We joined the growing queue of ships piling up at anchor outside the Port Weller Piers sometime around noon on Tuesday. We’d just run a load of soya beans up to Port Cartier in the gulf and barely made it back down before the cut off. All week we’d heard rumblings. Rumours of a possible strike. We cleared the river as a gale blew, just two hours shy of the deadline. Steamed across the lake to Hamilton for a load of nut coke.
At 1000 last Friday they shut the whole seaway system down, stalling all marine traffic in the region and effectively imprisoning us on Lake Ontario. They, being the UNIFOR employees, the workers who man the locks and various traffic control centers for the SLSMC (St. Lawrence Seaway Management Commission). They walked out of talks on Monday morning and until the situation is resolved none of us will be going anywhere. They are asking for an increase in wages to keep up with inflation. The SLSMC claim their wages are competitive. None of us thought it would come to this.
‘There’s too much money at stake,’ was the resounding chorus. ‘They’ll never let it happen.’
So it goes.
The St. Lawrence Seaway, or Highway H2O as it is also known, is how ships gain access to the Great Lakes from the Atlantic Ocean. Between Montreal and Lake Erie there are 15 locks. The latter eight, make up the Welland Canal, and allow ships to bypass Niagara Falls. This gives foreign vessels, or salties, access to Thunder Bay, Duluth and Chicago among other major ports, a thousand miles inland. Last year 180 million tonnes of cargo was moved through the seaway worth $16.7 billion. It is estimated the shutdown is costing $110 million a day.
In Hamilton, we tied up beneath two monstrous gantry cranes that stand like the steel, skeletal articulations of dock-tailed Dobermans, perched on the pier at Dofasco steel. There is something of Blake’s dark Satanic mills to the place. Mountains of iron ore and coal sit shoreside. Towering stacks belch flame and smoke. At night smoldering piles of slag wink molten orange in the distance and the whole place rings with the metallic crash and clang of industry.
They loaded us with buckets, or clamshells as we call them. Enormous iron jaws on thick cables drop into the piles of cargo the cranes straddle and snatch up gobs to release in the greedy ship’s holds. I came out on deck at 0740 to find that a mechanical malfunction had caused one of the buckets to regurgitate six tonnes of cargo all over the deck. It took three of us two hours to shovel it into the hold. We were curious as to the company’s decision to have us load cargo in the first place, with the strike on we would be unable to deliver it to its destination in Ashtabula, Ohio. They must have thought naively, as we did, that all would be resolved smartly and we would soon be on our way.
Covid has reared its head once more aboard the M_____ and, like the postman, it is going door to (cabin) door. The afflicted present only minor symptoms, except for normally gregarious wheelsman Ian, our resident redhead, whom it has laid low. Clipped the spring from his step. Sapped all the joie from his vivre.
Meanwhile, days pass. We have done drills: confined space rescue, security and oil spill. Maintenance we are normally too busy to perform is finally getting done. Five of us are engaged in a seven-day Wordle throw-down. The winner gets bragging rights and a pile of cash. Up on the navigation bridge the night watches are interminably long and to hasten time the shit gets shot.
As of now there are 14 vessels at the anchorage, still more at the other end of the canal. Fuel, freshwater, and food supplies diminish. Two ships ducked out of the lineup today and made a run to Hamilton to resupply. While it is a normal sight outside major world ports, there is something unsettling about seeing so many ships at anchor at one time on the lakes. Us Sweetwater sailors are not in the business of hanging around.
The wind is up tonight. Colder weather coming next week they say. The ship bristles in her restraints. Swings restlessly on her chain tether.