Mechanical Edification and the Cutthroat World of Spaghetti Metrics
5 September 2021

‘I’ll never forget the date,’ he said, ‘December 6th, 1989.  It was the day those girls were murdered.’  

The captain is referring to the massacre of fourteen female students by Marc Lepine at the Ecole Polytechnique in Montreal.  News which had quickly travelled all over the world and still rankles in the minds of Canadians.  He is a voluble storyteller, in possession of a forensic memory and a scientific and enquiring mind.  He is speaking to me and the first mate on the ship’s bridge.  Its night and the only light comes from the scatter of Sarnia to the south and the dim glow of the navigation equipment.  I am steering.  We are just entering the St. Clair River.  I can see the red and green channel markers which delineate the path ahead. In the distance the faint arc of blue lights  becomes visible on the arches of the Blue Water Bridge.  The captain sits to the right of me and the equipment console in a high viewing chair.

‘I happened to be in Montreal for the night on my way to meet the Algoway at the salt mine in the Iles de la Madelaine.’  (The Iles de la Madelaine are a sandy, narrow archipelago of islands located in the Gulf of St. Lawrence on Canada’s east coast.)

‘The next morning I got my connecting flight, and I arrived in the islands at around 11am and went straight to the hotel for an overnight stay before meeting the ship the next day.  The temperature was about 10˚C when I got there and over the next few hours it dropped rapidly to -20˚C and you could tell she was going to blow.  And then the snow started.  Whiteout conditions.   And boy, that wind began to howl.  The power went out and the hotel dining room was lit with gas lamps and candles as I ate supper.  The 2nd engineer arrived on one of the last planes in.  When he landed no taxis wanted to come for him and eventually the airports janitor drove him into town.  We received word that the Algoway would be delayed because of the weather and that they were back and forthing in the lee of the islands waiting out the storm.  Then the ship’s steward arrived.  He’d gotten to the mine expecting to find the ship.  He didn’t have the common sense to think it might be delayed by the storm.  Of course in those days there were no cell phones or email and most places we loaded would have a small, heated shack which you could make phone calls from.  Well the steward took shelter there, only the power was out and the salt mine’s generators had redirected all their power to keep the air circulating down in the tunnels.  A couple of hours later the security men found him in there near froze to death.  Anyway, he finally made it to the hotel. Seven days we were there before the weather let up enough for the Algoway to get in.   Two ships sank.  They were overwhelmed by ice not a hundred miles from where we were.’  

The captain is himself no stranger to ice having sailed on the Great Lakes and Eastern seaboard for the better part of 40 years.  He grew up on Lake Huron’s North shore, the son of a commercial fishermen.  In winters when the lake froze over and his dad’s fish tug was unable to put to sea, he and a cousin would take snow mobiles far out onto the ice and there, utterly exposed to the lacerating winter winds they would bore a three-foot hole through which to set their nets.  Later, they would return and painstakingly, hand over hand the nets up through the hole and onto the ice to collect the catch, each one of which, empty, weighed 500lbs and was 600 yards in length.  The captain’s in his early sixties.  He is of average height and possesses an everyman quality.  With his short-cropped grey hair, wire rimmed glasses and homely turn of phrase he could just as easily be an accountant or an insurance adjuster rather than the prodigiously talented ship handler he is.


I arrived on the ship three days ago.  Three of us drove from the city nine hours to meet her in Sault Sainte Marie.  Autumn is in the air up north.  We could smell it on the breeze in the car as we wound our way westward on the trans-Canada from Sudbury.  The further we drove from the city the more we could feel the stolid heat and humidity diminish.  The leaves of some trees had already begun to turn.  We drove through small towns and endless fields where crows stood sentry on fenceposts, their feathers like mussel shells, ruffled in the breeze. We saw falling down barns and proud upright red ones.  On the gravel shoulder Amish trundled quietly along in their horse drawn buggies. The men in their broad-brimmed hats and the women, bonneted and in long dresses.  Rusted pickup trucks sat wheelless on cinders atop overgrown lawns in front of rundown bungalows.

No sooner had we arrived and our crew change occurred then a coupling on one of the two motors which drives the shaft of the c-loop belt broke and our unloading rate was reduced by 75%.  The motors are powered by 440V.  Such immense voltage is needed to drive the belts which are what propel all our cargo up out of the holds and onto the shore.  

‘How long will it take to get the part for the engine,’ I ask the captain later.

‘We haven’t been able to source it yet,’ he tells me.  ‘And just so you know, if it is powered by electricity, we call it a motor.  An internal combustion engine, something that runs on fuel, is what we call an engine.  Just, ya know, for your mechanical edification.’  Despite my propinquity to all kinds of machinery my knowledge of the internal mechanics of motors and engines remains definitively tabula rasa.

One can’t help but wonder if there is a ‘Jonah’ among us incoming crew, as things always seem to be breaking down on this crews rotation.  Sailors have traditionally been superstitious creatures though as technology has bettered and safety aboard ships has improved, this has mostly been bred out of us.  Throughout the storied annals of maritime history, at one time or another, the following have all been considered bad luck to have aboard:  whistling, bananas, red socks, flowers, clergymen, women and Norwegians.  

Today, the ship I sail on, even with the most modern navigation and safety equipment available, has on the bridge console beneath the ECDIS (electronic chart) and to the right of the VHF radio, a small square cut out of it where a piece of marine ply has been inlaid.  It bears a label which reads, 



My first night aboard and the fecund topsoil of my mind produced a healthy crop of dreams:

-I dreamt an actor friend of mine, whom I have not heard from in some time, invited me to see a play he was in.  He sat me in the audience and explained that should I need to go to the washroom, it would be very difficult to get back inside the theatre, but if I followed a specific set of inscrutable instructions, I would be able to do so.  Of course I needed to pee, and having immediately forgotten his directions, got terribly lost on my way back. To my great embarrassment I found myself onstage with all the eyes upon me. And then I was outside and it was cold and somehow, I had lost my shoes and socks and was barefoot in the street.  The play ended, the crowds emerged and my friend found me and had to supply me with ungainly black boots from the theatres props store.  We made our way to a quiet pub and fell into easy conversation.  He had a Heineken.  I had a Guinness.

-And then I was at a party with many guests.  I was introduced to an attractive woman, a brunette with Semitic features.  I asked her what she did and she told me she worked internationally in the cutthroat world of ‘spaghetti metrics.’

-And then I met the Queen and Prince Phillip.  She was dressed in a red coat and hat with a matching purse and he wore a heavy winter overcoat and a Russian fur cap.  He told me that in the war he helped evacuate refugees in large planes known as ‘chipmunks.’  This is notable as in my normal life I find the royal family and the institution they stand for particularly loathsome.  They were in my dream, however, quite charming.  

-And then I dreamt I was sexually pursued (and not in a good way) by all the members of a strange family aboard a 1950s motor yacht.  I hid from them in a cupboard in the galley among the pots and pans.

-And then I dreamt a clockwork owl bade me follow it through a hole in the base of an enormous tree and it led me on a subterranean adventure.

-And then I dreamt we were launching our new rescue craft.  Lowering it down into the water, one of the lifting straps parted and the boat swung upside down and dangled there and all of the safety gear inside spilled into the lake.  A passing fisherman tried his best to rescue some of the gear but the only thing he managed to salvage was a can of Dr. Pepper.


On my first watch back, up on the bridge the captain told me he spent his last time home working on his BMW.  

‘I replaced the oil pan, had to take the whole front end off of her to do it.’

I asked him if he ever took it into the shop to get it worked on and he said,

‘No way.  I don’t want to give the Germans the satisfaction.’  

Preventative maintenance is what he calls it.  He told me it is something of a hobby and that what he did would have cost $3500 at a garage.

‘Wow,’ I said.  ‘It makes me want to take a course in small engine repair.’

The captain looked at me and smiled.

‘No offense Nick,’ he said.  ‘But knowing your technical ability, I would advise against it.’


After steering down the St. Clair River a piece, I was relieved of the wheel at midnight and I went down to my cabin. In bed I thought of that storm in December 1989.  The captain said that when he finally joined the Algoway the 2nd mate told him he’d heard the distress call from one of the doomed ships being issued.  A man with a thick Chinese accent calling Mayday.  Their vessel was covered in ice and they were listing dangerously in the 30-foot seas.  Minutes later, the same voice was heard faintly above the deafening roar of the wind and waves and through the static of the VHF radio.

‘Goodbye’, was all they said.