A Great Lakes Sailor’s Christmas in the Soo
28 December 2022

Grey. Grey. Grey.

Grey is the order of the day. Melville devoted a whole chapter of Moby Dick to the colour white and its varying degrees, and similarly, one could exhaust reams of paper rhapsodizing the vagaries of grey and greyness that colour these northern winter skies.

We tied up in the Soo on the 23rd to unload coal and then wait out the coming storm, which by all accounts was promising to be a doozie, but at least this meant we’d be dockside for Christmas. Winter is a slog for a Great Lakes sailor and the deck hands bear the brunt of its distemper. They were promised Christmas Day off but such a pledge on a working ship will often prove hollow, and if it wasn’t already, a ‘bomb cyclone’, or as the captain described it,

‘a classic mid-latitude cyclone,’ sure put paid to that promise. We saw little wind but it snowed solidly and stolidly for four relentless days. Each day the crew went out into it, to try and keep the snow at bay, but for all we accomplished we may as well have been Canutes trying to repel the advancing tide.

I was no stranger to hard work when I started in this industry, but nothing can prepare one for winter sailing. It is beyond any stretch of a doubt the hardest work I have ever done. Everything is more difficult, every task more time-consuming and laborious. Each step a hazard. Deck machinery ceases to work reliably. Movement is hampered by our heavy gear and by the prevailing atmospheric conditions. Ice. Everywhere ice. Often wind and snow. Sometimes just merciless cold.

In Calcite I was on the dock pulling out our number four mooring wire. I had just four feet left to go before I could pop the wire on the bollard, when I hit a particularly slippery patch of clear ice. The wire was not yet unreasonably heavy but with the weight of it, I found I could not advance one inch without falling. Eventually I got it on by pulling out more wire and approaching the bollard from behind. With each extra foot of wire one pulls out it becomes heavier to the point where you can only move forward in minute jerking motions as you throw your whole weight against it. This is almost impossible on ice and why I am outweighed by most deckhands by 20 pounds or more.

There was snow on the ground further aft which at least gave my feet purchase as I pulled out the stern wire. I was leaning forward on a 45-degree angle against the weight of it when a backlash on the drum of the winch up on deck wrenched the wire back and snapped me off my feet, dragging me six feet toward the water. By the time my brain knew to let go the other wheelsman at the winch controls had spotted me and mercifully shut the winch off and I was left sprawled on the ground with one of my winter boots pulled off.

On Christmas Eve the crew enjoyed some downtime and we played a game of poker in the mess. All of us that is, except the young engine room cadet, who braved the storm of the century to go out and get shitfaced. He was so sloppily drunk when he returned that he was denied admittance to Essar steel at the security gate and had to go out into the maelstrom and find a hotel for the night.

On Christmas morning he returned, but apparently he’d caused such a ruckus the night before he was refused entrance to the plant on a permanent basis, thereby ending his cadet ship with our vessel and effectively dotting the i’s on his own marching orders.

‘Go to his cabin and pack all his shit in garbage bags,’ I was told. His belongings consisted of piles of engine room-soiled clothes, work boots, toiletries, some schoolwork and a masturbatory aid, such is my naïveté, the like of which I did not know even existed, proximally placed and in plain view, next to a tube of lube. I packed it all into a small suitcase and one garbage bag. I carried them down the icy ships ladder one at a time and waded through waist deep snow to deposit them unceremoniously by the side of the road for security to later pick up.

‘This is one Christmas he’ll not forget,’ I remarked later in the galley.

Christmas can be particularly tough on the mothers and fathers who make their livings away at sea. Fitzy’s four-year-old son asked Santa if he could postpone Christmas until ‘Dada got home.’ A heartbreaking entreaty, and one that you can tell weighs on him. As we share a watch, and I am the one he works most closely with; he will sometimes take his frustrations out on me.

‘Have you thought of getting hearing aids?’ he asked me a few days ago.

‘Well the surgeon said that after my two surgeries I should let the dust settle a bit before looking into anything like that,’ I said.

‘Well the dust has settled,’ he said. ‘You’re deaf as fuck. Get a god damn hearing aid.’

That he has to repeat most things to me doesn’t soften his mood, nor does my being, at times, a profoundly irritating person.

Christmas morning. I was shoveling up on the bridge wing when I was gifted the sight of two ravens flying low and in unison in my immediate line of sight. They flew silently, in exquisite choreography, between the gaps and passes created by the piles of ore, now covered with many feet of snow and resembling their own miniature mountain range. I paused my work and leaned on my shovel and watched them for a full minute until they disappeared from view.

Later, the chef laid out a spread and we ate a Christmas dinner and I was happy to be among my ship mates and to have a warm bed to sleep in that night while so many, elsewhere on the continent, were freezing. Those poor souls stuck in their cars, the desperate migrants at the US border and the stricken iguanas that were falling dead from trees in Florida and hitting the ground like sacs of over ripe fruit.

On Boxing Day we departed the Soo and sailed into a gale on Lake Superior. We shoveled in the well below zero temperatures for eight solid hours as the bow crashed through the waves and flung freezing spray that stung our faces like the molten sparks a welder throws out. Penguin walking in our heavy winter gear, our shovels acting as a third leg, we pushed tons of snow up and down the deck and off the top of our 19 hatches. At one point the inexorable grey was interrupted by a break in the clouds and the sky appeared bright blue and the sun shone through and we stood for a moment our faces up to it. The sun being, so often a stranger around here at this time of year, we wanted to drink up every moment of its presence.

I fell once, hard on my back and on another occasion did some rather graceless splits that tore my insulated coveralls from crotch to knee. A company diktat went around recently which stated that ‘crew should not be slipping…pulling muscles etc.’ a directive I am most definitely in dereliction of and about as unrealistic and tone deaf a mandate in conditions like these as Field Marshall Haig’s insistence, from ten miles behind the front lines, that the horse would be as essential to the World War One theater as the tank and the plane, in helping him relocate his liquor cabinet “eight inches closer to Berlin.”

We tied up in Thunder Bay at 0400 this morning to take a load of grain for Buffalo, New York, the city which seems to be one of the worst hit by this storm. It was -11˚C at JRI and it took the boys two hours to dig through the snow and get all the dogs off the hatches, a job that normally takes 20 minutes. The stevedores showed up a little after 0800. The first guy descended the gangway onto our deck buried as it was beneath its burdensome cloak of snow. He looked forward and he looked aft.

‘Holy fuckin’ shit,’ he said.