I’m woken two hours early by the 2nd mates knock at my cabin door,
‘We’re just passing Mission Point, we’ll need you for the locks,’ he says in what sounds, from my grimy fug of sleep, to be an obscenely cheerful voice. I grunt an acknowledgement and less than five minutes later I’m out on deck.
The sun has not yet asserted itself and the deck is wet from heavy rain overnight. Now’s is a non-binary precipitation, not quite snow, not quite rain. It is a good ten degrees cooler here than it was last week when we passed through.
‘Radio check,’ I say into my radio’s mic which is clipped to a bandana I wear around my neck.
‘Loud and clear,’ comes the Captain’s response from the bridge. I take a sip of tea from my travel mug and head up forward to help the deckhands set up the wires and the heaving lines for our arrival at the Soo locks.
An hour and a half later, and clear of the locks we re-lead the wires for a port side tie-up, prepare the landing boom and undog all the hatches. This is sweaty work despite the temperature which is near zero. The sun is up but may as well not be for all the light it casts on this gloomy, gun metal grey day. We make our turn towards Essar. Smoke gushes from the stacks there and mist rolls off the mountainous piles of iron ore, coal and stone that line the water’s edge. I take my position on the aft deck as we begin to reverse into our slip. The main engine roars beneath my feet and the prop kicks out a huge wash. Approaches are often slow, but eventually, we come up gently on the wall and the boys are swung ashore and the wires go out. Before the last wire is even on the unloading boom is swung out and positioned over the hopper into which we will unload our cargo of coal.
Trouble is a communal creature; it seldom travels alone. Just as the coal begins to run off the end of the boom at a rate of 1000 tons an hour, the system needs to be shut down, as the massive belt that the cargo is run out on (imagine a treadmill belt) needs to be adjusted. As this happens our generators fail and there is a massive backlash in the stern wire (a backlash is a when the wire tangles on the drum of the winch. Often it will need to be beat free with a sledgehammer, in extreme cases the wire may snap). I am on the stern with Gil, the lead deckhand, trying to deal with the wire when I notice that the back of the ship is being flushed off the wall at quite a rate. I run to the winch controls and put the wires in full heave and manage to slow and eventually stop the swing. Not before our 30’ long accommodation ladder, which had been lowered to get the deckhands back aboard, comes crashing into the ship’s side. No damage is done, and the stern wire is soon back in action and we are pulled snug back to the wall. Ten minutes later and coal is streaming out in an unstaunched flow and the chaos of the previous minutes is forgotten.
After my watch I eat lunch and retire to my cabin. It is the time of year when an invidious lethargy descends on me and I don’t even read one paragraph of my book before I am asleep.
After a brief rest I decide to get off my ass and get out. I combine a trip to the supermarket to pick up earl gray tea and toothpaste, with a run. I wade through the black muck of Essar and out the gates into the world. I run dismal streets and despite persistent back pain I limp along, zig zagging my way to the shops to max out km’s on what is otherwise a short distance as the crow flies. Bryan Ferry and Roxy Music soundtrack the trip and are the only beauty I encounter on this excursion.
Later, I relieve the watch just as we are finishing the unload. I call the last few gates and watch as the great pile of coal reduces. This has been a quick unload. There have been no more breakdowns beyond the initial trouble. The last of the coal flows out of gates 1 and 2.
‘That’s it,’ I say over the radio. ‘That’s the whole dirty lot of ‘er.’
The de-mudder’s we had on board have finished de-mudding our ballast tanks and before we depart we need to shift forward 300 feet so they can unload all their equipment. This is an opportunity for the deckhands and I to hose out the cargo holds. This is done with 75foot lengths of inch and a half hose. They are heavy when primed with water and pack quite a kick. All the hoses run off one main and if one or more people shut their hose down the power increases to the ones left running and it is enough to knock you off your feet if you are not ready for it. It is satisfying work, directing the powerful stream of water at stubborn piles of coal and dislodging them. Watching all that black dust disperse and wash out through the gates at the bottom of the hold.
I am just a ringer here. Just a guy dragging a hose. The deckhands here are the real maestros. Together they choreograph the hose-out magnificently, peeling lids on and off with the hatch crane and grappling those stubborn hoses into submission as they meticulously work their way down the length of the ship. It has begun to rain heavily but I am already soaked with sweat and the spray-back from the unwieldy hose nozzle.
The de-mudder’s are finished unloading and the captain calls me up to the bridge to wheel out. I run down to the locker room and peel off my outer layer of wet gear, time being scarce I must be content with the damp inner layer I have on and I steam up five flights of stairs to the darkened bridge (the bridge is always kept dark to enhance visibility at night) and take my place behind the wheel.
It is one hour from Essar to the Soo Locks and a further six hours to Bruce Mines in the North Channel, where we are due to pick up a load of sand. As we line ourselves up for the lock the rain turns to snow. Wet stuff that smears everything with its leaden gloom.
Four years ago, myself and Kish, one of the deckhands here, were on another ship and we were landed at the end of the long spit that marks the approach to the lock, as the captain thoughtwe were going to have to tie up. It turns out we didn’t need to,and instead we walked over a kilometer, in snow up to our waists with our heavy boots and cold weather gear on. By the time we arrived at the lock and handed off our heaving lines to the American linemen we were flushed and wrung-out with exhaustion.
Less than a month later, on a black night just before Christmas, Kish and I would be involved in a punt accident and get tossed into the fast-moving current of the St. Marys River not far from here. It is only the quick instincts of that ship’s tunnelmen, and a very well-aimed life ring that saved us.
We clear the lock a little after midnight. The St. Marys river by day is some of the most beautiful scenery we see out here. In spring and summer fresh smells are borne on the breeze, in autumn it is an artist’s pallet of earthy colour and in winter virgin snow blankets the shoreline and ice coats the trees in a crystalline rind that shines bright as a welder’s torch when the sun catches it. Throughout the year, deer graze and rut on the beaches and osprey and bald eagles patrol the air looking for a fish supper. At night though, it is only black, and we steer by lights alone. I am happy to give the wheel up to the 12-4 wheelsman when he comes to relieve me. I head down to my cabin and crawl into my bunk and for a guy who ashore often has trouble sleeping, I am asleep almost instantly.
I’m woken two hours early by the 2nd mates knock at my cabin door,
‘We’re almost at Bruce Mines,’ he says, ‘we’ll need you for tie-up.’