Down in the Trenches
28 September 2021

A little after midnight Dawson emerged from cargo hold five.  It was blowing a full gale and the temperature had dropped to -25˚C with the windchill.  He stood over the narrow hatch and hand over handed the 75’ length of one inch hose up from below, pausing periodically to catch his breath and regain his strength as he struggled against it’s weight and the wind and the movement of the ship which grew more pronounced as we rounded Whitefish Point and made our way out onto the open black  expanse of Lake Superior.  He had been up for 12 hours already, busied with the discharge of iron ore at Sawmill Bay.  Depending on how his work went, he faced another six hours before he could get some sleep (it being company policy to knock an employee off after 18 hours to get a minimum of six hours rest).  When the length of the hose was finally up at deck level, he flaked it out in the bay between the two cargo holds and prepared to go down into the next hold.  One of the legs of his wet weather gear had been reduced to tatters and it flapped behind him in long flowing ribbons of green nylon.  Before lowering the hose down through the hatch to cargo hold four, he tested the valve on the nozzle.  It did not move.  It was already frozen solid. All of the residual moisture in the hoses length would be frozen now too.  The thing was useless.  He would need to get another from the heated fo’csle at the front end of the ship, 400’ up the deck which was slick as a skating rink.  He went to remove the frozen hose from the hydrant but the coupling and the valve were covered in three inches of ice. First, he’d have to go and find a tiger torch and hold an open flame to the valve until the ice melted.  He stood up, his tall, lanky frame leaning almost 45 degrees into the wind, and head down and legs bowed, staggered through the blizzard of sideways snow, aft towards the engine room.  There was no doubt now.  He would be eighteen-ing out tonight.

By far the most physically arduous work out here is done by the deckhands.  They are responsible for hosing out the cargo holds, the tunnel and the unloading gear after we discharge cargo.  This must be done with a fastidious eye for detail as to have cargo cross-contaminate could cost millions.  These are not garden hoses either. They are between 50’ and 100’ in length and just holding onto one of them is an exercise in functional strength training and a cardio blast to boot. The deckhands shovel cargo on deck and in the tunnel for endless hours.  Most dangerously, they are the ones who swing ashore to receive our wires at tie-up.  They do this from a 21’ landing boom which swings out like a gallows scaffold at a 90˚angle from the ship’s side.  It is equipped with a small, wood seat, similar to a bosun’s chair, which has a rope threaded through its centre, with which they are lowered down to the dock.  Their descent is controlled by the mate on watch, who pays the rope out from a cleat and by a guy rope at the end of the boom which controls the distance from the ship the deckhand will be deposited.  A mistake could end with them falling between the dock and the ship.  Left at the mercy of enormous and intransigent forces that would leave them smeared like a bag of butchers offal on a cement pier side.  Five years ago, on another vessel in the fleet, a deckhand was swinging ashore and as he was being lowered down, the mate realized the rope was too short.  At this point he could not arrest the descent and as the rope ran through his hands the deckhand plummeted into the water.  Only through swift action was he saved from an unpleasant fate.  It happens that in a cautionary twist of this tale worthy of Aesop, the rope had been replaced only the day before.  Measured and cut to (incorrect) size by none other than the soggy deckhand himself.

I remember how it was to work the deck.  To be tired all the time.  Bruised and achy.  When each day feels like Promethean punishment.  When sleep is all too short.  Unlike the rest of the crew the deckhands cannot measure their day by the clock, only by the cargo and the rigorous demands it imposes on them.  It does not matter what the weather or the time of day and night, the work must get done. They are almost always wet and are the most prone to injury. Bruises, cuts, battered knuckles and pinched fingers are the order of the day.  In my time here, I have seen some break ribs and ankles.  

At docks where the load rig does not move the ship must shift back and forth beneath it to fill each cargo hatch.  When the opportunity presents itself, I like to go down on the dock and pull the wires like the deckhands do.  I did this a couple of weeks ago in Calcite and in a four-hour shift clocked 4.3 km’s running the heavy mooring wires back and forth along the 700’ length of the dock.  Up on deck I chatted with John, a wheelsman on board who was working deck for a few weeks in his free-time to make some extra cash.  He is tall, dark-haired and has a wide moustache which may or may not be ironic.  He used to be in the military where he served as a mortarman and spends the watch telling me about an exercise near James Bay in the Arctic when he and his platoon had to survive and maintain cover for a month in the awful cold.  They were given army rations but these did not compensate for the massive amount of calories the body consumes in cold weather so they supplemented their diet by trapping and eating snow hare, which they soon discovered are so lean they possess almost no calories. Hearing of their plight the indigenous park rangers taught them how to snare moose with a rope dangled from a tree. They had been shown how to capture the moose but not how to kill them.  Confronted with their first catch, a big, bull moose, there was some deliberation as to how it should be dispatched.  This went on for some time until John’s colleague marched forward, drew his service revolver, and planted a bullet between the moose’s eyes as if it were a gangland hit.  

John told me you can always spot a newbie in winter soldiering because they are the ones who take their rifles into the tent with them at night.  This allows the steel to sweat and next morning when they are back out in the frigid conditions the moisture will freeze and jam the gun.

‘It was awful out there,’ he said,  ‘but the kind of thing you’re glad you can say you’ve done.’  

He is a big guy.  A military history buff.  On his shoulder he has a tattoo depicting Julius Caesars victory against the Gauls at the Battle of Alessia.

Kish, another deckhand here, collects military paraphernalia.  He is often able to source items in the various ports we visit.  At home he has a museum of helmets, mortar shells, ruck sacks and canteens.  A whole room is devoted to his collection.  Kish, like many of our crew is from Port Dover in Southern Ontario.  He is a lifelong metalhead with long straggly hair and intense eyes which belie his kind and laid-back nature.  He has a slender build and is in his early 40’s (most deckhands out here are in their late teens and twenties).  He has the most dogged of work ethics and is the first man out whenever the boys are called for duty.  A few years back I was flying back from Thunder Bay with him.  It is a small airport and they run your checked baggage through the x-ray machine right there at the check-in counter.  As Kish’s sea-bag passed through the machine a look of consternation spread across the x-ray operators brow.

‘Do you by any chance have a bayonet in your luggage?’ they asked him.

‘Yes,’ Kish said and smiled, proud of his most recent acquisition.  ‘Yes I do.’

I once worked on a film about the attack on the American Embassy in Benghazi, Libya in which the ambassador was murdered.  The director hired some SAC (Special Activities Centre) operatives as consultants.  They are a military wing of the CIA responsible for covert operations.  I became friendly with one of them.  He was a handsome guy in his mid-thirties.  He had long blonde, hair and wore loose Hawaiian shirts and flip flops.  He looked more like a Californian surfer dude then a soldier.  

‘We’re the guys who go in and get shit done,’ he told me.  ‘And if we get caught the government will deny any knowledge of who we are and what we were doing there.’  He was university educated and came from a middle-class family out west.  He did not join the army for the economic reasons many others are forced to in his country.  He served in the marines before joining the CIA and had done numerous tours of duty in Afghanistan and Iraq, as well as other operations around the world that were ‘classified’.  

‘Why do you keep on going back?’  I asked him.  He shrugged.

‘I fuckin’ love war,’ was all he said.

Arriving at the Sandusky coal dock a few weeks ago I volunteered to swing ashore and receive the wires for no other reason than to prove to myself that I still could.  I climbed up onto the raised platform from which the deckhands launch themselves.   I sat down on the small wood seat and grasped the rope tight between my thighs and my hands.  The old fear fluttered in my belly.  It goes away when you do this repeatedly but now it was back and I told myself ‘you need to do this more often.’   The gap between the ship and the pier decreased.

‘Is it OK for me to land the boys?’ the mate asked the captain over the radio.

‘Land ‘em when its safe,’ came the reply.  He made direct eye contact with me from 15 feet away.   

‘Are you ready?’  

‘I’m ready.’  I put all my weight onto the seat.

‘Going Over!’ I shouted and kicked off from the ships side.  The boom swung out.  I dangled there briefly, 20 feet up.  I could see the narrowing belt of water. I felt the familiar surge of adrenaline, terrifying and wonderful, and then I saw firm ground beneath me.

‘Over!’  I shouted.  The mate paid out the rope and I began the swift descent down to the dusty, black coal dock below.

(photo courtesy of Alan Bell)