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You Don’t Miss Your Water (‘Til the Well Runs Dry)
7 May 2024

Goddamn the weather was savage at Superior Terminals in Thunder Bay, where we were loading grain and oats.  The rain was relentless and well described the angle of the wind, which howled in off the lake sideways at 40 knots. The temperature hovered just above zero but felt much colder.  Waves pommeled the shoreline astern and engulfed the break water like greedy hands clamoring for what was theirs.

The windchill and wet cut through me; soaked me down to my inner layers.  I misjudged how heavy the rain was when I dressed for watch but did not go back in and change into more sensible gear.  Instead, I opted to wait out the clock; to stubbornly suffer through it.

‘I’m surprised they’re loading in this,’ I said to Denver, as we shivered in what paltry shelter the windward bulwark provided. It is well known that moisture is the enemy of grains in their raw form and perhaps, by asking, I was willing him to call a cessation to proceedings.  He shrugged.

‘It’s his call,’ he said gesturing to the stevedore who was stood by the open hatch where he monitored and controlled the loading spigot and its rate of flow with the remote-control unit that was strapped to him like a suicide bomber’s explosive vest.

But the stevedore was ill prepared too.  

‘20 years I’ve been doing this and I always check the weather,’ he shouted at me over the steady hiss of grain flowing into cargo hold four and the winds bitter recriminations.  ‘Today I forgot and look…I’m soaked!’

He was wearing work clothes for a much warmer day.  His rubber boots were at home by the front door. The zipper on his ¾ length rubber raincoat was broken and its tails flapped about his person like a loose tarpaulin.  

Through the remainder of my watch, more then once, I heard him bellow a pained and futile ‘FUUUUUUCK’ at that hateful wind which flayed him where he stood.

The next day at 0300 and we were on the move. I was at the wheel of the M______ as we sat in the Poe lock at the Soo waiting to go down.  

‘I can’t see the city anymore,’ I heard the captain say from the port bridge wing.  I leaned forward over the steering console to look and sure enough, it was gone.  Lost inside a fog bank that soon enveloped us too.

‘Jesus that came on quick,’ he said.

Clear of the lock we navigated the St. Marys River in zero visibility.  The captain would give me a heading and I stared at the red digital compass course, four feet ahead of me and then looked over it and out ahead into the blank screen of fog.  The muscles in my eyes didn’t know whether to contract or relax.  They began to bother me; to ache in an unfamiliar way.  I was looking for navigation buoys and crib lights and kept imagining I was seeing them.  It was as though I were conjuring them into existence in their metaphysical form, their shape, or the shadow of their shape, would emerge at random places all across my field of vision.  The real ones only became visible, once passed our bows and at the ship’s shoulder. Too late to offer any assistance.

Lake Huron and Lake Erie are joined by the St. Clair and Detroit rivers.  Lake St. Clair is where the St. Clair River ends and the Detroit River begins. Wheelsmen tend to dislike steering this section simply because it is so dull.  There is nothing to see and it is just two straight course lines to cross it.  

‘Keep ‘er in the middle,’ will be the OOW (officer of the watch) or the captain’s helm order and then it’s up to you to thread the gauntlet of red and green buoys that mark the channel across the shallow lake.

We were steering the final stretch as the sun came up.  We listened to the traffic controller at Sarnia traffic giver her dispatches to transiting ships. She had a pleasant voice and we speculated as to what she might look like to pass the time. Detroit’s skyscrapers soon became visible on the horizon.  Otis Redding’s album Blue was playing and seemed the perfect soundtrack for the hour. The rising sun reflected powerfully off the east side of the downtown’s buildings.  The top of the Marriott’s glass tower was a shimmering beacon beckoning us south.  The sun lingered on for an hour and then it began to rain once more.

It rained in Toledo, Ohio where we unloaded two of our holds. And it rained in Port Colbourne, Ontario, where we unloaded our remaining three holds.  We moored not far from lock 8, the final lock in the Welland Canal system, from where, like the tiers of a wedding cake, the canal descends to locks 7, 6, 5, 4, 3, 2 and 1, over a 27-mile stretch, down to Lake Ontario.

I noticed the date and realized I was already halfway through my rotation.  

‘Man, time goes by quick when you get to our age doesn’t it,’ I said to my shipmate who joined at crew change the day before.  He knows more than most as his father recently passed away and he has been through the painful process of packing up all of his things and selling the old family home in Newfoundland.  

‘He had so much stuff and I just don’t have the room for it,’ he said sadly.  ‘I had to get a dumpster and throw a lot of it out.’

After my morning watch I went for a run along the canal and thought about what he said. What happens to all our possessions -these things we spend a lifetime accumulating – when we’re gone. The wet weather seemed suitably lachrymose and kept most people indoors. Except for a few dog walkers and a lot of geese, I was alone.

Snails, drawn out by the moisture, emerged from the grassy verge and took up suicidal positions on the foot path.  Something caught the corner of my eye.  It was a cardinal on a high branch. They’re often thought to bring messages from dead loved ones and to portend hope and renewal. I don’t know if any of that is true but it had been a while since I’d seen one and it’s scarlet feathers did cheer me in that gloomy grey drear of day.  

As I reached my seventh kilometer, a Joel Plaskett song came on my running playlist. I sang along loudly and unashamed, and I turned around and ran back towards the ship.