Winter ship rituals

Ocean Intrepid breaks ice, preparing for the
arrival of Oceanex Avalon in Montreal

As most know, the winters in Canada can be somewhat challenging. In the Great Lakes area, the winter of 2013-2014 was particularly good example of that statement, with record ice covering all of the Great Lakes and their inter-connecting rivers, well past the normal “ice season”. Some ships on Lake Superior even experienced breaking ice in late May, and into June!

In winter, keeping the St Lawrence Seaway’s numerous locks and tight navigational channels moving becomes all the more challenging. Operating the gates of the locks becomes difficult, with ice building up the sensitive machinery and their tight fittings. As a result, the Seaway authority shuts down until such time that the operation of the locks, and navigation of the channels can be reliable and safe.

When the seaway shuts down, it effectively shuts down nearly all of shipping on the great lakes and its connecting rivers. Typically, the seaway shuts down in late December, 26-31, and reopens in late
March, 18-25. The closure typically means that all commercial vessel traffic cannot go further up the St Lawrence River than Montreal, and those ships caught in Lake Ontario, stay there. Some ships may still operate on Lake Superior, Lake Michigan and Lake Erie but traffic is curtailed considerably due to weather and ice conditions, but mostly because of limited cargo opportunities.  

Canadian Coast Guard ship clears a path under the Quebec Bridge
for a tanker bound for Montreal

If a “salty” or deep sea ship cannot make it out of the system by the shut down date, they are faced with staying put for the winter, or face high fees to open the seaway, especially to accommodate them through; all very expensive options for an international ship owner.

Many “lakers” will switch from active service into “winter lay-up”, or “winter works” period. Winter work is a necessary part of keeping Canada’s aging fleet going. Pushed hard the rest of the year, the old ships needs considerable care to make them pass the regulator’s scrutiny in early March. Dry dockings, surveys, steelwork, machinery rebuilds fill the “Winter Work List” of many vessels. The manpower at the local repair outfits is stretched thin during these times and finding elusive parts or skilled labour for old machinery is a big challenge.

Pulling shafts on a tug in
Iles aux Coudres, Quebec

Shipyard time and heavy maintenance is always a challenge, but to do it in winter is an exercise that is an exceptional feat. It still baffles the mind how so much technical work can be accomplished in -25 degrees Celsius, with strong winds and the resultant mind numbing wind chills.

I remember having a discussion about the application of hull paint at the Ocean Group shipyard in Iles aux Coudres, Quebec. The weather was brutal cold, but we had a schedule to keep, so we had to contact the paint manufacturer to find out how low a temperature we could still apply their product; with the outside temperature at -21C degrees we would be fine to paint, barely.

Not all ships need extensive work, and often the ships are winterized, and tied up to berths all over the Great Lakes ports, Port Colborne, Montreal, Hamilton, etc. These ships are securely moored and winterized; the crew is signed off for the winter.

End of wintering in Montreal; free in a few hours,
clear water and an open seaways beckons

Many crew members end up in the unemployment rolls, whilst a few take on the lonely task of becoming the “Ship Keeper”. In many ports, the laid up ship must have one person on board to monitor and check the ship at all times. Typically this is reserved for the lowest rank of the engine room team – or the otherwise single person, able to withstand themselves for two long months of complete isolation, locked in a motionless, creepy hulk of a ship.

Once the second week of March rolls around, the tired shipkeeper can starts to feel normal again, with the arrival of some crew members. The crew members are there to prepare the ship for the upcoming sailing season. This period is often referred to as “fit out”. The engineering teams are stressed at this time, wrapping up the winter work list maintenance projects, or otherwise reactivating the old bones of a great dame.

At this time of year, regulators are overwhelmed with surveys and certification exercises and a great deal of paperwork is shuffled around. There is usually a constant parade of officials and certification exercises on the ship.

A picture of Port Weller’s empty
navigational channel, while maintenance
is carried out on the locks

All this flurry of activity comes to a climax in mid March, and like racing horses at the starting line, there is a palpable panting, rearing to go feeling going around the ship. The office has the cargo orders handed out, the chief mate has final gear to stow away, and engineers have bunkered large amounts of fuel, lubes, and six month worth of filters. Cookie is stowing the large grub order, and restocking the shelves, scavenged by the ship keeper. The ship keepers, has been signed off, to clumsily rejoin society, while in the mess, jovial talk of sailors catching up like some old church ladies, carries on.

With the reopening of the Seaway in late march, the “winter lay-up” ends, and that year’s Great Lakes Shipping Season begins. The first ship through various locks, in the “Spring”, is usually well celebrated by numerous organizations, garnering a crowd, and the media, to cover this special event. The milestone is usually marked by the awarding of a Top Hat or a Cane or some kind of symbol, celebrating the end of another long Canadian winter.

M.V. Equinox’s Captain Ross Armstrong, first ship
of the 2014 season in the Welland Canal credit

Except for the above, all pictures taken by Martin Leduc

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