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Not Easy Being On A Ship: Part II

A ship passes across the frigid, icy waters of Lake Ontario on a late November morning. Sea fog rises off the ripples of the waves as the ship heads for the St. Lawrence River. The crew of the ship finds themselves confronted with a far different scene than the one they encountered the day prior when the sun greeted them as they came out of their not so cozy beds.

Winter time is a hard time for those working in the outdoor elements while aboard a Great Lakes freighter. “The hardest part about winter sailing is probably the ice,” explains 20-year old deckhand Kevin Davis who sails aboard the 1000-foot Mesabi Miner in the upper lakes. “Spray freezes on deck and it’s a pain to get it off.” Recent weather conditions all across the St. Lawrence River and Great Lakes has caused havoc on deckhands like Davis.

As ships sail across the lakes and river, water spraying from the large splashing waves, meet with wet lake effect snowflakes creating nothing more than a portable steel-hulled ice skating rink for deckhands to enjoy. Then again, not many are enjoying them due to the brutal work conditions they face. “The boys hate me right now,” Captain Murray Latham said recently after a night of spray froze on the deck of Frontenac. He had his team out on deck chopping at the layer of ice that coated nearly the entire 700-foot ship. The spray had gotten so bad that it even managed to ice over the windows on the bridge. Latham had one of this Mates pull out an everyday car window scraper and get to work on clearing up their view. “I wish I had my skates onboard,” Latham joked. “I woke up this morning and found that I am now the Captain of my own ice box.”

The cargo holds of the steel “ice box” can be found frozen shut leaving deckhands to find unique ways to ensure that they will open by the time the ship reaches port. Blow torches and over-sized ice picks are a common sight when the job needs to get done right away. In other cases, a typical bag of road salt might be spread around to melt the ice away in the afternoon sun while cruising. Either way, most of the time the deckhands work hard to clear away the ice and snow only to have to do it all over again just a few hours later.

Winter months make deckhands appreciate the summer months, though not because of work load, but more so because it’s… not winter.

“Painting and deck work, such as splicing wire rope and heaving lines, are just a few odd jobs we do,” Davis explained. Painting might not be something everyone on the water will notice however. The crew paints everything from the body of the ship to its deck and all that comes in between. Over the summer, one crew took time while in wharf near Montreal to paint the bow of their ship while they waited for the Seaway to reopen following a toxic spill. Don’t expect to see deckhands with their paint brushes out while on choppy waters though.

A number of other duties deckhands work on tend to get them quite dirty. “With Interlake Steamship, the “deck 5” or the deck crew is in charge of unloading the ship,” said Davis, who is hoping to move from the deck to the bridge as a Mate by the time he turns 25. “The Mesabi has a total of three unloading tunnels, so manpower is slim during unloads.” Unloading the ship, or loading for that matter, isn’t the only time things get a bit dirty though. The hard part comes after all is said and done, “after unloads the deck crew cleans and hoses the unloading tunnels. It’s a very dirty and pain in the ‘butt’ job.” Coal carrying ships tend to go from their usual clean look to a look more similar to Santa Claus after he finds himself sliding down a chimney that hasn’t been cleaned in more than a dozen years.

Be sure to remember the next time you are on your cottage porch or on the water passing a ship next spring, just take a minute to stop and remember that the ones waving back at you from the deck of that 700-foot ship likely went through a winter of ice picks and torches and are about to embark on a summer filled with coal dust. Ah, life as a deckhand!

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  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.

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Lynda Crothers
Comment by: Lynda Crothers ( )
Left at: 7:47 AM Wednesday, December 15, 2010
Love the story thank you. With living on Wolfe now and watching the ships has become our favorite thing this story brings a personal touch to living on the water.
Comment by: Tara ( )
Left at: 5:00 PM Thursday, March 3, 2011
Love watching the ships pass by in the summer. I now have a much better respect for them!
Ray Brown
Comment by: Ray Brown
Left at: 7:17 PM Tuesday, June 2, 2015
I was a deckhand in the early 1960's on the Steamer Clifford F. Hood, we hauled billets,steel, and crankshafts for American Steel & Wire Div. of U.S. Steel, had two cranes on board all steam operated, ship was built in 1902 and was 495 feet, spent two seasons in some major storms, they actually shoveled the coal into the furnaces, was a beautiful steam engine ship.