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

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...

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A Wolf at the Door

I’ve been thinking lately of writing a story about a wolf. And I was thinking about this story, and a hundred other things, as I packed my bag for a month at sea. I continued to think on it as I journeyed to the ship and through the next day as we sailed into a...

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Safe European Home

On a flight to Malta, about 45 minutes before landing, I'll put down my book and look out the window.  If I am in an aisle seat, and depending on the aspect of the plane, I'll need to lean forward and crane my neck awkwardly to port or starboard to do so. Hopefully it...

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The Whitest Man in the World

‘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...

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Running Reveries

By 1430 the sun is already low in the sky.  It lingers above the tips of the mangey jack pines and spruce to my right and gives the impression that if I run fast enough, I could overtake it.  I am listening to the spectral, doom-laden Irish folk of Oxn (a first...

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Having Gone, I Will Come Back

In memorium Shane MacGowan It was time to return to the ship.  In the early afternoon of a mild December day, I drove yet another rental car on the QEW, south, towards the American border. Tens of thousands of starlings moved in front of my vehicle. Two flocks that...

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Rosencrantz Reflects

for William Hurt 1950-2022 I thought of what William Hurt told me, as I steered a stretch of the St. Lawrence River, on a dark night, ten days ago.  ‘Every actor should play Hamlet at least once in their career,’ he said.  We...

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Steering the St. Marys at Sunrise

You come up for watch at 0600.  It’s still dark.  You make a tea.  Yorkshire Gold.  Yorkshire Gold, the crack/cocaine of teas.  At night all there is to see of the St. Marys River are navigation lights....

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Leaving Ashtabula

It came on quick last night as we slipped our wires. Freezing wind careening in from the west.  I went aft to take my place on the stern and call spots as we reversed out of the tight slip....

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Waiting For a Go

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...

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Things We Left Behind

They were high.  Tilt your head back high.  Turkey vultures.  Dozens of them soaring in narrowing circles. Wings outstretched in flap-less flight.  Surfing thermals of warm air pushed up by the tufty peaks of a vast cumulous cloud that advanced on us like a mobile...

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Shop Talk

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

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Incident at Abersoch and the Pros and Cons of Being Barefoot

‘I can still picture the little white stucco cottage with the sunflowers,’ my mother said, recalling the farm her family used to holiday at in Abersoch on the coast of North Wales, distant summers when she was a child.  ‘There was an enormous bull mastiff there named...

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Intentional Mortuary Behaviour

I got off the ship at the coal dock in Sandusky, Ohio a few weeks ago.  I drove a rental car home.  I’d just read of another mass shooting and preferring to diminish the odds of my being mass shot, I took the northern route around Lake Erie. This...

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Refugees (From a Burning Ship)

I got picked up by the cops for hitchhiking in Algonac, Michigan one morning seven years ago. I was working as a cook on an old wood schooner that was on a summer jaunt around the Great Lakes. I jumped ship the night before and grabbed a motel room to escape the heat...

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Hard Learnin‘

hawsepipe: noun Nautical. 1. an iron or steel pipe in the stem of a vessel through which the anchor chain passes. hawsepiper: an informal maritime term to refer to a ship’s officer who began his or her career as an unlicensed seaman and did not attend a traditional...

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Smoke Signals

I waited for customs in the warm yellow light of the grain elevator in Toledo, Ohio. From where I perched on the bollard beside the aft accommodation ladder, if I craned my neck and leaned forward, I could see the dock and anyone approaching. I sipped tea from my...

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Checking In and Some Advice for Hippophiles

Samuel Johnson once wrote that ‘being in a ship is being in a jail, with the chance of being drowned.’ Having just returned to work after a two week leave and staring down the barrel of a six week stretch at sea I can’t help but sympathize. It should be noted that...

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The Sacred and the Profane

I woke from fitful sleep and dreams of a world gone wrong where people were always yelling at me.  I was slow to rise, as is rote at this late date in the sailing season, when I’m all banged up, wore...

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A Great Lakes Sailor’s Christmas in the Soo

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...

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A Winter Seaway Tableau

To ply the St. Lawrence Seaway between Montreal and Escoumin a river pilot is required.  They are trained to know every nuance of every inch of river. The fierce currents, the strong tides, the submerged rocks and sand banks and the many...

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The Handing Out of Names

You could tell he was nervous by the way he carried himself.  His movements seemed stiff, almost robotic, and his eyes darted around the deck of the big ship as he took everything in. Whenever someone walked past him, he squared his shoulders as though...

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The Quiet Violence of the Restless Heart

On entering the St. Lawrence estuary from west to east, that no-man’s-land where the fresh meets the brine, you will immediately become aware of the tide. If it is with you (the ebb), your passage will be swift, if against (the flood), a...

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Big Ships Like Us

Nighttime, the third of November and I haven’t written a word in 46 days.  I have only recently rejoined the ship after a month off in which I had intended to work on my writing and hammer it into some kind of saleable form.  I...

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Smugglers, Storms and Secrets

I’m a sucker for stormy weather, and I love a rugged shoreline too.  The kind of craggy, can opener coast that makes quick work of any vessel unlucky enough to come a cropper on it.  A few days back a hurricane out east sent rain and wind...

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Heavy is the Head

It is said by some, that trouble on ships - like celebrity deaths and surfable waves – comes in threes, but we are well past that count now. For the last two weeks it has been the puppy tugging on the loose strand of a sweater, unravelling each neat, knit row, right...

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In Iron Country

A low mist lies over iron country as we slide through the piers and into the harbour shared by the ‘Twin Ports’ of Superior, Wisconsin and Duluth, Minnesota, accompanied by a lazy swell that slouches shoreward along with...

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Here Comes Them Horses

Anxiety is a bear whose breath is always hot on my heels but it was a greyhound that got me.  I was enjoying a mid-morning run when the dog lunged, tore the lead from its elderly owners hand, and bit me on the back.  Some runs are so good they feel almost...

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An Easter Tale/The God Spot/On Nick Cave

“For the beautiful is nothing other than the onset Of what is terrifying. “ Rilke I was eight years old when I killed the family dog on a warm Good Friday in early April.   The night before I’d lain in bed and said prayers in my...

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Precocious Ghosts

“It is a rare thing to live through a moment of huge historic consequence and understand in real time what it is.”  The BBC My childhood friend John kept fish and he passed this hobby on to me.  Together, we’d take the subway north and in the dim and humid...

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Pieces of a Man

Last night I dreamt a dream within a dream of an old woman who kept cows in a pasture beside a small forest.  There was a circular path that ran through the woods upon which she would walk her cows every day.   Round and...

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On Zoe

“It is easy to forget, that in the main, we die only seven times more slowly than our dogs.” Jim Harrison Anyone who has had a dog will know the sound.  A repetitive retch, pitched somewhere between a gulp, a glug and a burp, accompanied by the dog’s...

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The Cruel Mistress

“The sea was angry that day my friends. Like an old man trying to send back soup in a deli.” George Costanza ​​ Two massive storm systems were set to converge in the North Atlantic and we planned to Indiana Jones it, and slide through the narrowing gap...

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Cargoes

There’s a pile up at the Soo Locks. Seven cargo ships all wanting up or down. We are sixth in line and take the upper wall to wait beneath the Sault Sainte-Marie International Bridge. It’s 0330 and it will be hours before we get the...

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Expecting Weather

‘It is too early for snow,’ said the first mate as we made the big turn at Johnstone’s Point, a near 90˚ bend in the upbound section of the St. Marys River.  His inflection betrayed genuine puzzlement.  In the few hours since we had cleared Detour...

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Down in the Trenches

A little after midnight Dawson emerged from cargo hold five.  It was blowing a full gale and the temperature had dropped to -25˚C with the windchill.  He stood over the narrow hatch and hand over handed the 75’ length of one inch hose up from...

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Everyday is a Tuesday Here in Marble Hell

“They don’t call it Marble Hell for nuthin”, the captain says as we line the ship up for a tie-up at Marblehead stone dock in Ohio. From the wheel I can see white water breaking over the pier where the load rig is situated; at the end of...

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The Applause of Leaves

Virtually everything I’ve written these past two years features a bird in it somewhere.  There was the small goldfinch skittering up the deck as I did a round of soundings approaching Parry Sound or the bald eagle’s dogged pursuit of a seagull in the...

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Delivering the News

for Mark and Emma I was a paperboy.  Cold mornings, I would rise before the sun and gather the bundles of papers that had been left in stacks on the front porch overnight.  I’d cut the tough, plastic bindings and assemble the various sections of...

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Kerns

He had a business card which read, Patrick J. Kerns – Rogue Sailor of the Seven SeasKegs Drained, Sea Monsters Trained and Virgins Converted. I met him in the summer of ’93, when I was a skinny and small 17 year old. Six of us teens signed aboard the Full-Rigged...

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Afternoons at Huxxluq

for Maurice, Moira, Veronica and Patrick Follow me down a narrow country lane.  High, dry stone walls sheathe the road tightly and small birds flit back and forth between them.  The sky is an incandescent blue and the sun is high up in...

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‘Tis the Season

There are places your mother warned you about.  You know.  Past the train tracks on the outskirts of town.  The Rouge River in Detroit is one of them.  It’s here we unloaded our cargo of slag two nights ago.  It is a pestilential...

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Sea Time

Days.  Doldrum days.  Underway.  At anchor. Alongside.  Slow loads and slow unloads.  Day workers day work and watchkeepers keep watch.   There are days when the belly of time swells with idle hours only for it to rip wide open like the crotch seam of a fat mans jeans...

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The Whole Dirty Lot of ‘Er

I’m woken two hours early by the 2nd mates knock at my cabin door, ‘We’re just passing Mission Point, we’ll need you for the locks,’ he says in what sounds, from my grimy fug of sleep, to be an obscenely cheerful voice.  I grunt an...

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Dark is the Night, Bright is the Morning

It is a time of gales.   As temperatures change, storm fronts form out west and barrel eastwards towards us on the Great Lakes, where they suck up moisture, fuel for their devastating engines.  There are the large, slow moving Colorado lows, and the smaller,...

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The Guts of It

The engine room is like North Korea, I have no idea what goes on in there, and if I visit, I’m afraid I won’t make it out.  Many minutes of my life have been lost trying to navigate its Escher-like catwalks and stairs, searching for an engineer, a storage...

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So Run the Days Away

The busiest train bridge in America is an unassuming iron swing bridge that spans the Maumee River in Toledo, Ohio, rather modestly called the NS South. At almost any time of day you’ll see a procession of freight trains trundling abacus like across it, heading east...

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The Dominant Hand

A late frost had left a thin carapace of ice on the deck, and the gathered crew trod carefully on the slippery steel in the chill of an April morning.  We drank our teas and coffees in the half-light and some smoked cigarettes as we waited for the tugboat...

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Restricted Visibility

‘People steer the same section all the time in daylight and in good visibility,’ the captain tells the third mate who is learning how to pilot this stretch of the river.  We are in dense fog, down bound on the St. Clair River.  ‘The mistake they...

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Henley Harbour, Dusk

In the late afternoon they went ashore to gather wood.  He nosed the zodiac up onto the bank and when they heard the familiar scrape of sand and gravel beneath its hull the others jumped ashore. ‘There’s nothing to tie the painter...

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What the Rolling Stone Gathers

(Meldrum Bay, Manitoulin Island, Ontario) Yesterday, at anchor, waiting our turn for the stone dock, I looked out on the pebbled beaches and dense tree-line of the North Channel and noticed a tall white pine standing significantly higher than the other trees by almost...

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Souvenirs-Remembering John Prine

John Prine died today. Or maybe yesterday, I don’t know… I first heard him at the student union bar at my university in North London. I worked there and the bar manager, Tom, had a friend who was a punk from Northern Ireland. He saw that I liked country music and...

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Old Friends Revisited

Green Bay, Wisconsin to Duluth, Minnesota Tom Weafer was an old colleague of my dad’s. They worked for the Ontario government. Both were new to the country. Tom was from Ireland. He was a little older and had been in Canada a bit longer and my father looked up to him....

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Blessings Counted (A Conversation With My Gramdmother)

Oxfordshire, UK-10km’s “10. I am grateful always to have had courage, gaiety and a light heart.” Barreling full-tilt along black country roads with hi-beams on is not without its risks though most of this seems to have been absorbed by the local badger population of...

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The Bourne – A Haunting

(Partly truth, partly fiction) “Occupying a magnificent chosen position in this lovely old-world village in the Amber Valley. Weathered stone facing South West within a beautiful landscaped garden and having superb views over most lovely unspoilt country about mid-way...

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Relics, Deaths and Departures (An Appreciation)

There is an exuberance that pervades the Talking Heads’ 1984 concert film ‘Stop Making Sense. Watching it there is no doubt that they were a great band but on a recent re-watch what struck me is how much everybody seems to be enjoying themselves, particularly Tina...

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Travels With Zoe

Ghajn Tuffieha/Gnejna Hobbled by a bum knee and a six week moratorium on running, and increasingly unfulfilled by the paltry rehabilitative one minute walk/30 second run drills I’ve been prescribed – which for one used to chewing up at least 10km’s a day is the...

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Once Atop a Mast…

Sliema, Tax Biex-13km’s Once,I stood alone,atop the highest yard,in howling windswhile a wild oceanraged all about me. ​Of course it fell to me, as the most experienced of the deck crew, to scramble up the foremast and secure the t’gallant sail which had begun to...

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A Maltese Story

Sliema, Marsamxett, Valletta-13km’s It is impossible to write of Malta without acknowledging the light. Perhaps it is the limestone of which this island is made, or the blue sea that surrounds this small rocky outcrop in the middle of the Mediterranean, that makes it...

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The Persistence of Memory

Upbound, Lake Huron It is not a truth universally acknowledged that the greatest smell in the world is the pad of a Labrador’s paw, but it should be. I learned of this when I was young, on the cold winter mornings when my sister and I would tramp sleepily down the...

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My Father’s Son

Mount Saviour Monastery, Pine City, New York, 11km’s My father was born to the crash and clamor of airborne ordnance as the Luftwaffe commenced what remains one of the largest bombing campaigns in history on his small island. Perhaps coming into this world to such...

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It’s Good to Be Here

Buck Mountain, New York, 9km’s I am driving with my father along a highway in upstate New York, to visit a Benedictine Monastery that he has been going to since 1980. This is a place of significance to him, a part of his history. I came here 15 years ago but was still...

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Beckett Head

Quebec City, 15km’s “Habit is a great deadener” wrote Samuel Beckett, but there’s nothing like good landscape seen from a ship’s deck to shake a sailor out of the often-humdrum routine of shipboard life. Navigating down the St. Lawrence River in Autumn one is deluged...

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The Mud Underfoot

Fort William Native Reserve, Mount McKay-21.9km’s I must have taken a wrong turn. The mud underfoot is thickening and sucks greedily at my shoes and the undergrowth is closing in claustrophobically, with errant branches encroaching on my airspace and worrying my face...

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All These Things And More

Downbound St. Lawrence Seaway-Ashtabula, Ohio to Quebec City, Quebec Though the word is not confined to the provinces of the middle-aged and the elderly, it was when my doctor said it, ‘colonoscopy’, that I believe the lid on the coffin of my youth finally slammed...

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Breakfasts and Breaths

Goderich, Ontario-15km’s Running on a treadmill is to jogging outside what Oasis are to the Beatles, mostly plodding, with the occasional flourish of brilliance. However, as a runner, cooped up on a laker for days at a time, I try to run a minimum of 5km’s a day, to...

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The Case For Kindness

Toronto, 8kms Having dispensed with a cliched week of heavy drinking that is the want of many sailors returning home from a lengthy sojourn at sea, especially those without a wife, it is time to cast off the shackles that gallons of beer will so ably fasten and emerge...

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The Meek, the Gentle, the Butchers

Thunder Bay, 9.4kms I have inherited many things from my parents. A great love of books and animals, my brisk gait, punctuality that verges on the pathological and a nose which, glimpsed in profile in the bathroom mirror or store front windows, even now, startles me....

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The Recycling Box

Presque Isle National Park, Marquette, Michigan A 12 hour delay, as they charge the high dock with iron ore, means I can break away from the ship and explore this national park which abuts the dock we’re moored at. Off I go running through the wet wild woods by my...

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