‘It is too early for snow,’ said the first mate as we made the big turn at Johnstone’s Point, a near 90˚ bend in the upbound section of the St. Marys River. His inflection betrayed genuine puzzlement. In the few hours since we had cleared Detour Passage at the mouth of the river, I’d noticed the odd aimless flake meandering across my field of vision, but as the ship swung swiftly in the narrows and I took off some wheel to slow her, suddenly snow was everywhere, streaming down in purposeful lines blown straight by the stiffening breeze. As I fixed the ship’s heading on a set of ranges ahead, I looked out on the cottages snugged in the tree line of the near shore and the light dusting of powder on their roofs. The trees here seemed more depilated then the ones an hour down river. Except for the evergreens most stood bare, or partially denuded but for a few clinging modestly to their colorful vestments. A low hanging mist clung to their top branches like long, thick whisps of synthetic Halloween spider’s web. I had only boarded the ship four days before and in the few hundred miles in which we’d sailed north from Windsor, it felt as though we had crossed an invisible border and sailed unwittingly from one season into the next.
Days earlier, in my last hours ashore, I skateboarded around the city completing final errands. It was cooler than I had anticipated and I was grateful for the warmth of exertion and for the simple joy that is skateboarding. At Service Ontario I renewed my driver’s license and felt an electric jolt of horror when I saw that I would be 51 when it next expires. I was distracted from this malaise by a security guard who, despite my being a man in his mid-forties, was obviously mistrustful of anyone carrying a skateboard, and I remembered how many of his red-faced and roly-poly brethren had huffed and puffed and chased me and my fellow skaters from building sites, office blocks and parking lots in the halcyon days of the early 90’s. I was a small and unsporty kid then, and skateboarding was my salvation. It gave me an identity and a tribe and I do not know how those years would have played out had I not been given that first plastic penny board from Canadian Tire when I was eight. I rolled around town, aware that it could be my last skate of the year, as in December the sidewalks and streets might well be choked with ice and salt and snow.
I always feel a profound sense of failure when I prepare to head back to sea. The things I have failed to accomplish, the people I have failed to see. Boarding the ship the next day at the fuel dock in Windsor in the early morning I felt a slight unburdening as the leaden zeppelin of despair that had been hanging over me drifted further away and there was a loosening in my chest like a small stream in thaw. Shipboard life is not without its irritations and stress, but they are certainly less complicated and more quantifiable than the vagaries and ambiguities of my shore side anxieties. I said hellos to the departing crew and went up to deposit my bag and change out of my city clothes and into work gear, eager to get back down on deck and help receive provisions.
The snow let up as we approached the Soo Locks though ominous clouds loomed on the horizon and the sky wore its winter uniform of battleship grey. The deckhands readied the wires and the landing boom up forward and prepared to swing ashore. I watched as a bald eagle carrying a large fish in its talons flew low over the water, pursued by two seagulls.
‘Hey look!’ I said. The deckhands glanced up from their work and watched, all of us silent for a rare moment. The fish flopped impotently in the iron grip of its captor who seemed entirely unbothered by the opportunists skirling at its tail feathers.
Later, as we unloaded coal in the Soo, I ate lunch and read the latest thick Franzen in the mess. Our newest deckhand, just 19, came in.
‘See ya later. I’m outta here,’ he said.
‘What? You’re going ashore?’
‘No, I quit.’
I was told that he had a fear of heights, which admittedly could be a problem when looking down into the vertiginous depths of our cargo holds or swinging ashore to receive the wires, but not an insurmountable one. I was 16 and terrified the first time I climbed the rig of a tallship. As I laid out on the coarse yard, just 25 feet above the deck, my legs shook so powerfully that the yard and some of the standing rigging began to shake too. In the following days I persisted, and soon I was climbing around with the best of them. I discovered I could move through a ships rig with an efficiency and confidence I could never muster on dryland and since that day I have spent a great deal of my working life aloft and I get a chill when I think how easily I could have jacked it in then and there and said ‘No way. No siree.’
I did not conquer my fear of heights – I still can’t look over the railing of my parents fifth floor balcony (even though I have worked in ship rigs twice that height) and when I visit my friend in his 28th floor condo, if he has carelessly forgotten to close his curtains, I don’t walk, I crawl – but somehow this fear is mitigated when I’m on a ship.
I was surprised as this new kid had seemed able and enthusiastic. At the time I felt an urge to offer him some avuncular advice, ‘Stick it out, it will get easier…’ or ‘you will come to regret this decision,’ but of course, what do I know, so I didn’t, and I buried my nose back in my book and didn’t even bother with a ‘goodbye’. He had only been on board for four days.
The fact is on these vessels there is an extremely high turnover of deckhands. I recall once in Toledo, Ohio when the crew van showed up with a brand-new hand. He scaled the ladder energetically with his enormous sea-bag slung over a shoulder, stepped onto the deck, took a look around and saw the deep cargo holds with the steaming cargo within, heard the whine of the deck winches and the crash and clang of hatches being opened and closed and he said,
‘Nope. This isn’t for me’ and turned around and went back down the ladder. He had not even put his bag down.
I don’t know whether this kid actually had a fear of heights, or if at 19, he has never had a real job and was simply horrified by how hard the work is and the hours with which it takes to do it at any time of day or night and in any kind of weather. I can admit unashamedly that I could not have done the job at that age. Not for lack of work ethic work ethic mind you, I mean I physically would not have been able to do it.
The night before I shipped out, I dreamt I was skateboarding downtown and I slipped and my skateboard shot out onto Lake Shore Boulevard and it’s eight lanes of traffic. I watched as it crossed lane after lane without being run over by the traffic speeding in both directions. Then a truck drove past and my deck was lost from view. I woke up with a sick feeling, not knowing if it had made it across unscathed or not, but aware with odds like that, its fate, like that of the fish that I would later see struggling in the eagles grip, was almost certain.
I came on watch this morning in a building gale as we sailed eastward on Lake Superior with a load of furnace coke from Superior, Wisconsin for Thorold, Ontario. The sun was struggling to assert itself as I arrived on the bridge. It rose with the same lethargy I had only minutes earlier when my alarm went off and I rallied my aching joints and swung my legs from the bed. November is a terrible season for weather on the lakes (we sweet water sailors don’t need Gordon Lightfoot to remind us) and we hugged the lee shore of the Keweenaw Peninsula in an effort to escape the worst of the seas. The ship rolled gently, pleasantly, while outside the wind whipped the feathered caps of waves into a fine mist. The lights of Marquette, Michigan gleamed just a few miles to starboard and ahead, the navigation lights of other ships taking a similar storm route were visible before the horizon. A rag-tag convoy of cargo vessels, all of us bound for the locks at the Soo.