Shop Talk
4 September 2023


  1. An individual engaged in the loading or unloading of a vessel.


  1. A salt water cargo vessel

Jim drives a snowplow in the winter and was a mechanic for 30 years before he got this gig and he’ll tell you as much within a minute of your meeting him. He’s the first guy on deck at 0745. He’s in his mid-fifties but looks like some of those years might have been lived hard. His work pants are way too short and his shoes don’t look regulation. He’s followed by a guy half his age, a Tim Hortons take away coffee steams in his hands. He’s wearing the appropriate work wear. He rolls his eyes when he hears Jim talking his mile a minute gab at me.

‘It’s too early for me to listen to your bullshit Jim,’ he says to which Jim grabs him by the lapel of his work coat and threatens to belt him, waving his fist in the air like a cartoon boxer.

‘Ooooh I’d love to give him a pair of racoon eyes,’ he says, smiling, looking to me for approval before he releases him. ‘Just one punch on the nose is all it would take. Two sounds. My fist hitting him and him hitting the deck.’ He winks at me, ‘I love to mess with the young fellas,’ he says.

They all begin to drift in. Dean is next on board in his oversized dusty denim coveralls. He is not a tall man but he’s solid and wiry. Early 60’s. Steel wool hair and sharp blue eyes. Dean is in charge and he gets shit done. We are behind schedule as there was a salty at the dock before us that took longer than anticipated to load.

‘They had to close all their hatches every time we shifted up the dock,’ said Dean. ‘Company policy they said. I said I’ll show you what I think of your company policy…each time we shifted it was an hour before we could load again. By the time we were finished I really wanted to kick one of those Dutchmen in the balls.’

There are a total of six stevedores aboard. Highly visible in their hi-vis vests and hard hats. They stand by each hatch as we load them, all day, until the ship is full or the grain elevator stops sending cargo. They’ll work until 2000 or 0000 depending on which loading dock we’re at. They manage the flow of grain from the long spigots that swing out from the high walls of the grain elevator which they use ropes swung aboard to control and they communicate with the guys inside via their radios as to how much cargo is left and the amount of tonnage already disgorged. They are powerless as to controlling the rate, that job falls to a different union. Guys whom we never see, located as they are somewhere within the thick cement walls of the silos. All day the stevedores will stand there in that godawful dust, in all seasons, winter being particularly brutal, when temperatures around here are often in the -20’s.

I mention that a friend of mine had taken me around town last time I was here and that we walked passed the old high school, now the law department of the university.

‘Beautiful building,’ I said, and it was, tall and foreboding, built in the early 1900’s of formidable sandstone brick and boasting high castellated turrets.

‘Yeah I went to high school there,’ says Steve-o. ‘I once got it on with my girlfriend under the bleachers…ended up marrying her…she became a cop…left me for another guy…don’t ever marry a cop,’ Steve-o tells me, and looks at me deadly serious. Steve-o tells me quite a bit. Some of it I want to hear and some of it I don’t. Beyond his unfortunate marital status, I know for example that his Facebook account has been hacked by ‘some Saudi’ and that the allergy and flu like symptoms myself and many others suffer when loading grain isn’t necessarily from the grain itself, but from a mold that grows on it.

The outer harbour is full of salties at anchor waiting to come in and load. More than I’ve ever seen.

‘Is there a run on grain?,’ I asked.
‘Actually, no. They’re all waiting to load potash over at the terminals.’

In the old days, they tell me, it was not uncommon to have 20-30 ships at anchor all awaiting their turn at the grain elevators. These days you might get one or two. On our ship we’ve been expecting a run on grain, what with the war in the Ukraine and their wheat stocks, which supply much of the world, being consumed, diminished and/or destroyed.

Dean wants to load us quick.

‘Out by suppertime,’ he told us in the morning. ‘I have to get home and walk the dog or my wife’ll kill me. He’s just a little yorkie so I only need to walk him to the end of the property, but still…’

I talked to Big Dan last time I was loading here and he said he’s been working the boats for 28 years. He is large as his name suggests, mustached and a stevedore all his working life.

‘Four generations of us have worked these docks’ he said. ‘Since 1896. It’s a good job. Decent benefits and you can stay local. I never did want to leave.’

I’m told it is harder and harder to get new blood into the union and working the ship decks.

‘Young guys just don’t want to do it,’ big Dan says. ‘Don’t like the long hours and hard work.’

Dean said there was an hour left of cargo three hours before we were finally loaded and ready to depart. I could tell he was getting pissed. His eyes were red and he was caked in dust and his orders became more clipped.

It was well passed suppertime when we reversed out of the slip, turned around and headed out through the breakwater with 17000 tons of oats bound across the lake for Superior, Wisconsin. I messaged a friend who lives locally to see if she was on one of the many sail boats racing in the harbour as I know she often is. She wasn’t, but she was, she said, up in the park looking out on the harbour waiting for the moonrise as it was supposed to be a corker. A blue moon and a super moon all in one, and she snapped a picture of us from up on the hill as she waited and sent it to me.

The captain gave a helm order of 218˚ and I brought the ship round as the sun was setting over the sleeping giant causeway. Then the moon cracked open its distant trap door on the horizon and began its slow ascent directly before our bows. And it was blue and super and truly huge and it seemed to linger longer than usual, low in the blackening sky.

Years ago I was told I had some talent by a tutor at university.

‘Shoot for the moon,’ was her rather banal for a writing tutor, but kindly piece of parting advice. But you know, I never could. Until last night leaving Thunder Bay.

I steered straight at it.