Paper work. Mounds and mounds of paper work pile high on a desk in an office over the summer months – a common sight for the businessman away on vacation. However, this desk doesn’t belong to a lawyer or a tax collector or any “normal” businessman, but instead to someone on board a Great Lakes freighter. “The paperwork portion of my job is a growing headache,” explained First Mate Jason Church of Canada Steamship Lines freighter CSL Niagara recently while sailing. “Regulations, ever changing, are swamping this industry with paperwork and the paper trail associated with logging it so as to prove that it was complied with.”
One might think while standing on shore watching the big ships sail by, “oh that must be a fun job,” however the job of a sailor is just as grueling, if not worse than most other jobs on land.
A ship traveling through the Islands carries roughly 20 to 30 sailors, all of which play different roles in ensuring the ship sails smoothly. From Captain to deckhand and engineer to head cook, everyone on board works like a team or in the eyes of some, like family.
Like any business operation, everything starts at the top and in the case of shipping the top happens to be high above the water line on the bridge of the ship. “I love that I wake up almost every day in a different place; I couldn’t work day after day in an office with the same view out my window,” said Captain Murray Latham of Canada Steamship Lines Frontenac. Latham you might recall from a story last summer here on Thousand Islands Life (From Summer Docks To The Captain’s Spot) while being aboard Cederglen and Pineglen.
“Getting to meet people in different regions of the Great Lakes opens your eyes to the fact that there is so much diversity in such a small part of our world.” However waking up in different places everyday takes a huge toll on a sailor and those they love. Crew members have a number of dislikes, especially being away from their families. “Only being able to hug and kiss my daughters through a cell phone at night,” is one of the complaints you might hear from Captain Latham.
First Mate Church considers his time away from the family as being both positive and negative. “You miss many things depending on your schedule. Birthdays, anniversaries, first days of school and all the other important things you can think of. However, when I am home, I am home 24 hours a day, 7 days a week for the entire time off. I volunteer at school to spend extra time with my son (field trips etc). If you calculate how much the person who works on shore is home and spends with his or her family, we are able to dedicate more of our time to make up for the time we have been away.”
Both men though would agree on one thing, the woman in their lives is the strongest person they know. She is forced to act as a mother, father, gardener, pool cleaner, accountant and everything else it takes to run a full household all by herself. With the likes of Facebook and Instant Messenger, sailors are thankful to be able to communicate with their “at home” families on a regular basis, despite being in the middle of the deep blue.
But while out on the water, there is one family that is just as important, that would be the family of crew that share tight quarters with you and can’t escape from for days or months at a time.
“We are very much our own "family" aboard the ship,” Church says. “It is very hard to balance a work relationship with people you see and live with all day, every day. If you don't like your co-worker, tough (expletive), you can't get away from them. You have to bury your differences and get the job done. I try to treat everyone fairly, hoping to receive the same respect.” Respect is what is important in order to make things tick on board. Everyone must find a way to look past the negatives and focus on the task at hand; operating a 700-foot ship and doing so safely. “There are so many different personalities aboard a ship that a university psychology major could write most of their thesis on human psychology (based on our doings). I often find myself being the one that people talk to with their troubles, family issues, work issues, etc.” Don’t look for Church to go from being First Mate to Dr. Church anytime soon though.
“I decided to do this job years ago when the word “home” meant nothing to me anymore; now, it’s all I think about,” shared Latham when asked about his decision to take a job on the water. “I’m making plans to be home more in the future.”
At the end of the day, both sailors will always have a much bigger family in their lives than they ever envisioned thanks to their time on board a Great Lakes freighter.
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 www.twitter.com/theshipwatcher. Michael is also an accomplished photographer. Several of his photographs have appeared here at Thousand Islands Life, in print in the Thousand Islands Sun, as well as appearing on the cover of the Thousand Islands Sun Vacationer. In addition, some of Michael's work can be seen in the 51st edition of the book Know Your Ships. 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. He and his wife just welcomed the birth of their first little "ship watcher", Lucy.
PART II Of Not Easy Being on a Ship will appear in December.