Heavy is the Head
19 July 2022

It is said by some, that trouble on ships – like celebrity deaths and surfable waves – comes in threes, but we are well past that count now. For the last two weeks it has been the puppy tugging on the loose strand of a sweater, unravelling each neat, knit row, right down to the last stitch of the last nerve of the collective crew’s consciousness. This wears on everyone, most notably the captain who has been utterly besieged by incident and accident.

‘In all my years sailing I’ve never had three days like this,’ he tells me as I steer the ship up the St. Clair River. He is a taciturn man, not given to great displays of emotion. He is in his mid-30s but rose up through the ranks quickly as the protégé of our ships other captain, and this is reflected in his talent as a ship handler and his sangfroid when under the gun. His arms are festooned with traditional tattoos and a large beard hides half his face. Even when exhausted he remains even-tempered, an occasional audible sigh or the odd barbed, sarcastic comment the only betrayal of his frustration.

It all started with a miscommunication when discharging iron ore that caused 150 tons of taconite pellets to be dropped in the ships tunnel. The only way this could be removed was by hand and it required round the clock shoveling, one miserable shovelful at a time (it is very, very heavy) and took the deck hands and the head of cargo maintenance the better part of two weeks to clear up, by the end of which they were exhausted, sore and justifiably ill-tempered. As tempers frayed, heads butted on our normally peaceable ship and on occasion, angry words were exchanged.

Just as things were finally returning to normal, hours before he was due to get off the ship for a crew change in the Soo, one of the wheelsman chose that moment to get loaded drunk and not discreetly either. He lurched about the accommodation slurring wildly and refusing all admonitions to go to bed.

‘Five hours,’ said Fitzy the second mate. ‘That’s all he had to wait and then he could’ve had all the booze he wanted.’ There is a zero-tolerance policy for alcohol and drugs on our ships and anyone found under the influence is dealt with swiftly and severely.

A few days later our industrious and much-liked third engineer, an almost preternaturally positive young Newfoundlander, received a 440-volt electric shock while in the process of replacing the cable for the hatch crane (the matter is under investigation so I will not elaborate save to say that no one aboard is responsible for the accident) that could have killed him and left him with severe burns to his left hand. When we were within reach of land, he was rushed ashore and to a hospital where he is said to be in good spirits but requires considerable surgery. Accidents like this can weigh heavily on a crew and be almost as traumatic for them and in the hours after his departure a somber mood descended on the aft house. While most of us shrug it off and hide it, you can tell some are haunted by what they saw. It will be a long time before they forget those screams. Fitzy was the first-aid responder. Unfortunately he has seen much, much worse on more than one occasion, once administering CPR for 30 minutes to an injured crew mate who sadly did not make it.

Less then eight hours later as we were departing Sarnia, a worker at the stone dock where we were unloading,slipped while casting off one of our wires and pitched face first onto the rocky bank severely lacerating his face. For the second time in the day Fitz had to attend to a serious medical emergency. He dressed the mans wounds and an ambulance was called.

The next day I found him in the mess eating his breakfast and watching the news.

‘Has anyone asked YOU if you’re OK?’ I asked him.

‘Me? Oh yeah, I’m fine,’ he tells me with a shit-eating grin. He is all trash-talk, belly laughs and bravura. Later, as we ready wires up forward he talks excitedly about his two small boys. Perhaps this is his coping mechanism. His young family and the month-long RV trip they are about to take are never far from his mind. I admire his and the captains calm, even when they’re both standing beneath a precipice of paperwork which threatens to collapse and bury them both at any moment.

Eight hours from Sandusky, where we were due to load coal, word came down that their load rig had been damaged and we were being diverted. The vague instructions from the office were,

‘Head north.’

A week ago we were loading iron ore in Two Harbors, Minnesota on the north shore of Lake Superior. It’s a small, attractive town famed for its ore docks and for being where the 3M company was born, the three M’s standing for Minnesota Mining and Manufacturing.

In 1944 this ore dock set a loading record, dispatching 859 959 tons steel into the bellies of waiting ships and in the 1950s and early 60s they shipped an average of 50 000 000 tons annually until the trade petered out with the drying up of one of the mines. Now, only one ore dock remains in operation and it is here that we were loading. It was a warm, clear night and it felt good to be out on deck monitoring the load and chatting with the deck hands and the officer on watch. As we approached the end of the load the moon, full, red and huge appeared above the breakwater and rose steadily in the sky turning a soft yellow the higher it got. It laid down a shimmering golden highway which we followed onto the otherwise cold, black lake and I thought how glad I was to be there then, and what a good omen a harvest moon is supposed to be. But of course, since then, we have experienced only ill-fortune on its watch.

It turns out Two Harbors was to be our new destination. A long trip north light ship is not good business and then in the Soo Locks we lost another crew member to a family emergency and now our engine room staff is reduced to a precarious two.

I was steering out into Whitefish Bay when the captain came up to the bridge quietly chuckling to himself.

‘What is it?’ I asked him.

‘At this point you just have to laugh,’ he said.

Many years ago I was on a small tallship anchored off Penetanguishene, Ontario in Georgian Bay where the Waypoint Hospital for the criminally insane is located. The building, built in 1904, is visible from the lake. It is impressive; imposing and oppressively institutional, located on green grounds that slope down to the water.

That night another harvest moon rose, huge and red above the shoreline. Waypoint’s facade appeared alabaster, adopting the pearlescence of the moons cratered face in the gloaming. I began to notice a sound emerging from the hospital. At first, I thought it was song, as it possessed an even tempo not unlike humming, but as the moon climbed higher in the sky it increased in volume and soon reached a fevered pitch. A shiver passed through me when I realized what it was. It was the inmates and they weren’t singing.

They were howling.