My old friend and former colleague, Leon Harris, got a job as a reporter at the Montreal Gazette, and recommended me to the city editor, Malcolm (Mike) Daigneault, a serious fellow of 26, who was greatly pleased my wife was to have a baby because we were "replenishing the race." Not that he dwelt on it, but I thought it an odd point to emphasise. He hailed from Sherbrooke, Quebec, a city of 160,000 in the Eastern Townships southeast of Montreal. It started off as Hyatt Mills then was renamed after a popular governor. It was populated by pro-British United Empire Loyalists fleeing the American Revolution, in the 1770s and '80s. But since World War II, the French had become the overwhelming majority. Later, Mike Daigneault went on to considerable bureaucratic heights at the CBC in Toronto and died of cancer in 2012.
My hiring was pretty much automatic. First, I was put on the news desk as a sub-editor, where I was not a success. I simply do not have a sub-editor's glowering personality. Later, I could fake it, but not when I was a bouncy 23-year-old who could hardly sit still. As women entered the field and came to dominate it, "copy editor" came to be the preferred term in decades to come in North America. Women disapprove of small transgressions more readily and are better suited to aspects of this job.
I remember an Australian colleague, a cheerful bouncy fellow in his 20s, who told me of a time when he was turned down for a subbing job simply because he was "too cheerful." He was shocked at the time when he told me the story, but I later came to see the wisdom of the judgment of his prospective employer.
Quintessential sub-editors can be regarded as goalkeepers ready to repel any harm that comes their way. While these are not their only qualities, that ability to shut out embarrassing error is chiefly what employers look for.
More is expected in the competitive popular press, flashy headlines that win readers and money, for example. That's where a masculine common touch is required because the stories and headlines must attract men, 85 per cent of readers of paid for newspapers.
But that demand was largely absent in Canada and the States, where revenue chiefly came from advertisers whose support was drawn more by class of readers than the flash of headlines. And over the years, there has been a growing appreciation for born-to-shop females who could be counted to regard the advertising as more important than whatever the journalists considered news.
While I was capable of writing the odd under-appreciated clever headline, I was not prolific enough to compensate for the lack of that disapproving nature the job demanded. What's more, I was argumentative—not popular on a sub's table and certainly not in a downtable sub, as juniors were known.
We were on the cusp of 1969, when Clayton (Red) Sinclair, the shipping reporter, a decent fellow I had known since my copyboy days in 1963, quit to join the Board of Trustees of the Maritime Transportation Unions. The Maritime Trustees was the result of one of the strangest seamen's union problems ever to beset Canada's shipping world.
When World War II ended, Canada had the world's fourth largest merchant fleet, something that could not be sustained in peacetime. It was created solely to transport war materiel to the European theatre until the Americans finally got it together to pitch in. (Keep in mind, there were more UK and Canadian troops deployed on the D-Day landing than there were Americans, and that was in June 1944, when there was less than a year to go before VE Day in May 1945. We Canadians had been in it since September 1939.)
As we were cosy with the Reds during the war, they became covertly active in civil life. They came to dominate the Canadian Maritime Union and wanted to keep postwar control of it. The Reds already had other bodies in their clutches, such as the National Film Board and the Canada Safety Council—and God knows what else that I don't know about. They also fielded parliamentary "Labour Progressive" candidates and even elected an MP, Fred Rose, who was later caught spying with the Rosenbergs, who were executed by the Americans for divulging atomic secrets to the Communists.
This came to light after Igor Gozenko, a cipher clerk in the Russian Embassy in Ottawa, defected in 1945 with lots of code books and other interesting information. Some consider it the official kickoff to the Cold War, when it was first widely appreciated that Soviets were up to no good and had been for a very long time—and that the Labour Progressive MP for Cartier, Fred Rose, was a no-goodnik of the first order, who ran 20 spies. He went to prison for four and half years, was released in 1951 and went to Poland, where they gave him a job editing an English-language magazine called "Poland."
The Red infestation induced Canadian authorities to welcome the thuggish Hal Banks—frequently compared to Teamsters boss Jimmy Hoffa—to get rid of the communists in the Canadian Maritime Union. Whatever Hal Banks' failings, which were many and increasingly criminal, he was not a Red.
And in the ensuing battle—successfully fought—the communist-led CMU was replaced by Banks' Seafarers International Union. In the process, Canada sold off its vast fleet of Liberty ships to Greeks, who then became the major players in international shipping as Canada absented itself from the high seas and stuck to coastal shipping and the Great Lakes. There were still Canadian companies on the high seas, like Canadian Pacific Steamships, but their ships flew the British flag and were not compelled to pay pricey Canadian union wages.
With the Reds defeated, the distasteful behaviour of Mr. Banks became more apparent and a public embarrassment, and in the end the entire maritime union business was to be supervised by a board of trustees. Hal Banks decided to stay on the US side of the border to avoid various criminal charges Canada would pursue if he ever came back.
All of which was pretty much yesterday's news by the time I took the helm at the Mondays and Wednesdays marine pages. Of course, I was delighted to have an independent command, in charge of a one-man department, editing six to eight pages a week and reporting to the managing editor John Meyer, whom I vaguely knew through his son Geoffrey when we attended Queen's School together. Geoff eventually joined the Royal 22nd Regiment (the Vandoos) and made it his career but was stalled at the rank of major. As the one French regular force regiment in the Canadian Army, it was not about to give command to an Anglo.
My father had covered the waterfront in the 1930s and once took me to a Gold Headed Cane ceremony when I was 11 in 1955. I remember clumps of blackened snow in the lee of darkened pillars where the sun seldom shone and was the last place to melt. We would crowd into the captain's quarters before the crudest of shipboard buffets and be served drinks and wait till the port manager presented the cane to the captain of first ship in harbour to open the summer navigation season. Until then, the St. Lawrence River, which carried ships 1,000 miles from the sea, was frozen solid upstream from Quebec City, 150 miles away.
From Quebec City to the Atlantic, tide water had enough salt to keep the ice at bay most of the time. But at Montreal, the ice was so thick, they ran a train and laid an ice road for sleighs and carts across the river, though all that had ceased when the two-mile road-and-rail Victoria Bridge opened in 1859.
My father was proud of the city, and proud of its harbour and airport. He was sure that the then new piggyback technique, that of driving truck trailers onto railway flatcars, would dominate overland shipping in years to come. From his 1950s perspective it seemed reasonable, but there was a severe loss of cube he failed to see. Of course, neither of us knew that that was the very time a trucker called Malcom McLean was in New Jersey with another idea, the shipping container, the box that would change the world.
I plunged into my new assignment with gusto. I loved the charm of the old city: rue St-Sacrament, where the U shaped Board of Trade Building stood, the nearby Dickensian offices of the National Harbours Board building, once the Montreal Harbour Commissioners Building, the Port Warden's Office, the Customs House, ship chandlers, shipping agents, picturesque outfits like the Montreal Tent & Tarpaulin Company. All mine to do with whatever I could!
Of course, it looked in a lot better shape than it was. The Montreal Harbour Commission was lost before the federal government took over the port in 1936, partly because of the Depression, partly to find French Canadians jobs and partly because of the war clouds gathering and everyone everywhere centralising.
Montreal Harbour Commission jobs were English jobs, or more to the point, Irish jobs. The port manager from 1920 to the mid-30s told me later that year, while in his 80s, that "if an Irishman said he didn't have a job, he hadn't spoken to me yet."
Much of that had gone by the time I arrived. The Irish still had a fair chunk of the work, maybe a third of the harbour police, the entire checkers local, though the dockers’ local of the New York-based International Longshormen's Association was all French. But a good chunk of the rail freight was in Anglo hands. They shared the trucking with the Jews, who were increasingly taking over the long-hauls to New York, which counterintuitively was growing in popularity with the massive continental highway building in the previous decade.
Montreal also had great advantages as a port, except in winter, when not much was going on in world shipping anyway. In an age when most trade value was transatlantic, a fact that held true into the 1970s, Montreal had a combination of professional and natural advantages.
If one looks at a globe—not the Mercator's projection map without the curvature of the earth—you see that the UK-North Continent-US route can arc directly from one to the other in what is still known as the Great Circle Route. One does not need to go south to New York and Boston from the northern latitude, if one stays north and plunges into the St Lawrence River that accesses ports deep into North America, with excellent no-muss no-fuss rail service from Montreal to New York, Boston, Detroit and Chicago. You might say the same for American rail service, but that was such a hodgepodge of quarreling railways that would hardly recognise each other's existence, much less co-operate. In Canada, there was only the Canadian Pacific and the Canadian National, the latter run by the government. The ILA was seriously criminal and getting goods off the New York waterfront involved such bribery that they set up the New York Waterfront Commission to police it. But from what I heard, that turned out to be a quasi-criminal boondoggle itself.
But for the most part the Montreal waterfront and with its rail and connections made it an ideal port of entry to American market, not to mention Montreal and Ontario themselves pulled their own weight as first-class consumer-rich hinterland markets.
Looking back, I was too much influenced by the executive secretary of the Montreal Port Council, a sly bulky Belgian, Jean Bourguignon, who ran the advisory body to the local port management, in the form of the National Harbour Board, or the NFB, which was Frencifying the port, starting with the port manager, Guy Beaudet. Not that he was anything special, just another federal French fonctionnaire gradually adding to his areas of responsibility and jealously guarding against those who would take them away.
I had to check myself on comments about the increasing Frenchification, because the Machiavellian Bourguignon partly owed his position to the fact that he too was a francophone while being acceptable to the local anglo shipping community because he was a Belgian and not a French Canadian. In any event, he was for Montreal against its foes, who were many and actively engaged against the port's interest. Also in my journalist world, which was increasingly separate from my waterfront world, such expressions were viewed with increasing hostility as they took on attitudes that favoured a French takeover of a local world that wasn't theirs to take, unless we allowed them to take it—which we did. As I said, and would say over the next 30 years, if you took away the buildings in Montreal that were built with English money and Irish labour, you would have the skyline of Saskatoon.
French Canadian nationalism was soaring at the time and inclined to be resentful over what the British didn't do for them and should have done, or did do to them that they shouldn't have done. Local Anglos were called white Rhodesians. But it was hard to figure out what our sins actually were. I later found this to be the case when studying Canadian history at Concordia University. When reading the Confederation Debates of the 1860s, there was always something terribly wrong with what the Anglos had done—or hadn't done—but were too stupid to understand. And if they were too stupid to understand it, then the French didn't have the time or patience to explain. Rather like girls, they were angry, and that was enough.
I remember trying to pin down a French Canadian girl about what we Anglos had done to them that was so reprehensible. And after some inconclusive angry hemming and hawing, she declared: "You ignored us!"
"Would you please do the same to us?" I pleaded.
"No," she said, "because that's what you want!"
For the next year, life took on a routine. I occupied a flat in an old low-rise called the Canterbury Apartments at 3600 Durocher next to one of the last Chinese laundries in town, which became a charming bookshop run by a couple called the King Edwards. This was in one of the most fashionable areas in town for my generation, the McGill Ghetto east of the university campus. In those days, neighbourhood mothers and toddlers would gather in summers on the green and pleasant McGill University campus to be met after work by husbands who usually arrived on foot from downtown offices a few blocks away. Very few of us had cars or any need of them. The campus was no more than four blocks away, we all lived within a short walk from each other, and life was madly social. Looking back, it was one of the most idyllic urban lifestyles I have ever known. Instead of evening cocktails at home, a joint was passed from one to another before we departed with our children from one of the flats that we visited often.
Dope smoking was open. Even at the office, it was scarcely hidden, being sold openly in neat one-ounce plastic baggies by a sub on the city desk and smoked on a balcony off the men's toilet overlooking narrow lane-like St. Cecile Street between the Gazette at 1000 St Antoine and our watering hole Mother Martins. At the same time, our goodhearted but dictatorial mayor had a tendency to get a bee in his bonnet about something completely out of step with the times. He would forbid bare-breasted African dancers at high-toned Place des Arts yet turn a blind eye to strip clubs. It seemed that vulgarity for the vulgar was permissible, but not for the toney bourgeoisie. He would tend to send "his" police to correct such social flaws, but fortunately not too often.
Another cause celebre, competing with Frencification—which no one could bring themselves to call it, later settling for the softer term "francization"—was opposing the war in Vietnam. I had been against it for the longest time, ever since my Montreal Star days. But for the wrong reasons. I was against it because I despaired of the Americans of ever winning it.
To my mind, they were a vast bunch of soda jerks trying to do the least they could and get out as soon as they could. Those few interested in winning the war were regarded as psychos. The American officials spoke of "managing" the war rather than "winning" it. If the Brits had been in it in a committed way, and the Canadian Army, which was still in good shape at the time, I would have been gung ho to clobber the Reds. But this was the time of the leftist governments everywhere when enthusiasm for insanities of the Chinese Cultural Revolution reached a crescendo in the more political pubs night after night.
I remember Nick Auf der Maur, later a sensible Tory city councillor but then a flaming radical who was praising the Chinese Communist roundup of dissenters, and the removal of people from Cambodian towns to work in the countryside. I drunkenly shouted him down across the marble tables of the Bistro on Mountain Street at the time, reminding him and all who would hear me that this hardly accorded with the liberal views most of us shared.
Admittedly, this was before such behaviour in Cambodia was known as the "Killing Fields." I was shouted down by the crowd of revelers, and my intervention was promptly forgotten if it was ever heard as anything but a point of punctuation in the roaring rant that dominated what passed for political thinking of my generation.
Increasingly, I found solace in my waterfront world south of Common Street, renamed rue de la Commune. I loved its freedom and its danger. I rid myself of notions that police were there to help people. The police in Montreal and the Water Police were there to guard property. And one had an investment in police commensurate with the value of the property they guarded. If a murder occurred on a ship and it wasn't anyone Montrealers cared about, then chances are police could look the other way and the ship would take the murder away after loading its cargo.
This was a world, an English world, that made sense to me, where relations were purely hydraulic, where one did something for someone and was paid back in kind for good or ill. It was the law of the jungle and I liked it.
I became increasingly distant with people at the office, who to be fair had little time for me. Leon Harris returned to type as Eeyore the Donkey and was no longer the happy-go-lucky guy he was in London.
Looking back at those years into 1970, I can see that while I had the right spirit, which if properly deployed might have done some good, it was dwarfed by my ignorance of the complexities of the waterfront world. In my own defence, I must say that the waterfront world itself had enough ignorance that the difference between us hardly mattered. We all got it wrong about the massive changes that were to come.
It was my feeling, supported by many, that the control exerted by the National Harbours Board was the problem. Apart from it being an anti-Anglo, French Canadian employment agency, hostile to English speakers and English interests, which owned most all private property in the port, the NHB was a national Canada-wide organisation, managing the competing interests of the rival ports. What we wanted was a port authority that was fighting for Montreal rather than being run by an agency that tried to balance our interests with those of our rivals in Quebec City, Halifax and Saint John, New Brunswick. The NHB also had the ports of Vancouver and New Westminster but, except for competing with them for project finance, they had little to do with us, being on the other side of the country.
I do claim some success in destroying the NHB, and having it replaced with Ports Canada, which was different enough to give greater autonomy to its member ports, but locally was still a French Canadian employment agency, now freshly infested with women.
Back in Montreal, the waterfront decline did not matter because Montreal itself ceased to matter. The Port of Vancouver soon surpassed it, and Toronto soon surpassed Montreal as Canada's biggest city. Because of soaring French nationalism, Montreal was disappearing as a corporate hub with the pharmaceutical plants fleeing to the US, Sun Life Assurance, the world's biggest life insurance company, fleeing to Toronto and the world's biggest railway, the Canadian Pacific, finding refuge in Calgary. The Bank of Montreal and the Royal Bank of Canada shifted the bulk of their assets to Toronto. This period, marked with pictures in the press of departing Brinks trucks, was called the Anglo Exodus. Ironically, Montreal's status as the second largest French speaking city was lost to Kinshasa in the Congo because of the decade-long Anglo Exodus. So what was happening to the port was entirely secondary. Montreal was no longer the centre of its universe, but a satellite of another in which government, federal and provincial, became increasingly central.
While the seeds of a great container revolution were planted in 1969, they took years to germinate into the wonders they would become. Some of the things I backed in my column, like the land bridge in which containers would be taken by rail from Montreal to Vancouver and beyond were bridges too far too soon. Something that would eventually occur 45 years later, but not in the way we imagined.
One key factor sums up developments in those decades: economies of scale brought on by the container. As I said before, in the past, 50 per cent of the retail price of an import went to transportation. Consumer goods were shipped in boxes little different from the cardboard boxes in which we took groceries home from the supermarket. And just like such a box, one didn't put the eggs and grapes at the bottom of the box and the potatoes on top. Neither did one put the cameras from Germany on the bottom nor the heavy machine parts from England on top. But unlike the supermarket packer who had the entire contents of the load at his fingertips allowing him to pack the entire shipment in a sensible manner, this cannot be done in the case of the ship on its rotation from port to port.
The 1960s breakbulk cargo ship, loading in St Petersburg, then Leningrad, would hoist cargo nets of fragile matryoshka nesting dolls in standard cardboard boxes, which were then lowered into a hatch to the bottom of a hold. The hold is curved, narrow at the bottom to make the small ship of 14,000 tons as these Liberty Ships more seaworthy, fit to cross the stormy Atlantic. Other cranes will load Russian lumber. Then to Copenhagen to load fancy tinned ham. Thence to Hamburg to load machinery and auto parts and on to Rotterdam for cheeses and specialty beer in glass bottles and then to Antwerp to load chemicals, and to London to load boilers, electronic equipment, plastics and pharmaceuticals and finally to Le Havre for wine and brandy.
This not simply a case of loading everything in the ship as it comes in - whither those poor Russian dolls loaded in St Petersburg? Cruelly crushed by those brutish German auto parts, that's where! So various things must be re-hoisted and heavier goods put at the bottom, and this is process that is continuous port after port. And if a Germany camera and/or a case of fancy Danish hams were missing by the time shipment reached the importer, it is anybody's guess where the theft or "shortage", occurred. Was it in Hamburg, London, Le Havre or Montreal? Who's to say?
There was a tale doing the rounds that dockers at Le Havre would steal cognac for export for America, but instead of taking it home would hide it in the shed. At the same time dockers in Southampton would steal Scotch bound for Japan and do the same. And then at an arranged time secrete the contraband on ships carrying unrelated cargo, like bales of wool or cattle hides, from which no one would suspect theft of any kind because it wasn't worth stealing. This allowed the thieving dockers to go home with the Scotch and Cognac without close scrutiny on days when thief-proof cargo was coming through and security was light or absent.
In those days I was bicycle-borne and zipped in and out of sheds and right up to the gangway to the ships’ weatherdecks. On one occasion I saw what appeared to be a vast block of boxes in the shed and a maze-like passageway. Following it inside, I found a walled enclosure of boxes with a card table and folding chairs at the centre and three empty bottles of Remy Martin cognac on the floor.
All this was brought to an end by containers. Not only the pilferage, but the need to shift cargo from one part of the hold to another or from hatch to hatch in a containership because each consignment was now securely enclosed in its own protective steel box. There were later concerns about late-loading containers, frequently the heaviest, making the ship top-heavy in stormy weather, or hazardous materials leaking, erupting or sparking fire or explosions aboard. While such disasters occurred from time to time, they brought on countermeasures and did not occur to the extent casualties had before. Certainly not compared to the amount carried, some 15 times more cargo over the next 50 years.
But economies of scale brought about bigger changes still. It changed the world in which only the rich bought imports and the poor bought domestic goods to a new state of affairs in which the reverse occurred. Now only the rich could buy pricey domestic goods while lower income earners bought cheap imports.
Before the World Trade Organisation, there was the good work of the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT), which had opened trade from poorer nations to richer ones. First, there was a demand for Japanese cameras and photocopiers, then cars, then Korean cars and pocket calculators. It was argued that the European equivalent, the Leica, was superior to the Pentax or Nikon but only 10 per cent better while the Japanese product was half the price. Over the next 10 years something of the same impact occurred to most products that people used in their everyday lives.
The one strange event occurred the result of an accounting oversight, or at the very least a very unsavvy US Government purchasing agent, in buying goods and services to supply the American War in Vietnam.
The efficiency-minded Pentagon was sold on containers and contracted McLean's Sealand to bring war materiel to Vietnam and generously paid for the supposedly deadhead backhaul voyage because there was nothing to export from Vietnam. But not so from Singapore, Hong Kong, Taipei, Pusan and Yokohama. Some of it was near junk, plastic flower beds to decorate lobbies of low-rise apartment buildings from Vancouver to San Diego. And of course the cameras and photo equipment and pharma and electronic components and the wildly popular transistor radios. So Sealand was being paid three times for two trips.
This led to a decision the Japanese made. They were just feeling their oats in the 1970s with the popularity of their gadgets and cars. Seeing all this cargo going out in US ships, a phenomenon not seen since the war, because merchant shipping was usually a province of poorer nations of which the United States was not one. So the Japanese took the plunge, much to their cost, they launched a great container shipbuilding programme.
The mistake was to be fooled by the largely non-commercial transpacific container trade which was two thirds sustained by the War in Vietnam, which came to an end in 1972. Still, when the Japanese make a mistake they made a big one, when they discovered that about the only thing America was sending across the Pacific in containers was war materiel. That is because what was exported from the North American west coast at the time was mostly bulk material - wheat, potash, coal, logs and lumber. In later years some of that, wheat and lumber could be accommodated in containers, but not by 1970.
After that, American agricultural production kicked in. US agribiz industrial methods left rival food producers in other countries far behind. Washington Apples, California peaches, Arkansas chicken dominated markets. From that grew the reefer market. Not reefer bulk ships with refrigerated holds for bananas, which had been around for years, but electric reefer container plugs onboard ships. Again, the availability of a wide international sale of produce through shipping was another impact of economies of scale.
Over the years since, the phenomenon grew more pronounced. From 500-TEU vessels, they grew to 1,000-TEUers, then to 3,000, 7,000 and 10,000 today's average size. But then came bigger ones, 16,000-TEUers ten years ago and 21,000-TEUers today.
At the same time crew sizes dropped from 40 on the old 500-TEU ships to 20 aboard the a 21,000-TEUer. A crew of 13 took a 14,000-TEUer home from a minor accident in the Suez Canal a few years ago. There is even serious talk of ships without crews today.
Showing again how size matters, the bigger the ship, the less it took to run it on a per box basis. The cost per container to ship it—the slot cost—plunged, as did terminal handling costs as the process became increasingly automated.
And that led to factory at one end and big box retailer at the other. Factories with masses of Asian workers were highly automated and hugely productive, producing individual items at a fraction of a penny with shipping costs adding not much more to the costs, keeping prices kept low at big box retailers and now with internet marketing through ecommerce in 2020.
That was the world I was just getting to know in 1969 and was yet unknown to all who worked in it.
My routine was writing a twice weekly column called the Waterfront and a number of stories that filled my marine pages, and editing material from the wire services, including Novosti, the Soviet news agency, which some thought questionable, though I considered it non-controversial as the stories dealt with news of the Gulf of Finland or other routine shipping matters. There were strikes and threats of strikes, inquiries and conferences, a time I went to New York and I think happened to catch one of the homosexual "Stonewall riots" as Wikipedia now calls them in June of 1969 as I walked to interview an official of the New York Waterfront Commission. The sight I beheld was about a dozen homosexuals, looking decidedly ungay. They walked around in a cowering circle listening to a faggy fellow accompanying himself on a guitar singing fragile song barely heard above the din of lower Manhattan.
What was far more astonishing than that was the sight of some 30 uniformed police arrayed around this pathetic assemblage of squishy, swishy men, with other burly plainclothesmen standing around. Seldom if ever was such a large force arrayed against such a pathetic group. As I walked away and for years later, I came to admire those demonstrators who stood up to what was obviously meant to be a threatening force sent to overawe and disperse them. Not that I found homosexuals, well male homosexuals anyway, any more acceptable that I have ever done. What I can tolerate, the way others can tolerate tobacco use, without finding it acceptable, that is, as morally neutral, I can tolerate, but not without making a negative value judgment silently—unless asked.
Part of that New York trip was taking a helicopter from the roof of Port Authority building over to Port Elizabeth, New Jersey where the ACL container terminal was being built. Early on, my young ACL (Atlantic Container Line) conducting officer told me that we had the helicopter for an hour or two. "Let's see New York," he suggested. It was a Sikorsky S-55, and I was quite familiar with them on the ground as my father had been the assistant to the president of Pratt & Whitney, which owned Sikorsky, and I had the run of the place when my brother and I visited his office on Saturdays when few people were around.
So when Bob Anderson, the young man showing me around, secured my agreement, we got the side door open and sat on the floor with our feet dangling outside, only held back by a restraining chain slung across the doorway.
Bob held the microphone to tell the pilot where to go and after a look at New Jersey to see a construction site, we went along the shore of Manhattan, but not before he pulled out a fat joint and lit up. The pilot was high up forward and out of sight. He took us along the now long-gone finger piers of New York, and finally around the Statue of Liberty.
One night there was news of a ship sinking in the St Lawrence off Morrisburg, Ontario. We rushed off to the shoreline and found the Ontario Provincial Police in charge. Loaded with pig iron ingots, the 3,335-ton Eastcliffe Hall loaded in Sorel, near Montreal, then set off for Saginaw, Michigan, under its drunken Captain Richard Groulx when the ship struck the Chrysler Shoal and went down in seven minutes with nine of the 20 aboard drowned.
When we got there, the crewmen from the aftcastle engine room were telling their amazing stories. The captain and his family perished as did the chief engineer and his wife and daughter, as water flooded the accommodation deck below the forecastle wheelhouse.
The Eastcliffe Hall was a standard Great Lakes bulk carrier, used to haul prairie wheat from Thunder Bay on Lake Superior for transshipment overseas in Montreal, and return with pig iron and ore to feed US steel mills in upstate New York and the Midwest. So when the shoal ripped the bottom of the hull, the heavily laden vessel sank fast from the front end as the water rushed in near the bow. It was an elongated long laker and the men 100 yards back in the engine room were not conscious of the trouble they were in. They told me they heard the scraping sound, which did not sound good, but hardly catastrophic. More alarming, they said, was the sound of explosions—"pop, pop, pop!" By the time I interviewed them on shore sipping tea and wrapped in police blankets, they understood those to be the hatch covers blowing off as the incoming water compressed the air between the cargo and the main deck. One of the engine room oilers opened a door to the hold to get a better idea of what was happening.
The air pressure was so great, the next thing he and his comrades knew was that they were flying up into the cavernous engine room. "We came through those skylights like fucking bullets, we did!" one told me.
If that wasn't enough of a bewildering experience, they next found themselves swimming in the water. One of them found one of the ships masts protruding above the water line, which they all clung to until help arrived. The ship had sunk in 70 feet of water.
For a time, there was a question of whether this was an American or Canadian problem as it was uncertain where precisely the ship lay, but as the OPP had blankets and taken the crew ashore and everyone involved was Canadian, it fell to Canada to sort out the whys and wherefores.
I never did interview the surviving first mate that night but later heard his side of the story at the admiralty court in Cornwall months later. His story from the doomed fo'c'sle was, that having fruitlessly remonstrated with the captain about the seriousness of the accident, he took command when the drunken obstreperous master went below to join his wife and son. The mate contacted the Seaway authority to signal his condition and just as he did, he noticed water flooding the wheelhouse deck. He immediately moved outside with water rising up to mid-calf as he went. He climbed the ladder to the monkey's island, the wheelhouse roof, but when he got there, the water was up to his knees. He then tried to swim away from the ship. But the suction of the sinking wheelhouse dragged him down.
"I prayed to the Holy Mother, and I was released!" he told the inquiry.
Then there was the case of the ship that went too fast to win the race. By 1968, the Gold Headed Cane and its presentation to the first ship into the Montreal Harbour in the spring had become meaningless. That is because the Canadian Coast Guard icebreakers were doing duty in the St Lawrence, and ships with ice-strengthened hulls could get into Montreal year-round. This reduced the significance of the Gold Headed Cane ceremony and its annual recipient to being the first ship in past midnight on January 1.
Such a ship aspiring to attain this empty honour was the Russian cargo vessel Lena. Its intention was to tarry outside the harbour limits downstream from Montreal and a minute after midnight chug across the line and pick up the Gold Headed Cane.
So it was when the Lena docked, there was much pouring of vodka in celebration, as the Soviets take these matters seriously—to a surprising extent, as we were to learn later. The harbour officials were imbibing in the joyous jollifications while going through the routine procedure of marking when and where the Lena had crossed the line. As they did so, it became clear that it was not the first ship in the New Year, but the last ship in the old year, because it crossed the National Harbours Board boundary too soon to win the race, mistakenly thinking the pilotage boundary a few miles upstream was the official line.
The entourage soon discovered that the real winner was the Canadian Pacific Steamships’ vessel Beaverpine, which had simply steamed into Montreal not knowing or caring about the Gold Headed Cane. But its captain urgently wanted to leave his ship to see someone ashore—we all suspected a girlfriend—and was in no mood to entertain a lot of vodka-laden people anxious to resume jollifications. He agreed to be back the next day for the official ceremony, since his bosses at the Canadian Pacific Railway would have insisted on that.
The next day, the Beaverpine put on a nice reception, undoubtedly supplied by the Canadian Pacific Railway's expert catering corps. The captain in full fig was in better humour and graciously accepted the Gold Headed Cane from port manager Guy Beaudet. He did tell me that he had no awareness of the Gold Headed Cane or his timing but was pleased to receive it for the company. But I still got the impression he was anxious to get rid of us all so he could resume whatever he was doing ashore.
That wasn't the end of it, though. The Soviets were furious. The embassy in Ottawa was writing cross diplomatic notes, lodging protests and alleging base Canadian skullduggery in denying them the honour. External Affairs officials came to investigate the claim, but all seemed in order and Canada stood firm against the fury of our angry northern neighbour, insisting that the prize be given to someone who didn't want it and denied to one who did.