Smugglers, Storms and Secrets
19 September 2022

I’m a sucker for stormy weather, and I love a rugged shoreline too.  The kind of craggy, can opener coast that makes quick work of any vessel unlucky enough to come a cropper on it.  A few days back a hurricane out east sent rain and wind our way.  At the ore dock in Superior, Wisconsin, what began as a light drizzle soon turned into relentless, driving rain.  Eastbound on Superior we pounded into head seas and a 28-knot blow.  The ship rolled slightly beneath my feet, and for the first time in a while I had to adjust my stance old seadog style to remain stable.  From back aft, high up on the bridgewing, I could see the ship working.  Her great steel carcass flexed and twisted in the seas.  Her bows moved up and down in perpetual nod.  I watched the implacable whitecaps and their inexorable march west.  The grey, grey sky mirroring the grey sea below.  The invisible sun slid beneath the horizon behind us.  The world slowly faded to black but for the bobbing of our white running light forward.  

Summers in England as a kid we would visit family friends in Cornwall.  They lived near Lands End in a small village at the bottom of a tiny inlet that was bookended by two imposing cliffs. We would walk foot worn paths on the cliff’s edge through thick fields of marram grass that prostrated before us in the stiff breeze.  Occasionally I’d dare myself to look over the edge. Suffer a quick glance down at furious torrents of foam and vicious eddies swirling between the serrated black rocks below.

There was a picture on the wall at the foot of the basement stairs of my childhood home in Toronto.  It was a large sepia-toned lithograph in a thick wood frame.  It showed a storm-wracked cliffy coast. Black rocks with waves crashing over them sending up fans of spray.  Seagulls wheeled in the foreground and nested in tight fissures on the cliff face.  The picture was called ‘The Haunt of the Gulls’.  To this day I love seagulls.  Their lonely cry.  Their cold, unfeeling eyes.  The picture hung there in the damp basement that smelled of old carpet and the yellowing pages of the orange-spined penguin paperbacks that lined the walls.  Daphne Du Maurier’s novels lived on those shelves.  Jamaica Inn, My Cousin Rachel, Rebecca.  We watched a BBC adaptation of Jamaica Inn in that basement that scared me shitless.  In my late teens and early twenties I would finally read those books and I was immediately taken back to the Cornwall coast. The Cornish coast being to Du Maurier what the Yorkshire moors were to the Brontes’.  An eerie world of smugglers, storms and secrets.  

A week ago today, I was painting a house with Meredith Baxter Birney when I was woken at 0530 to head to the navigation bridge and steer a five hour stretch up the Saginaw River on Michigan’s Huron coast.  When I got up there, bleary-eyed and yawning, it was still dark.  The moon was every bit Alfred Noyes’ ‘ghostly galleon tossed upon cloudy seas.’  It loitered in the starboard bridge wing window.  

The Saginaw River is tough on Captains.  They must have their wits about them to guide the ship through the narrow cuts and swing bridges, with just inches to spare either side.  For me, it is sometimes hard to believe that with this wheel in my hands, this lightweight piece of plastic, I can turn with one finger, can possibly have any influence over the 40 tons of ship beneath me, but sure enough it does and having only just been ‘untimely ripped’ from my slumber, I was forced to martial all my powers of concentration to make the necessary micro adjustments.  Unlike many of the rivers we visit which are fetid, industrial cesspools, the Saginaw is lovely. Mostly parkland and marshes.  An abundance of willow trees line its banks, their boughs dangle forlornly to the waters surface.  Perennially sad, I wonder what it was Johnny Cash did that taught them how to cry, cry, cry.

As the sun rose the moon cast off its cloak of tattered cloud and stood naked in the pastille sky.  It felt like a critical bystander, observing as it was our progress through those narrow passes like the stern-faced Maltese nanas in faded print dresses who come out of their dim, Dettol smelling houses and silently, malignly stare as you parallel park your car.

Ten hours later, our cargo of stone discharged, we turned around and steered back downriver.  I was on the wheel again.  The approach angle for the bridges differs whether you are upbound or downbound.  Some are more difficult, some are easier.  Some are impossibly tight.  

‘Well, a foots as good as a mile,’ said the captain after a particularly harrowing one.  On our starboard side I noticed one tree amidst all the greenery that was utterly denuded. A cottonwood.  Its blanched branches host to dozens of crested cormorants.  Notorious on the lakes for their toxic poo which will kill any tree they choose to roost in, they have a well-earned bad reputation.  But they are striking birds nonetheless, lean and lissome, in possession of an ominous elegance.  Their striking profiles, the slender question mark necks.  They looked at a distance like punctuation marks on the etiolated branches of the dead tree; jet-black ink strokes from a dour calligrapher’s pen.

We steered through patches of torrential rain and hot, evening sun.  People camped and BBQed and danced on the riverbanks, enjoying the last hot days of summer.  As we entered Saginaw Bay and the greater lake beyond, the distant sky blackened and there were brief flares of light on the horizon that heralded the coming storm.

We’ve returned to the ore trade. Runs back and forth the length of Lake Superior. When the weather is fair the boat is overrun by pine warblers and other small song birds that glut themselves on the abundance of large spiders that infest the deck and aft house of the ship. Such a meal must be like an enormous sirloin steak for these tiny creatures.
There’s a run on ore at the moment and often we have to wait our turn at the loading dock and while away hours at anchor.

Cornwall has a rich pagan history.  Mythical creatures abound and it felt rife with such ensuant magic to me, a small boy then.  Fishermen would beach small clinker hulled boats on the pebbly shore, filled to the gunnel with crawling, supper plate-sized crabs.  I lay on my stomach on a small wooden bridge above a brook that fed into the sea and dangled a lure in the hope of snaring a gulper eel.  The sea is a sensory place and at night I slept with the window open so I could hear the sound of the ocean and smell the salt sea air.  One morning I woke up to a large black cat purring happily away on my chest.  At breakfast I asked my mother’s old school friend Sara what their cat’s name was.

‘We don’t have a cat,’ she said.