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On Zoe

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 whole-body heaving back and forth in slow but violent seizure, while the head bobs like Suzanna Hoffs when she...

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Idle Hands

Frankie was running low on smokes and he was worried about it. He’d packed enough for the five-day steam from Halifax to Norfolk but had failed to consider random US customs kerfuffle’s, one of which had put us at anchor ten...

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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 before they...

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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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What’s the Skinny, Fatty?

Back-to-back trips across Lake Superior carrying iron ore eastbound in our belly for the Soo.  Last night was black and starless, with a brisk southerly and an ever-increasing swell.  Lightning flickered...

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Monkey Shine

She had been lamentably christened the Mist of Avalon by the previous owner, but we all called her ‘Mist’.  Built of Douglas Fir in 1967, years of neglect had left her hull in a sorry state and while it is not uncommon for wooden boats to leak, the ingress...

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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 a long conveyer belt that runs...

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A Month of Stone

Trouble is a communal creature and it has found a pleasant place to roost right here these past two weeks.   There have been two major fuel leaks on the main engine and multiple mechanical...

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Fishermen’s Tales

There is a tale my father tells, of when, new to this continent, on a sweltering spring day, during an excursion in the North Ontario bush, he sought to relieve the onerous heat by stripping down and leaping into a pond of stagnant water.  A damn fool...

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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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The Goldfinch Catastrophe

Morning.  0745.  Up on the ship’s bridge to relieve the watch. So bright!  These first warm days; always so redolent with smell and memory.  Alex, the 4-8 wheelsman, be-toqued, be-blundstoned and be-bearded, directs my...

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The Grilse’s Return

‘I know what’s going to happen. I’m going to go for a run tomorrow morning and I’m going to overdo it, and I’m probably going to hurt myself.’ That’s what I told Jeff. We were standing outside, drinking a beer as the final minutes fell out from the interminable...

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Turned Earth

It was that dark hour just before the dawn when I came out on deck for tie-up in Green Bay, Wisconsin.  I took my position on the port quarter, ready to call spots for the captain should he need them.  My tea steamed in its travel mug.  Up...

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Baader-Meinhof Moments and a Touch of Deja View

Trade on the Great Lakes slows to a trickle for a couple of months each year as the St. Lawrence seaway and the Welland Canal close for maintenance and the various fleets which operate in the region lay their ships up for work of their own...

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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 newspaper and...

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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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The Year of the Squirrel

Another sailing season is over.  The big ships have been put to bed: their cargoes carried, their ballast out, their soft lines snugging them safe ashore, their sailors’ now home for a rest. Back in the city warm temperatures prevail.  This isn’t...

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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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Palindromic Journeys

Early December, and the salties are on the move, scooping up the last of their cargoes and heading east to the ocean before the St. Lawrence seaway closes for the winter.  We are on the go too, wheat for Sorel, Quebec from Thunder...

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Reported Speech

i. ‘I’m just going for a run,’ I say and hold my ID against the window of the small security booth at Superior Terminals on the outskirts of Thunder Bay. ‘No you’re not,’ says a voice from within.  The sun is behind me and it is hard to see the owner of the voice...

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Putting the House in Order

‘Want to walk to Bellwoods in a bit?’ I text my neighbour Jack,referring to the large park, that occupies a full city block, nearby.   ‘Could do,’ he responds.   I am keen to get out as tomorrow I return to work and...

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A Final Push

It is unwise to make plans within 48 hours of an appointed crew change, lest you provoke the indignation of the crew change Gods and conjure the ‘crew change curse.’  I foolishly did just this and now trouble somewhere on the tracks between here, Sandusky, Ohio,...

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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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To the Dogs

There is a cement spit that juts out into the St. Marys River on the approach to the Soo Locks.  These locks are what join Lake Huron to Lake Superior and make up the elevation differential so that large commercial vessels are...

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The Customers

‘Sir Bear teach me.  I am a customer of death coming and would give you a pot of honey and my house on the Western hills to know what you know." From Upstream by Mary Oliver There was a spider named Bob who made his home in the centre window of our ship’s...

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Rider to the Sea – Prologue

See the youth.   Alone he stands on a ship’s deck as dozens rush around him in concert with the stentorian bellowing from the far end of the boat.  They seem then, as kids in a gymnasium,, in thrall to their coach’s whistle.  It is an indiscernible medley of...

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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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Mr. Peabody’s Coal Train Has Hauled It Away

At the end of a pier in Sandusky, Ohio the Norfolk and Southern Coal Company’s load rig perches on the seawall like a steam-punk gargoyle, regurgitating a steady torrent of carbonized rock from its gaping maw into the bellies of waiting freighters.  It...

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Stuck Outside of Prescott with the Covid Blues Again

Today, summer; sticky hot.  Stepping from the ship’s ladder onto dry land and his first foot fall in over a month is onto ground soft with rain and goose shit.  The grass is pillowy thick and were it not for the aforementioned doo-doo he would drop face...

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Rider to the Sea – Part 1

In 1988 my family moved to the island of Malta.  In the late eighties and early nineties it was not the cosmopolitan place it is today, reeling as it was from years of near-socialist rule, corruption, and the usual chaos that post-colonial countries find...

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O River! Ramble On

meander: 1. to proceed by or take a winding or indirect course. 2. to wander aimlessly; ramble It is my habit to relieve the watch no later than a quarter to the hour. This morning, I take the wheel from the 4-8 wheelsman on the last stretch of the...

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Final Rites and Fine Rooms

for Catherine and Jack In my last hours ashore, before returning to sea, a fug of ashen gloom envelopes me and every action is invested with unnecessary import simply because the adjective ‘last’ can be attached to it.  There is my...

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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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Scenes from a Laker: A Grain Run in Three Acts

Act 1-The Load After the rigors and tight turnaround times of the stone and ore trade, a grain run is almost like a holiday.  Thunder Bay, Ontario to Sorel, Quebec.  Just shy of five days dock to dock, with no stops, barring locks,in between. JRI...

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The Thing About Rope

The Thing About Rope - Thunder Bay, Ontario-Sorel, Quebec Any tallship sailor worth their salt will have an opinion on rope, and doubtless a preference. Some go for the traditional fibres, hemp and manilla. Others, the more practical synthetics, which are often...

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Hey Jimmy, For God’s Sake, Burn It Down

“Hey Jimmy, For God’s Sake Burn It Down” - Sault Sainte-Marie, Ontario ‘Yeesh,’ the doctor says, looking into my left ear. ‘It’s a mess in there.’ Two days before, I felt moisture in my ear even though I am fastidious about keeping it dry. I probed with my finger and...

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Come Gather In Her Wake

It is the work of a wheelsman, before arriving in a port or entering a river or canal system, to clear the anchors so they may be readily deployed should the need arise. We are beginning the long approach to Parry Sound, a circuitous course, plotted through a network...

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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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Let us go then you and I

Toronto - Shore Leave Writers, and for our own part readers, are miners of the human condition, and a cursory survey of mine would reveal that in the past weeks I have certainly not been leading my best life. I have rivalled Mersault in marathons of sleep, I have...

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Fingernail Moon (Pain and Glory)

Toronto-Shore Leave I.A week ago, I drove through the night in a rental car it took me 15 minutes to figure out how to turn on. Eventually, my high beams tunneled through the darkness, their outer radius revealing dense forest, small, sleeping towns and the thick...

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From a Cabin Window (Making Motion Pictures)

It gets so you don’t know whether you’re coming or going. We’re doing four back to back trips from Duluth to the Canadian Soo, hauling iron ore bound for the furnace at Essar Steel. We’re expecting some bad weather and have made provisions for such. On my watch the...

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A View From The Lake at Sunrise

A View from The Lake at Sunrise (Windsor, Ontario to Green Bay, Wisconsin) Faced with worsening weather, old sailing ships’ crews would reduce canvas aloft and set about securing the decks above and below, hurriedly lashing any loose items before the gathering storm,...

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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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The Downtown Skateboarder’s Journal of a Plague Day

The Downtown Skateboarder’s Journal of a Plague Day Baldwin Street, east of Spadina, is a three-block paradise of unblemished asphalt that on any given day, in favourable weather conditions, is a joy to skateboard down. Today, with so little traffic, I choose to...

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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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More News From Nowhere

Lake Superior The winter lake has a hundred moods, and many ways in which to express them. Today, when I arrive for watch at 1600, she seems calm, her surface serene and grey. The wind is blowing a steady ten knots, fair conditions for this time of year. We’re taking...

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The Night Ships Wake

Upbound Lake Huron Out here I spend a lot of time watching the kettle boil. This is to say, that for all the days where we work like the devil for our pay, there are hours where the pace slackens and we can catch our breath. And though, as the old saying about the...

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Down and Out in the Soo

Sault Ste. Marie, ‘The Soo’, 10km’s Essar Steel sits on a scorched patch of earth beside the St. Marys River, midway between Lakes Superior and Huron. The ground here is thick with tarry mud and pond-sized patches of oily water that reflect the sky silver and glisten...

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Traveling On…

Drummond Island, Michigan, 11km’s In the past few days, as though a switch has been flicked, winter has come to these upper Great Lakes. Overnight the complexion of the sea seemed to change, its pallor darkening by several shades to an ominous inky blue and the sky...

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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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Driving With Joe

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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History and Sadness

Fort William, First Nation Reserve I have never been comfortable with my own company, but on this disused dirt road that is all I have. I turned onto it from a two-lane highway I’d already run down a piece, also empty but for three logging trucks that passed me by. It...

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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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The Lonely Impulse

Bruce Mines, Ontario There are moments, when running down a quiet road, where the spirit will take me, and I’ll be compelled to lip synch along to whatever song is playing on my ‘Ultimate Workout’ playlist. Other times I might play a little air guitar or perhaps wave...

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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 Downtown Skateboarder’s Forge

Lake Huron, Upbound for Bruce Mines When I first moved to the UK, I was lucky to have been able to participate in a weekly poetry workshop taught by the great American poet Michael Donaghy. He lifted my work out of the adolescent bog it was mired in and taught me 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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Iroquois, Evening

Iroquois Lock, St .Lawrence Seaway There is a famous black and white photograph of a couple, just married, locked in an embrace and kissing atop a flagpole, unfazed by the great height she holds a bouquet of flowers, her wedding dress billows in the frame. It’s 1946...

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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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Big Country

Port Inland, Upper Peninsula, Michigan. 7km I am grateful to be able to get off the ship and run on this stretch of sand which I have been eyeing for the last four hours of watch. It feels great to leave behind the dirty business of industry and run unfettered in the...

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