Reprint – A Sailor’s Journal

Reprint – A Sailor’s Journal

LaurierThe Canadian Coast Guard (CCG) carries lighthouse keepers and their supplies (groceries, mail, household goods, etc) usually by ship or helicopter. This story describes the inner workings of the Canadian Coast Guard light icebreaker Sir Wilfrid Laurier as told by my friend Abe Van Oeveren. I have been on several ships and they are indeed a complicated piece of machinery run by very competent men and women.

Abe’s comments to me about the story when I asked permission to reprint:

The account is based on material gathered on several trips blended together to make a story that flows end to end. To make it readable I avoided talking about too much crappy weather which keeps everybody on board the ship unable to fly up to Van, Naden or Barry, or how the ship’s crew’s collective mood changes as the 28 day typical patrol proceeds. 

A Sailor’s Journal by Abe Van Oeveren – originally published in the Canadian Coast Guard Association (CCGA) Newsletter Winter 2013

The Canadian Coast Guard mission statement revolves primarily around search and rescue, providing aids to navigation, participating in sovereignty and security, waterways management, ice breaking in eastern Canadian waterways and the Arctic, marine communications and traffic services, lightstation re-supply and environmental response to marine accidents. Every summer one of the fleet’s ships becomes the platform to re-supply, service and maintain the radio repeater sites that dot the coast of British Columbia and the island archipelago of Haida Gwaii. A team of specialists including diesel mechanics, radio technicians, communications engineers, and riggers are on board along with a helicopter and crew to access these remote sites along the coast. Maintenance trips typically last about three weeks, and are divided between a circumnavigation of Haida Gwaii and the mainland coast between Prince Rupert and Port Hardy.
The following account is based on personal experience.

On an unusually warm evening in early May, the Canadian Coast Guard light icebreaker Sir Wilfrid Laurier cast off lines from Seal Cove Base in Prince Rupert and set sail for Haida Gwaii. By 1600 hours the next afternoon we watched from the flight deck of the ship as the mountaintop radio repeater site known as Cumshewa disappeared into the fog of an approaching weather front. Suddenly all misty, grey and cold, low clouds and wind swept choppy seas greeted the ship as she sailed from Skidegate Inlet back into Hecate Strait. Near and distant islands change shape but not appearance as the Laurier makes its way through the archipelago of South Moresby towards Juan Perez Sound and the anchorage below Barry Inlet.
It’s a bumpy ride. On the ship’s bridge the captain was heard to voice his wish for mother nature to save her “bitter box” for November and February, but this year May also seems to be a good time for crappy weather. Yesterday’s warm and sultry air billowing the curtains in the portholes and passageways of the Upper Deck are already a receding memory. Now every window is rain streaked, every seat is damp on the ass, and rust streaks have found new life. It’s a climate you love to hate, and hate to love.
Our southward track keeps us about 6 nautical miles off shore. The forecast gale force winds are coming straight on the bow and the ship soon begins to pitch like a drunken cork. 35-knot winds combined with a long fetch make for spectacular sailing. The captain and officers on the bridge were suddenly paying more attention to the sea state, wind speed and lowering clouds than giving curious passengers a running commentary on the various navigation systems, gyro compasses, chart tables. And no, I was not allowed to sit in the captain’s chair and play with the steering wheel or the throttles. A couple of decks down, the crane operator’s cabin is a great observation point to watch the ship dive into the swells and come up with spray and green water surging over the foc’sle and washing down the well deck. Our speed settles to a steady 10-12 knots, the air temperature is a shade over 10 degrees C., and the barometer, which had been falling all day, finally begins to rise. Some small storm petrels, attracted by the lights of the ship last night, were still flopping around on the well deck, soaked, exhausted, and unable to fly. Gathered up in an apple crate, heat lamped and blow-dried, they were allowed to recuperate before being tossed over the side on new found wings. Aft of the fantail, a curious albatross wheeled and disappeared into the haze astern.
For the passengers, idle time in transit is a great opportunity to explore the ship from wheelhouse to engine room. Chief Engineer is happy to explain. The ALCO diesel GE electric propulsion system is similar to that of the Martha L. Black and George R. Pearkes. These are the other 1100 class light icebreakers that used to work the west coast before going east in trade for other vessels a number of years ago. Watchkeepers stand 12 hour watches and keep a very close eye on the functions of the engines, pumps, electrical and air circulation systems. Above the engine control panel is a TV monitor with a live video feed showing the bow of the ship as she plows on and on, up and down. Brace yourself; here comes another set of big swells.
From an electrical point of view, the diesel electric propulsion system goes something like this. While steaming, at least one of the 3 main diesels is running at a steady 900 RPM at any one time to provide power for all the propulsion systems. Under load, the RPM does not change, but the fuel consumption goes up. AC power generated by the diesels goes to a main bus, which is connected to a power load converter, which rectifies the AC into DC in the cycloconverter – a schaklekist in its own special room. The DC converts again into another form of AC before powering the two main drive motors, each one connected directly to a main drive shaft – an 18″ diameter solid steel shaft – that goes through a stuffing box to the two propellers. Apologies to knowledgeable readers for the oversimplification.
Tagging along with one of the oilers on his rounds leads to the foc’sle end of the ship’s well deck. There are lockers for paint and other rigging equipment, a tool crib for fabricating spare parts, and a workbench. In the centre of this space the walls contain the anchor chain lockers, both port and starboard. The “bitter end” is where the massive chain is anchored to the wall. In the hold, there are at least two levels below the well deck. Freezers, woodworking shop and supplies for delivery to various stations are kept here. A deeper level contains stacks of buoy chain and ugly 5-ton anchors along with big blocks of concrete. This is also the rope and cable locker. There are reels of various sizes of hemp rope. Hemp? I wondered what this 19th century rope has to do with today’s world of synthetic lines. Appears it’s used for staging of buoys when they are being deployed in position at sea and for bosen’s chairs, because it has a non-slip property synthetic ropes don’t have. I’ve come to realize that the ship is really a self-contained world, capable of being totally self-sufficient and self-reliant for months at sea.
It’s a world that relies on the people that live in it to keep everything functioning normally, from electricians tracing ground faults in resister heater elements in the helicopter hangar to keeping all the toilets flushing. The crew is busy all the time, and I haven’t spoken to one who doesn’t like his job. And the captain is responsible for keeping it all together while servicing a SAR zone and having a bunch of passengers wandering all over his ship.
Skunked on the east side of the Misty Isles, we round the Cape St. James and make for the open Pacific. The Land’s End of the Kerouard Islands thrusts ugly black fingers of rock out of turbulent waters. Crew and passengers alike huddle deeper into their floater coats, but spirits remain high and rise even further with a comforting dinner of roast chicken with mashed and butternut squash topped off with a caramel sundae and coffee. Enter mess on time, doff head gear (or face rebuke from the crew), order food, eat dinner, bus table, leave mess and thank Bert and Tim for another fine meal on the way out.
The ship navigates the spectacularly narrow entrance to Tasu Inlet and rides at anchor while John and Scott service more beacons before sailing north again. Late at night, long after dark, the revelry on the outer decks continues. The fishing has been good and as a result there is a carnival atmosphere. Aija, the tough, knife-on-the-hip deckhand, landed a huge halibut this afternoon. It is only a few pounds shy of the 94 pound monster landed by Matt, the oiler from the engine room, who explained how the engineers took apart Number 3 ALCO diesel in preparation for fitting new pistons and liners while playing chess with Tara, the dark-eyed, brown-skinned, black-haired beauty who talked about her remote childhood in the woods while Ginny the stewardess with the sweet smile and the pigtails suddenly famous for catching a huge octopus that slithered about in all directions on the fantail winch deck until Andrew, the tall, handsome deckhand whipped out his knife and decapitated the poor beast to the delight of Dana the stores-keeper who will soon have four months off to operate her B & B at Shirley near Point No Point.
Even Bosen Buhlers of the flying hair, guff voice, rust stained pea jacket and amazing knowledge of ropes and chains came to have a look. I like the Bosen. He’s bursting at the seams with the willingness to teach, and a few pointed questions soon get him explaining about “shots” of forged link anchor chain, “devil’s claw” hooks to hold it fast while a “guillotine” clamps down on it after the two tonne anchor is “fetched out” on the sea floor. Shots are connected with links, which have a pin driven home hard and plugged with molten lead.
While anchored off Marble Island next day, two of the larger cruise ships that call on Vancouver in season pass well to the west just at sunset. They must make at least 20 knots and look majestic, even from a distance. They are chased by distant showers and a cold wind that whips in over the railings. Jesse got his mojo back tonight with a couple of snappers, as did Paul. Don the Logistics Officer caught (and released) a 5 foot long wolf eel and Senior Engineer Howard came all the way from Newfoundland to catch a giant ling cod which he deftly and expertly sliced into fillets while Scott the amiable lamproom tech from Seal Cove lit another cheroot and tried mightily to unskunk himself with “the big one” that so far has eluded him. We worked Hunter Point today, so we are finally getting some maintenance done. Sometimes we lose sight of the fact that this is a working trip.
While maintenance work goes ahead on the mountaintop sites, the ship spins slowly at anchor far below, a reassuring sight for the men who are refuelling the engines, checking the radios, installing new antennas or fixing broken ones, and surveying future requirements. The MBB 105 helicopter is kept busy slinging full drums of diesel up and empties back down, transferring technicians, their tools and the all-important “mug-up” box, bringing in new radio racks, antennas, and tower hardware, and taking bonnet slings full of surplus equipment back to the ship.
Early one morning after breakfast an announcement of dolphins chasing the ship brought crew and cameras out onto the aft winch deck. For at least half an hour, a large school of Pacific white-sided dolphins followed in the wake of the ship. What a wonderful sight. At times they would leap completely out of the water, 10, 20, 30 at a time. Nature at its finest. And they were always smiling! Eventually they tired of the game and swam elsewhere.
At anchor in Beresford Bay, and the diesel techs are working Naden Harbour. Wind calm, sea smooth. Directly under the bustle on the flight deck, the fishing lines (no fishing licence = no line) are in the water and soon the halibut start coming in. Once caught, the fish are immediately dragged up from 18 fathoms, gaffed, flipped onto the well deck, and clubbed to death with an ugly brickbat. The smack of hardwood on hard skull and blood flying everywhere is not for the squeamish. In the harsh light of the morning sun, the gradual descent from civility to savagery has finally got me in its inexorable grip, so I offered to clean Paul’s halibut. A bit of a hatchet job, but we managed to carve four nice fillets, and packed them for freezing. Elsewhere on the well deck, the iridescent Devonian ratfish gasps for water and dies.
Enough of the fishing stories. Back to work. Leading Seaman Keith has offered to teach Jesse and me how to make a modified Liverpool locking eye splice with the 3,4 tuck in 3/8″ wire rope. Although it is necessary to concentrate on what Keith is saying when he explains the intricate instructions for the Liverpool, the mind tends to wander and just watch. Work hardened fingers deftly turn and twist the polished steel marlinspike between the cable strands. From wrist to bicep the mermaids and serpents, ships and anchors, old flames and other multicoloured tattoos leap and dance and come alive around rock hard sinews and tendons and muscles. As deft as the Zen butcher whose knife never dulls nor touches a bone when carving a joint, Keith is a practitioner of an ancient art passed down from all the sailors that forsook the surly bonds of land for a life far from home on the world’s oceans. “Now that the first set of tucks is complete, continue to work from left to right…”
In drawers full of tools I’ve never seen before; beneath a hulking black workbench with two big vises; among grimy walls hung heavy with swaying wrenches, old ropes, grease guns and grommet slings; by bins with big shackles with exotic names like “kinter” and “pear joining”; in the shadowy glow of a dusty fluorescent hung beneath tightly packed electrical wiring and humming hydraulic lines, Keith dances and turns from side to side in quiet concentration. The marlinspike is pushed in under the next strand and then turned – crunch, crunch, crunch – as the wire is tightly wrapped and twisted into position. It’s like an operetta in the foc’sle, and I’ve got a front row seat. Around 1630 hours the heavy rhythmic clatter and clank of the anchor chain being winched aboard reverberates through the narrow confines of the foc’sle. Our work is complete. We’re on our way home.

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Retired (2001) British Columbia lighthouse keeper after 32 years on the lights.

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