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From Summer Docks To The Captain’s Spot

Seasons of change can be felt in many ways. Summer heat and rain changes to cool fall days with blowing leaves and the blowing leaves turn into strong gale force winds and frigid temperatures. Ships all across the Great Lakes and St. Lawrence Seaway find themselves heading for protection and anchors are dropped from Duluth to Montreal and here in the Islands, ships could be seen parked in Prince Edward Bay off the Ontario shoreline or along side of Carleton Island. These are common sights during the final few months of the shipping season and there isn’t one ship Captain more into his job, the conditions or the region than Murray Latham.

Latham, 36, is a Thousand Islands region native making his home in Amherstview, Ontario (west of Kingston), on the shores of northeastern Lake Ontario. Captain Latham’s navigational career started at a young age and to many Thousand Islanders, he may even be a familiar face.

In high school, some twenty years ago, Murray sought out a job on the river. While friends were using free time to venture through the Lost Channel or water skiing, Murray found himself on the docks of a local tour boat company – Gananoque Boat Lines.

“I worked on the Gananoque Boat Lines tour boats as a deckhand while in high school. I was looking into getting my Captain’s license for the tour boats when I learned about the Great Lakes International Marine Training Center (in Owen Sound), which is the only Marine Officer Cadet training academy in Ontario,” explained Latham in an email written from onboard his ship on the Great Lakes last month.

From greeting tourist and docking 100’ tour boats, Latham made the jump from the local boat industry to one of a much larger scale. Being so familiar with the large 700’ lakers that he would ride up along the side of while on the river, Latham decided to enroll in the 3 year Cadet program.

“I began training in 1994 and graduated in 1997 and did my required 12 months as a Cadet with CSL during the summers.”

In 1994 Murray would jump aboard the Jean Parisien (now known as the CSL Assiniboine, which this past November ran aground near Cardinal, Ontario after losing engine power and was stuck for nearly a week). He would sail for 8 months in 1994 and again in 1995 for just four months before making the next step in his sailing career. In July of 1997 Murray would receive his 3rd Mates license and be assigned to the Louis R. Desmarais (now better known as the CSL Laurentien).

“For the next few years I bounced around as 3rd Mate and 2nd Mate on most of the ships in the CSL fleet. In 2001, I completed my 1st Mate's license and started to get the odd relief jobs with CSL as 1st Mate.”

However, becoming 1st Mate didn’t place him on a ship all his own. “Due to seniority issues and the large number of 1st Mates in the fleet at the time, I didn't have the opportunity to get my own ship as 1st Mate until 2005.”

In June of 2005, Latham was finally assigned to the CSL Assiniboine as 1st Mate. The ship was now the largest Canadian Laker afloat and is the biggest cargo carrier at full Seaway draft (26'09"). During the first season that the re-fit ship sailed under its new and current name, the CSL Assiniboine surpassed all expectations for cargo lifts and discharge times and did even better the second year (2006). Because of the success of the Assiniboine, Latham was put into consideration for a promotion to Captain, after completing his Captain's certificate earlier in 2005. He was making strides in just ten years and his days of unloading tourists at Boldt Castle were well behind him as he now was unloading wheat and grain.

Just last summer Latham was placed as a relief Captain on two well-known Seaway vessels, Pineglen and Cedarglen. Being onboard these ships brought Latham “home” to the area he grew up in and is very familiar with.

“Lake Ontario and the St. Lawrence River from Cape Vincent to Brockville are my favorite places on the entire Great Lakes Basin, because of its close proximity to my home. I really enjoy passing through the American Narrows from Rock Island to Alex Bay as I've spent so much of my youth there both on tour boats and on friends boats getting into the usual trouble teenage boys get into during the summer. One of the great things about being Captain on the Pineglen is that the ship transits the St. Lawrence River at least 4 times a month, so I get to see my old stomping grounds quite often.”

Aside from being close to home and enjoying the great Thousand Islands scenery from high above the water line on the massive ships, Latham knows he has to take a great deal of care while navigating the gigantic steel freighters through the region. Navigating his ship is far more dangerous than his days on tour boats or friends boats.

“If you keep in the middle you have a lot more room to play with if something goes wrong, such as a steering equipment failure (CSL Niagara went aground just east of the 1000 Island bridge in 2005), loss of the main engine (CSL Assiniboine in November), or simply an error made by the helmsman or myself as the man who is in charge (Roy A. Jodrey hit Pullman Shoal in 1974 and sank in the American Narrows).

According to Latham, there is sufficient room to meet another ship in the both the Brockville and American Narrows, but a prudent pilot will always try to avoid it to help minimize the risks of a collision. In addition to the tight quarters that challenge a ship in these areas there are the strong currents which must be accounted for by altering course slightly to avoid getting too far out of position and ending up close to shoals or islands. “It can be stressful to take a ship through these areas, particularly at night or in poor visibility/weather conditions, but we're lucky that CSL takes great care in training their Mates and Captains thoroughly before letting them go solo.”

While the stress of sailing a ship through the region may be great, there is always a positive to fall back on, especially when you are home sick. Meal time on the ship has a flare of home cooking, something that really hits the spot with the sailors who are so close to home, yet so far away from actually getting there. Spending months at a time away from family can be hard enough, but when you have a good chef onboard it makes the stomach better.

“Meals on board are very good. Our monthly meal budget is about $14,000 (CDN) per month for only 20 guys. So if you're lucky enough to have a good cook onboard, you’re going to eat very well. My favorite meal usually takes place at Christmas, if you’re unfortunate enough to be stuck onboard away from your family. For this meal, the Galley staff goes all out; there are always several things to choose from, such as roast turkey, cornish hen, prime rib, roast duck, and often lobster. It's always a great meal and helps to take some of the sting out of being away from your family.”

So, this holiday season as the snow begins to fall and ice begins to form on our beloved river, don’t forget to take a minute to stop and wave hello to the big passing ships, because you never know, there might just be a local boy onboard enjoying the sights of home as he passes through.

By Michael Folsom, The Ship Watcher

Michael Folsom  is a regular contributor to TI Life.   You can visit him on the web at: the shipwatcher.  This is your source for ship watching information on the St. Lawrence.  You can also follow the ships and Michael at at  Michael is also an accomplished photographer.  Several of his photographs have appeared on the cover of the Thousand Island Sun Vacationer.  When not on the River, Michael can be found on the ‘Ice’ as the Senior Director of Sales & Game Operations for the Syracuse Crunch Hockey Club.

Posted in: People
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Brian Johnson
Comment by: Brian Johnson ( )
Left at: 7:50 AM Wednesday, December 16, 2009
Hi Mike
This is a wonderful, Christmas story!
I met Murray and his future wife Amy when they both worked at the 'Island Queen' some time ago.
Very well done!
Brian Johnson
Ian Coristine
Comment by: Ian Coristine ( )
Left at: 10:39 PM Wednesday, December 16, 2009
Great insight into life on the other side of those great steel hulls Mike. And the image you paint of meal time coupled with the scenery makes this sound like a pretty good gig.