The Whitest Man in the World
21 January 2024

‘We’re never going to make it through unscathed.’

I said this to multiple crew members in the first weeks of our month-long rotation as we enjoyed unseasonably warm weather that was spring-like in its temperance.  

Then, with one last ore load to go, the weather finally broke.  

A wicked north-easterly sprung up on Superior, where there is little lee and few sheltered harbours, making any kind of safe-passage anywhere on the lake impossible.  We pounded overnight into seas that grew by the hour, before anchoring just off of Duluth, Minnesota.  The captain sent word to the higher-ups ashore that we were looking at at least eight days of wind-related delays and that is not even accounting for the wretched and insidious cold that can murder machinery and lock ships in situ with ice.

Lay her up was the response.  

Laying up a ship means putting her to bed for the brief off season.  We tie her up and pump out all the ballast water so the ship sits uncommonly high.   Thick ‘soft’ lines (eight-strand and braid) are put out as well as all 6 mooring wires which are bolstered with short fat, thigh-thick lengths of rope mysteriously called ‘snotters.’ All safety equipment is moved inside. Tools are locked away.   The shore power is set up and for the first time in 10 months the ship is silent as the main engine and generators are shut down and the engineers in the bowels of the vessel perform their strange rites and pray to their mechanical gods.  

The whole process can take anywhere from 8 to 24 hours.  

Finally, all secure, we look to our own cabins.  Clean and pack.  

Effectively off the books and no longer in the company’s charge, we trudged out into the un-Godly cold of an early evening and found a warm bar on the main street of Superior, Wisconsin. 

It started innocently enough.  It always does.

Toasts were raised.  Stories of the seasons passed mishaps and heroics were swapped.  It’s when the increasingly ramshackle crew progressed to the strip club next door that antics began to ensue.  The time of night when legends are written and become lore.  It is also the point where my memory grows hazy.  My last recollections are of being sharked at pool by a stripper with stretch marks and a sagging belly who was clad only in ill-fitting lingerie.  I teetered table-side, leaning on my cue, and watched with a mixture of boozed up befuddlement and awe as she potted ball after ball.

The following early morning the crew made for a pathetic sight.  Six grown men cast about the carpet of the Duluth Airport in various stages of consciousness and deleterious illness.  One particularly stricken sailor kept having to get up to dash to the toilet and heave.

The flight was delayed and we missed our connection to Toronto and were stuck in Minneapolis for 24 hours.  

Jesus Christ but nothing can prepare you for that mid-western cold.  A 15-minute walk out in it was fit to kill me and made my head feel like it were clamped in a vice at the temples.

As our plane took off the following morning I could see the Mississippi River snaking southwards through the city, its humble beginnings here not a patch on its mighty mouth a continent away but impressive nonetheless if even in name only.

Soon we could see Superior.  A blinding clear blue desert wreathed in ice with the ice reaching ever-further out into the lakes expanse.  How many times had I crossed it this season?  This season now over, the crew heading home to their hearths.  My head was leaning against the window and all hungover to fuck as I was, I thought how bleak the lake looked but somehow, also, hopeful. Like some kind of renewal were in process.

Back in Toronto it was -12.  On an early morning run and weighed down with my winter layers, Wilco’s song So Misunderstood came on my running playlist.  I looked around at other runners. At dog walkers and walk walkers and the icy path stretched before me and all the trees were naked and I recalled once hearing Wilco referred to as ‘the whitest band in the world’ and I thought

then I must be the whitest man in the world right now.  

‘Back in your old neighborhood,
cigarettes taste so good…’

As the song ambled towards its epic coda, my feet dodged slick, limpid patches of ice atop the footprint-pocked path of snow and I felt a solitary tear roll down my cheek, Sinead-style, only for it to freeze in its track halfway down.  

The tear might have been from the Wilco.  But it could have just as easily been from the cold.