With three blasts of its horn — two long and one short, a traditional maritime greeting — the CSL Spruceglen sails into the St. Lambert Lock, on the eastern shore of the St. Lawrence River, opposite downtown Montréal. It’s just after noon on March 31, 2009, and right on schedule, the freighter glides to a stop. Deckhands feed thick, braided steel lines to a pair of lockmen, who secure the ship. The lock operator opens a set of intake valves, each large enough to accommodate a compact car, and millions of litres of water rush into the chamber. As the ship rises — it will be lifted about five metres in less than 10 minutes — the port side of its hull forms an imposing black wall that cuts off our view of Parc Mont-Royal and the Montréal skyline. The Spruceglen is 222.5 metres long and 23 metres wide, and it fits into the 24.4-metre-wide lock like a hand in a glove.
Deckhands lower a gangplank, and two smartly dressed officers disembark. Captain Mark Dillon and Chief Engineer Christian Pelletier are wearing navy blue suits with crisp white shirts and neatly knotted, matching blue ties. The St. Lambert Lock is the gateway to the Great Lakes St. Lawrence Seaway — a system of canals, shipping channels and locks that allows ships to sail 3,700 kilometres inland from the Atlantic Ocean to the head of Lake Superior — and the Spruceglen is the first vessel to enter the waterway in its 50th-anniversary season.
Dillon and Pelletier join about 200 shipping executives, politicians, seaway employees and journalists assembled on the lock wall for a birthday ceremony, complete with a shower of blue and white confetti. Fifty years is a major milestone, yet the speeches are brief and businesslike. Richard Corfe, president and CEO of the St. Lawrence Seaway Management Corporation (SLSMC), gives a brisk talk, devoted equally to the successes of the past half century and the significant challenges ahead. By 1 p.m., Dillon is back on the bridge, and the Spruceglen — with me aboard — resumes its journey toward the port of Ashtabula, Ohio, east of Cleveland. Its seven huge cargo holds are carrying 15,000 tonnes of titanium slag, which can be used as an additive in products as diverse as paint and sunscreen.
Looking at the lock from the deck of the Spruceglen, I’m struck by the difference between today’s ceremony and the St. Lawrence Seaway’s grand opening on June 26, 1959. A beaming, navy blue yacht, the HMY Britannia, was moored at Saint-Lambert that day. Queen Elizabeth II shared the stage with Prime Minister John Diefenbaker and President Dwight D. Eisenhower. About 20,000 members of the public attended, and among the 5,000 invited guests were dozens of Canadian parliamentarians, American senators, mayors of Great Lakes communities and shipping executives from around the world. Eisenhower described the seaway as “a magnificent symbol of the achievements possible to democratic nations peacefully working together for the common good,” while the Queen called it “one of the outstanding engineering accomplishments of modern times.”
That was no exaggeration. An army of men and women 22,000 strong built the St. Lawrence section, between Saint- Lambert and the Ontario riverside town of Iroquois, 175 kilometres to the west. They started in October 1954 and, at a cost of $470 million, were finished four years later. The seaway’s canals, channels and locks — five in Canadian waters and two in the United States — replaced an inefficient, late-19th-century waterway on the St. Lawrence. It was designed to match the capacity of the revamped Welland Canal linking Lake Ontario and Lake Erie, which opened in 1932 and could handle 222.5-metrelong vessels in its eight locks.
Both freshwater and ocean-going fleets use the seaway, but in recent years, vessels that sail only on the Great Lakes and the St. Lawrence have accounted for 70 to 80 percent of its traffic. Nevertheless, by making it possible for large ships to sail uninterrupted from the Atlantic to Lake Superior and back, the seaway has played a vital role in Canada’s growth and prosperity over the past half century.
The waterway has proved indispensable in moving grain from the Canadian Prairies and the American Midwest to terminals on the lower St. Lawrence for eventual delivery to export markets around the world. Ships that hauled grain east would often refill their holds with iron ore from the mines of Quebec and Labrador and sail up the St. Lawrence to the steel mills of Hamilton, Nanticoke and Sault Ste.Marie and American manufacturing centres such as Cleveland, Detroit and Chicago. All told, more than 2.5 billion tonnes of cargo — mostly bulk commodities like grain, iron ore, coal, aggregates and road salt — have moved on the system in its first 50 years.
Much of that cargo was carried before seismic upheavals in the international grain trade and the North American manufacturing sector, however. The inland-shipping industry is striving to overcome the ripple effects of these economic shifts, but there’s no guarantee of smooth sailing ahead.
The most acute challenge facing the seaway is the global recession, which has dramatically reduced the volume of goods moving on the system. Only 68 of the 103 vessels in the Canadian and American fleets were operating as of late April, according to www.boatnerd.com, a website that closely tracks the Great Lakes shipping industry. The rest were tied up in harbours.
The recession is compounding a long-term trend. Traffic volume dropped sharply during the economic slump of the early 1980s and never fully recovered. For the past decade, the waterway has operated at about 60 percent of its capacity, in part because more than half of Canadian grain exports now move through ports on the West Coast. Moreover, iron ore shipments, which peaked at about 20 million tonnes in 1977, now range from 12 million to 8.6 million tonnes annually due to restructuring and downsizing in the steel industry. A typical 280-day shipping season begins in late March and runs until weather conditions deteriorate after Christmas. In 2008, domestic and international vessels made 4,200 trips on the seaway and moved 40 million to 45 million tonnes of cargo. In the late 1970s, ships were carrying 66 million to 80 million tonnes annually.
“When I got hired in 1978, there was a ship in your lock all the time, and one above and one below waiting to get in,” says John Chalmers, the seaway’s senior operations coordinator, who started as a line handler on the locks of the Welland Canal. “You were walking up and down the wall for eight hours straight, tying or untying ships.”
The age of the Canadian merchant fleet is another concern. Most of the vessels in service today were built in domestic shipyards in the 1960s and 1970s, specifically for use on the seaway. They should be replaced, but shipbuilding has virtually disappeared in this country, and the federal government imposes a 25 percent duty on vessels manufactured offshore for Canadian companies — a sore point for many in the industry, who consider the duty a punitive tax. “Fleet renewal must start now if we are to maintain a thriving shipping industry in Canada,” says Gerald Carter, president and CEO of Montréal-based Canada Steamship Lines (CSL), which operates the Spruceglen.
The seaway is also under increased environmental scrutiny. Groups such as Buffalo-based Great Lakes United, a coalition of Canadian and American organizations, have been critical of the seaway and the shipping industry in recent years. This was triggered, in part, by the spread of the notorious zebra mussel, a fingernail-sized mollusc native to the Caspian Sea. Scientists believe that an ocean-going freighter flushed ballast water containing zebra mussels into Lake St. Clair in the late 1980s. Since then, this prolific invader has infiltrated the Great Lakes, as well as numerous rivers and smaller lakes, and has had a devastating effect on ecosystems and infrastructure. Zebra mussels can achieve a density of several hundred thousands per square metre and clog up water-intake pipes used by municipalities, steel manufacturers, power companies and golf courses. New regulations are being implemented, and shipping companies are adopting control measures, but the issue remains far from resolved.
Environmental groups have additional complaints about commercial navigation. They claim that the waves created by passing ships contribute to shoreline erosion and disturb wildlife habitat, especially in the narrow channels of the St. Lawrence, where fuel spills and other contaminants threaten drinking-water sources formillions of people. While Canada and the United States have long imposed strict cleanfuel standards on automobiles, trucks, trains and construction vehicles, environmentalists argue, they have ignored ships.
Most freighters burn bunker fuel, and they consume a lot of it — up to one tonne per hour when they’re sailing at full speed with cargo holds loaded. A low-grade, high-sulphur derivative of refined petroleum, bunker fuel can contain up to 45,000 parts per million (ppm) of sulphur; the limit is 80 ppm in the gasoline consumed by automobiles and as low as 15 ppm in the diesel that locomotives, trucks and other heavy vehicles burn. The Canadian and American governments are developing regulations to force shipping companies to reduce the sulphur content in their emissions by 96 percent, but they have until 2015 to meet the requirement.
“Sulphur air pollution in North America is a big enough issue for the two countries to act in a coordinated fashion,” says Jennifer Nalbone, the navigation and invasive-species campaign director with Great Lakes United. “As the seaway turns 50, it’s time for a reality check. Now is the perfect time to critically ask, ‘What changes does the maritime community need to make to protect the Great Lakes and the economies that rely on them?’”
For their part, seaway officials and shipping company executives insist that their industry is getting a bad rap. Since 2003, they have marketed the waterway as “Highway H2O” and have attempted to increase traffic by promoting marine transportation as a safer, cheaper and greener alternative to trains and trucks, pointing out that one Great Lakes freighter loaded with 25,000 tonnes of cargo is equivalent to 225 rail cars or 870 trucks. Highway H2O’s backers contend that tomove one tonne of freight one kilometre, a train burns 2.2 times as much fuel as a ship and a truck goes through 9.7 times as much. They also say that for every accident involving a ship, trains have 13.7 accidents and trucks have 74.7.
Independent analysis supports many of these claims. Seven agencies, including Transport Canada and the United States Department of Transportation, collaborated on 2007’s Great Lakes St. Lawrence Seaway Study. They concluded that the freight moving on the seaway could not be transferred to roads and railways without causing massive congestion and a significant increase in emissions. “The transportation sector as a whole contributes 27 percent of total (North American) greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions,” the study says, “but less than three percent of all GHG emissions come from shipping.”
The study also provided some economic perspective. Marine transport on the Great Lakes produces $3.4 billion in business revenue annually and more than $4.3 billion in personal income. It also generates direct and indirect employment for as many as 150,000 people in Canada and the United States.
Nine hours after leaving Saint-Lambert, the Spruceglen is sailing across Lac Saint-François, a widening of the St. Lawrence 65 kilometres west of Montréal. The sky is clear and full of stars, and to starboard, the light of a crescent moon reflects off the water. Firstmate Georges LaRoche is piloting the vessel in near-complete darkness. The lights on the deck five storeys below his post are off, except for three pale green beacons. The wheelhouse lights have also been extinguished so that LaRoche can make out the red flashing navigational aids that mark the shipping channel.
The Spruceglen has a crew of 23 aboard, all under the command of Captain Dillon, who relies on the first, second and third mates to help him sail the vessel. Chief Engineer Pelletier and his assistants — the first, second and third engineers — are responsible for the operation and maintenance of the ship’s four-cylinder, 10,800-horsepower engine. They also run the three on-board generators, each capable of pumping out 525 kilowatts of electricity to power the lights, pumps, computers and other systems.
There are three other classes of employees on every vessel. Ordinary seamen perform routine maintenance, such as assisting with the loading and unloading of cargo and tying up while in port. Mechanical assistants work under the engineers and help maintain the engine and generators, while the cooks prepare meals and keep the galley clean and orderly. About one-quarter of the Canadians who work in Great Lakes shipping are Newfoundlanders, and many say they were born “with salt in their blood” but turned to inland sailing because that’s where the jobs were.
No Newfoundlanders are aboard the Spruceglen, but there are three women, including third mate Ghislaine St. Aubin, who is in the darkened wheelhouse with LaRoche, plotting the ship’s course on a chart by the light of a small, hand-held lamp. St. Aubin became a sailor more by accident than by design. She obtained a bachelor’s degree in geography, then worked for several years as a whale-watching guide in Tadoussac, Que. She returned to school to study navigation at the Institut maritime du Québec, in Rimouski, and landed a job with CSL almost immediately after graduating.
“My mom and dad were surprised but impressed,” says St. Aubin. “I like the work, but it’s kind of a love-hate thing. When you’re on the water, you can’t wait to get home. When you get home and you see a ship out on the river, you can’t wait to get back.”
A family connection brought Therese Asselin, the Spruceglen’s second cook, onto the water. She was a secretary until three years ago, when her son, a second engineer with another Great Lakes shipping company, Algoma Central Corporation, suggested she apply her culinary skills in a ship’s galley. “I’ve never worked so hard, but I’m surprised how much I like it,” she says. “It’s like a big family when you’re on a ship, and the kitchen is the soul of it. I may do this until I’m 70.”
Captain Dillon, who has worked on barges, tankers and container ships and has sailed around the world five times, also followed family into the business. His grandfather was a sea captain. “He died of a heart attack in 1976 while he was piloting a vessel,” says Dillon. “My grandmother was on board at the time.”
The Canadian shipping industry employs about 5,000 people, and the seaway itself another 600, but the waterway supports a remarkably diverse range of businesses and trades, including, indirectly, port employees, Coast Guard personnel and railway workers. And family ties are evident everywhere.
When ships such as the Spruceglen transit the Welland Canal, they sail past facilities owned and operated by Snider Dock Services, a Port Colborne, Ont., company that is almost entirely reliant on seaway traffic. The family firm loads and unloads commodities, as well as manufactured goods, at the Lake Ontario and Lake Erie entrances to the Welland Canal. Its Lake Erie dock serves as a transfer point for about half of the road salt used in the Niagara Peninsula each winter.
The aging vessels of the Canadian seaway fleet require constant maintenance, which provides work for another Port Colborne company, Allied Marine & Industrial. Many of Allied’s welders, machinists, millwrights and electricians ride the ships to service them during the season, although major repairs take place during the three-month winter layup, when Allied’s workforce can triple to 150. “It’s a constant battle,” says plant manager Dave Marsland, “to keep the ships running.”
Crew members live aboard seaway vessels for two months straight, and they rely on chandlers to supply them with food, towels, fresh bedding and other basics. C. E. Elliott & Sons Ltd. of Hamilton has been provisioning the Great Lakes shipping industry for 80 years. The firm services about 30 ships every year, with a staff of nine driving to ports throughout southern Ontario, providing clean linens every 10 to 14 days and groceries every two to three weeks. Current owner Sharon Elliott, the granddaughter of the company’s founder, expects the company to remain family owned for a fourth generation: her two sons and a nephew are on the payroll.
If Highway H2O’s partners are right, there will be work for C. E. Elliott & Sons and most of the businesses serving the Great Lakes shipping industry for years to come. The coalition of 45 or so partners, which includes shipping companies, port authorities, the SLSMC and its American counterpart, believes that transporting bulk commodities and containers of manufactured consumer goods by water will ease road and rail congestion and reduce greenhouse-gas emissions.
More container traffic may be the seaway’s best shot at an increased volume of cargo. Most container vessels are too large to sail beyond Montréal and must unload there or in Halifax, with trains or trucks carrying their goods farther inland. The Highway H2O coalition wants smaller seaway ships to pick up those containers. "They will bring these goods to all the ports along Highway H2O, such as Montréal, Toronto, Hamilton, Cleveland, Detroit and Chicago," says SLSMC president Richard Corfe, "because the roads and railways are already congested. And it’s only going to get worse."
At 6:30 a.m. on April 1, I am awakened abruptly by three sharp raps on the door of my cabin and a gruff voice announcing, “Half an hour to Iroquois.” It’s time to disembark, and it’s happening too soon. Fortunately, I was able to experience the entire system on my first seaway voyage. On a summer Saturday in 2007, while researching a book on the seaway, I boarded the MV Algomarine at Pier 99 in Montréal with my teenage son, Patrick, for the trip of a lifetime.
We plied the waters of the upper St. Lawrence and the Thousand Islands on a Sunday afternoon, when the river was buzzing with pleasure craft. We crossed Lake Ontario overnight and arrived at the Welland Canal just as the sun was illuminating the horizon. The Algomarine spent about 12 hours transiting the canal and another night crossing Lake Erie, affording us a daytime trip up the Detroit and St. Clair rivers, two very different waterways. On the Detroit, we had a panoramic view of Detroit and Windsor and could hear the hum of traffic. On the St. Clair, we wound through vast marshes and wetlands and passed sparsely inhabited shores.
The cold, blue waters of colossal Lake Superior were as calm as a backyard swimming pool when we sailed west out of Whitefish Bay — rare conditions, we were told. Sixteen hours later, 108 hours after leaving Montréal, we arrived at Thunder Bay.
In these days of considerable economic uncertainty, the St. Lawrence Seaway and its partners in the shipping industry are facing serious challenges. Some of them are financial, others environmental. But after spending two years exploring the waterway and its history, I can see it continuing to serve as a vital artery for the movement of goods. And I am deeply impressed by the skill, teamwork and dedication of the people who sail ships such as the Algomarine and the Spruceglen on a marine highway that reaches deep into the heart of the continent.
For additional information visit: www.greatlakes-seaway.com
Canadian Geographic Photo Club Field Report — an interview with Martin Beaulieu: Travel with photographer Martin Beaulieu through the locks and channels of the historic St. Lawrence Seaway.
Inland superhighway: 300 years of history
Follow major events through an interactive timeline
Source: The St. Lawrence Seaway Management Corporation, Edited by Michela Rosano