To ply the St. Lawrence Seaway between Montreal and Escoumin a river pilot is required. They are trained to know every nuance of every inch of river. The fierce currents, the strong tides, the submerged rocks and sand banks and the many treacherous bends. The long stretch of river is divided into three sections with a different pilot for each:
-Montreal to Trois Rivieres
-Trois Rivieres to Quebec City
-Quebec City to Escoumin.
A pilot boat will come out, whatever the weather, whatever the season, to deliver and remove a pilot from the vessel while it is still underway. The captain gives the ship over to them while they are aboard and the wheelsman and mate must listen carefully for their helm and engine orders.
Upbound, from Escoumin to Quebec City our pilot was an older man with a thick white beard and close-cropped grey hair. He had the look of a Franciscan monk crossed with a kindly Ahab. Winter had yet to fully adhere to the coast and patches of snow vitiligo-ed the mountain slopes. As he ate his breakfast over the ship’s console, Kind Ahab told us that he kept hens himself.
‘They are not commercial chickens who lay 300 eggs a year. These lay half that. But their eggs are delicious. Their shells are blue and green.’
As well as his five hens he has two dogs, a cat and a horse.
‘The horse is very expensive’ he said. ‘I have to delay my retirement one more year to pay for it.’
A few days earlier, above Upper Beauharnois, we had to wait for the Federal Kivalina to clear the lock before we could take it from her. It was a textbook winter sky and soon enough snow began to fall. It occurred to me at the wheel then that I have never seen snow fall on a vertical. It always describes diagonals or horizontals and, in this instance, it scurried confusedly but assuredly straight at us as though being pushed before the plunger of a syringe. And sure enough it was, in the form of a bank of fog that came on us quick. Suddenly we were in that strange amorphous world, where it is blinding bright yet impossible to see, where your eyes strain to focus on something and nothing. Where all perspective is lost and the brain sees things that are not there.
I hope death is like this, I thought. Not a black void but this kind of oblivion, this floating towards infinity, where at least there is the suggestion of some thing.
The bank of fog passed and the snow remained, advancing in frenzied murmuration. On the shore two deer grazed. Behind them the bare trees stood staunchly upright like the hairs on a goose fleshed arm.
Finally the Federal Kivalina emerged from the lock and inched her way forwards. Her orange bulbous bow was streaked with rust. It ran down from the hawse holes like mascara tears.
This morning we passed a place where ships go to die. Where their iron cadavers are dragged ashore to be taken apart by acetylene torch and harvested for scrap steel and spare parts. I recognized a ship I once sailed on when I joined this fleet and where I had trained for a couple of months many winters ago. I was trained by B____ , a wheelsman in his 60s who was known throughout the fleet, though not to his face, as ‘Screw Loose.’ It soon became clear that this man didn’t just have a chip on his shoulder, he had a whole chunk missing. He would stand behind me as I attempted to steer Montreal’s tricky South Shore Canal and channel malice unto me in the form of the sour coffee breath he breathed down my neck. All the while he managed to affect an altar boy voice in his conversations with the captain.
‘Oh yes ‘Cap. Sure thing…Can I get you anything ‘Cap…’
After watch I would be shaken after sailing such a large ship through those tight quarters. He would corner me when no one was around and with his snarling red face inches from mine hiss,
‘You can’t wheel for shit. You’ll never make it as a wheelsman.’
One time the captain complimented my steering and, in an attempt to placate Screwloose I said,
‘It’s not me ‘Cap, its B____. He’s my Svengali.’
The captain and the first mate laughed. After watch, as we walked aft for lunch, B___ stopped me. I could see he was apoplectic. His face pinched tight with rage.
‘DON’T EVER FUCKING LAUGH AT ME AGAIN,’ he yelled as he waggled a stubby finger at my chest.
‘What are you talking about?’ I said, genuinely perplexed.
‘Calling me a Sven Jolly or whatever the fuck it was…’
‘That was a compliment!’ I said, exasperated.
‘I don’t care,’ he said. ‘Don’t ever joke about me again.’
One late night I was alone in the crew mess, savoring a break from Screwloose and reading Knausgard’s My Struggle while I ate my dinner cold when I heard a shriek from the galley. I leapt up and ran to see what had happened. In the galley I found the chef, a fiery, shrill-voiced French Canadian woman in her fifties. She was beating the morbidly obese and homuncular 2nd engineer with a broom and shooing him away.
‘YOU ANIMAL,’ she screamed, ‘GET OUT OF MY GALLEY!’
He shielded his head from her and roly-poly-d out of there in as much of a hurry as he was capable of.
‘What happened?’ I asked her.
‘He was washing his dentures in my dish sink!’
In those early days when I was a greenhorn pariah she was a friend to me. I would roll her cigarettes and we’d smoke and chat on the fantail and I was so sorry when I heard that she had drowned in Quebec Harbour after slipping on the ice and falling unobserved into the frigid water.
‘My daughter takes part in equestrian events all over Quebec,’ said Kind Ahab the pilot in his thick French accent. ‘One time she took part at an event where we had to stable the horse overnight. When we got her in the morning, we found that she had tried to dig in the dirt floor under the wooden partition and into the next stable. She was nuzzling the neighboring horse. Their snouts touching, beneath the stable wall, in the small hole they had created.’
It was discovered soon after, that unbeknownst to any of them, the horse in the next stall was her mother. They hadn’t seen each other since she had been sold seven years earlier.
‘They recognized each other,’ he said. ‘They were just trying to say hello.’