern. I grab my gear and head down to the deck.
They say there are no friends at crew change. Meaning I suppose, woe betide the person who gets in the way of another man’s leave. This time it feels like people are more subdued. Normally I feel great excitement, like there is an ineluctable force drawing me homewards. I don’t now, instead my stomach roils. The departing crew descends the gangway and the incumbent crew gather and ascend. Some of them look excited, happy. Others look, amusingly, as though they’re death row inmates on their final walk. There are pleasantries exchanged. The odd fist bump. I find the van which will take me back to Toronto and I sit quietly in the back waiting for the others.
I’m aware that we’re all fumbling in the dark here. Navigating close quarters in restricted visibility.
I just need to remind myself to maintain my heading and that even if I do hit the beach, whatever speed I’m going, the results still going to be the same.