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Dick Withington in December

Susan Smith, the editor of TI Life, asked me to review the summer. She also asked if I had any thoughts about the upcoming holiday season. I do…

First the thoughts.

Are you familiar with the story of the Christmas Ship in Chicago?   For the past decade a group of mariners and commercial sailors outfit Chicago's Christmas Ship to give Christmas trees to disadvantaged families. It is Chicago’s largest all volunteer charitable support program for inner city youth and their families at Christmas time.  The concept began in memory of  Chicago’s Captain Herman E. Schuenemann and the Schooner Rouse Simmons.1

Well, now it is our turn to be thinking about Christmas ships. In this area the Christmas ship is not delivering trees to the less fortunate. Here, a Christmas ship is one that passes at night, decorated stem to stern with colored Christmas lights. Each year we see a few, and it is very impressive.

Painting by... Christmas Ship.  ©  2010
“Christmas Ship”, a painting by Louise T. Currin, a member of Plein Air Painters Thousand Island Region (PAPTIR).

Usually, ships pass with their running lights and very little else showing. The vessel all alight with Christmas lights calls  to mind the paintings we have seen of the Titanic on her maiden voyage, creating a glow in the sky like a small city on a dark night. As a casual observer, it seems to me that we are seeing fewer of the Christmas ships. It may be due to a poor economy, or owners trying to be politically correct, or crews just not wanting to go to the trouble of rigging the lights. For one, I think it is a shame.

In the summer months, we have all thrilled to the sight of a long laker sliding by silently on a calm still night. Those with the pilot house forward are the most spectacular because of the long row of deck lights that connect the forward section of  the ship to the stern, where lights are seen in the portholes of the crew's accommodations and the engine room. At this time of year, the nights are longer, and consequently, more ships pass in the dark. For those of us still here, their passage is all the more spectacular and all the more appreciated. As the holidays approach, they remind us of our global family. Many of the mariners on the foreign ships come from cultures that do not celebrate Christmas. And most of them passing now will not be home in time to celebrate in their traditional way.This affords us an opportunity to show how we do it here. Folks along the River on both sides, decorate on the channel side, so that the mariners may see and enjoy our celebration. It may be all the evidence of "Joy" that they will see this season. It is our little gift to them.

Now here's the deal. On the flip side, the crews that decorate their ships really do it partly for us. They understand what a splendid display they can afford us by just passing with the lights all over the ship. I think we should do something to encourage this tradition and to recognize them with our appreciation. At a time when environmental sentiments seem pitted against the ships, perhaps we could contact the companies that encourage decorations, and thank them for the special effects they add to the season. Maybe the chambers of commerce could sponsor a competition to award to the "best dressed" ship? The media could announce  the times of passage and identities of the decorated ships, and people would come to the river communities to see one pass in the evening.  Those who decorate, even if only to celebrate the passage of another season, do not waste fossil fuel. Rather they serve to preserve  the traditions of the sea and the River.

There probably is not much that can be accomplished this season, but I made a night passage through the Brockville and American Narrows recently. I was warmed to see the occasional porch light greeting us with the traditional greeting; a long and two shorts. The ships don't usually respond to the greeting, because the ship's horn may disturb or alarm the off-watch crew. Never the less, you may be assured that  the greeting was duly noted and appreciated on the bridge.  Perhaps having more Christmas ships passing would encourage cottagers and shoreline residents to look toward the River as a continuing source of beauty and a symbol of peace and friendship. Sure seems like we could use a little about now, and that's what the season is all about.

And now to review the memorable portions of the summer of 2010

The weather was memorable, except for a couple of severe thunderstorms that hit our area in July. One had the characteristics of a microburst. In the US Sector, the damage seemed to be in the Fishers' Landing area. There were wires down, tree limbs, and traffic disruption on Rte. 180. Round Island lost 12 trees in the blow, and we were glad there was no real structural damage. A week or so later, another storm hit. It wasn't as widespread, but lightening hit three oak trees in our yard. The major hit blew the bark off a white oak all the way from the top to the ground. It looked like the tree had exploded. Some of the bark wound up on the cottage roof, and more of it was in the neighbor's yard. I nearly jumped out of my skin. Glad I wasn't in the yard near the tree. That's too close for comfort!

People see our fireboat sitting at the dock, and some, I suppose, wonder if it is ever used. Here are a few of the highlights:

The first major call was to assist Canada in managing a fire at the east end of Grenadier Island. I wasn't there, but I believe the fire got into the swampy area and was hard to access. The boat was gone for about 6 hours on this mutual aid call. A second mutual aid call was also for an island fire. It was on a small island below Alex Bay which apparently had been hit by lightening. The fire re-kindled over a period of four days. Alex Bay fireboat was on-scene, and we gave it a good soaking. Actually, getting on the island and cutting into some hollow logs seemed to solve the problem. There was also a boathouse fire on Wellesley Island. It was quickly managed by Wellesley Island and Alex Bay fireboats and trucks from Wellesley Island.

Annually, most of the calls are for medical problems, for accidents and illnesses.  The Thousand Islands Emergency Rescue Service is our local rescue squad. They provide advanced level medical assistance and transportation to hospitals. They regularly join with the fire department in responding to island and boating  incidents. It is a huge service to our community.

A very quick response assisted the operators of a self-propelled barge that capsized and unloaded a truck to the bottom of the River. Commercial mariners assisted in the recovery of the cargo and the truck. There was no damage to the environment, and no one was seriously injured.  We also assisted three sinking boats during the summer. Pumps were used to keep one afloat until it could get to shore. Two other sunken outboards were salvaged commercially.

Commercial shipping experienced the grounding of the Algobay below Dark Island, the grounding of the barges being pushed by the tug, Commodore Straits in front of Keewaydin, and the tragic loss of a crewman from the Canadian Provider.

Obviously, it has been an active and memorable season. Hope you all enjoyed it as much as we did. Dick

By Richard L. Withington, Round Island


Dr. Richard L. Withington, M.D.  is a retired Orthopaedic Surgeon, living out a childhood dream spending his sixth consecutive winter alone at the head of Round  Island. His wife Roseanne, heads to Florida when "Rivercroft" is closed in October and Dick moves into the former servants' quarters, "Wintercroft". His old but faithful Siberian Husky STORMY and a rescued Siamese, Mylie, keep him company. Dr. Withington has an airboat, which he keeps at his own dock in winter ready to help. The Sheriff's office will call him directly if and when there is a problem.  This is the third year Doc Withington shares his island life with our readers.

Louise T. Currin is a native of North Carolina and presently lives in Hadley, Massachusetts. During the summer she paints with the Plein Air Painters Thousand Island Region (PAPTIR) and her work can be seen at the Breakwater Gallery in Cape Vincent, N.Y. Her awards include a Merit Award from the Southwestern Watercolor Society, the Grumbacher Gold Medal award from the Garden State Watercolor Society, the David Gates Memorial Award from the Western Federation of Watercolor Societies and the award for Best Landscape in the Central New York Watercolor Societies exhibit in 2009.


Dick Withington points readers to the full heartwarming Christmas Tree Ship saga published by the U.S. National Archives in 2007.

Posted in: People
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Comment by: JAN ARNO ( )
Left at: 10:41 PM Tuesday, December 14, 2010
Another great article from Dr.Withington.Having seen the other side of Doctor working at his Orthopaedic Practice, it is a joy to read the articles he writes for us of life on the St.Lawrence. Have a safe winter!
Lynda Crothers
Comment by: Lynda Crothers ( )
Left at: 8:09 AM Wednesday, December 15, 2010
Love the idea of Christmas lights on the ships as well as on the shore. We will dearly miss the ships not passing during the winter months. Newly living on Wolfe Island this would be a lovey start to the winter with lights to connect the crews and homeowners.
Ralph Denning
Comment by: Ralph Denning ( )
Left at: 10:30 AM Wednesday, December 15, 2010
Thanks Dr. Dick for a great article. Appreciate all you do for the area and us warm weather summer visitors. Beautiful picture!
Vivien Levermore
Comment by: Vivien Levermore ( )
Left at: 11:19 AM Wednesday, December 15, 2010
I remember in the 70's when I lived on the river east of Brockville there seemed to be a lot more ships with Christmas lights than I see now. Just celebrated 41 years in Canada, LOVE the river, I think I am a born again River rat.
Carolyn Kitchen
Comment by: Carolyn Kitchen ( )
Left at: 11:33 AM Wednesday, December 15, 2010
Thanks for another informative article about your island retreat. I believe the Great Lakes did have a contest for the best decorated ship. I'm guessing the timeframe was about 7 or 8 years ago. I remember reading about it on
Nancy Del Borgo
Comment by: Nancy Del Borgo ( )
Left at: 7:15 PM Wednesday, December 15, 2010
Great idea, Dick. River folk and the mariners that slide by in the night have a special understanding of what it is to be close to...and one with...the river. Thanks for bringing a bit of home to chilly North Port. I miss the Christmas ships. LN
Comment by: marilyn ( )
Left at: 1:30 PM Wednesday, December 22, 2010
Thanks Dick and Lou!! What a fabulous article and what a beautiful painting!
A spectacular idea to contact the ships. It would be such a special treat to have them decorated at this time of year. I have been researching solar Christmas lights to decorate the island during the holiday season and hopefully next year will be able to put them up for the ships to enjoy. If anyone had an interest, perhaps we could purchase in bulk to help with the cost. Please email me if interested.
Merry Christmas and Happy New Year Everyone.

Comment by: Editor ( )
Left at: 10:10 PM Thursday, December 23, 2010
"Twas the night befrore the night before Christmas and all through the house,
the squirrels and mice were stirring about as much as they usually do on a cold night.
The cats and Stormy and I were huddled around the wood stove, watching Animal Planet.
When out on the River there arose such a clatter, that we ran to the window to see what was the matter.
You guessed it.....Two long lakers all bedecked in lights
Were exchanging a greeting and stirring up the night.
Their whistles bellowed a long and two shorts, as they slid quickly by on their way to winter ports.
No matter their cargo; no matter their flight,
They brought something secial to Clayton tonight

One was the Gordon C. Lietch. Didn't catch the other's identity, but I wanted to let you know that it's happening. I hope the neighbors on both sides of the River are enjoying this as much as I. Dick
Lynda Crothers
Comment by: Lynda Crothers ( )
Left at: 11:50 PM Thursday, December 23, 2010
I put up solar,led lights out this year but find they don't last the whole night maybe another year with improvements will make the difference. Glad to see interest in Christmas lights on the water and shore . We have a year to get the interest up and find the lights. Safe and Merry Christmas to all.
Iris Waterson
Comment by: Iris Waterson ( )
Left at: 8:38 AM Friday, December 24, 2010
We always enjoy the passing of the ships and watch for any that have Christmas lights. Will miss seeing them when the Seaway closes soon.

Doc ... your articles are always the first-read on Thousand Islands Life. Keep them coming as they are so enjoyable.