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What life has been like aboard Great Lakes freighters during COVID-19

Jul 22, 2020 02:05PM ● By Editor
The Algoma Guardian docks in Port Colborne. Photo supplied by the Seafarers International Union.

By Max Martin  •  Local Journalism Initiative Reporter - The London Free Press - July 22, 2020

When the COVID-19 crisis began, marooned passengers on virus-stricken cruise ships on the high seas grabbed the early headlines. Soon, that huge industry ground to a halt.

The worry quickly rippled out to others who make their living on the water, those who operate the freighters that ply the Great Lakes through Southwestern Ontario on a 3,700-kilometre marine highway linking the Atlantic Ocean to North America’s industrial heartland.

“That was the biggest fear of our members. If this (virus) gets on board, it’s going to run through us,” said James Given, president of the Seafarers International Union (SIU), which represents shipboard workers.

“It was very important to keep our industry moving and COVID-free.”

The first ship through the Welland Canal this season made its way into the system just as Ontario moved to shut down its economy in late March to all but the most essential work.

Four months later, no outbreaks have been reported on any Canadian freighters. But it’s been anything but smooth sailing for the industry.

Some ships have been idled in COVID-19’s fallout. Social distancing on them is tough, and until recently, when shore leave began to open up, crew members couldn’t leave the ships.

“It takes a special kind of person to be on 700-foot ship with 20 other people for three months,” Given said. “If you do that without being able to step foot on shore, that mentally is just tiring.”

A sailor aboard the CSL Baie St. Paul secures cargo holds. Photo supplied by the Seafarers International Union.


Even before the March lockdowns began, steps were taken to prevent the virus on ships.

The number of contractors aboard was limited, personal protective wear was provided, crews were isolated for 14 days before being allowed aboard and shore leave – often called a “sacred right” for ship workers – was halted.

“It was pretty much a full-out lockdown on our ships,” Given said.

Another early policy, sailors filling out medical questionnaires and being temperature-checked before reporting for work, remains.


Most freights have crews of 15 to 21. Sailors often work for three months at a time, then a month off. It’s tight aboard the ships, making physical distancing next to impossible.

The right to shore leave began to loosen about three weeks ago, with sailors allowed off ships in port cities where COVID-19 cases are low. There’s still no shore leave in major cities such as Toronto, Windsor and Montreal, and absolutely none in the United States.

That takes a toll, said Brooke Cameron, fleet personnel manager with Algoma Central, Canada’s largest Great Lakes fleet, with 30 vessels and 1,100 full- and part-time employees.

“Working onboard a vessel and being away from home . . . is already difficult and often stressful,” said Cameron, so losing free shore liberty has only added to that strain.

The Qikiqtaaluk W. completes a ship-to-ship transfer with the Elka Delos in Comfort Cove, N.L.


As the head of a team coordinating travel for Algoma’s workers, Cameron has had to adapt to different provincial guidelines as she works to get crews to and from ships.

For some, especially those from the Maritime provinces, a mandatory 14-day isolation must be followed after they return home, which can eat into their 30 days off. Crew members understand, she said, since the priority is keeping the entire ship safe.

“Captains in our fleet have revealed a strong sense of pride in having kept their vessels free and clear of the COVID-19 virus, which could only be accomplished through the diligence of every crew member.”

Crew members aboard the MV Algoma Hansa are adapting to updated safety and sanitation protocols on their vessels, such as mask-wearing and physical distancing. Photo supplied by Algoma Central.


Able seaman Chris Derraugh had been aboard the St. Laurent, a Canada Steamship Line (CSL) vessel, for three months when he got his first taste of the “new normal” on land.

Cut off from the outside world for much of the pandemic, he’d been shipboard since March 21 until a few weeks ago.

“We were not used to the things ashore because we hadn’t been ashore,” he said from his home in Halifax. “When I got off to go home, everything seemed so weird.”

Derraugh flew home through Thunder Bay and Toronto. “Toronto airport was a bit of a shock; it was a ghost town,” he said.

Aboard the ship, Derraugh rode out the first months of COVID-19 under conditions many landlubbers might find tough.

Most vessels provide private accommodation, but some are shared. A 10-foot by 10-foot room is considered large, typically furnished with a bed, locker and desk.

Limited WiFi is available, and if you’re lucky, satellite TV. Newer ships often have gyms, but those were shut down because of the pandemic.

Land was no great relief when he finally made it there, Derraugh said.

“What was there to go ashore for? Everything was closed, anyway.”

A four-decade veteran of the industry, Derraugh said the biggest challenge for workers is being away from home – despite phone and video links – amid worries about family safety.

Still, he’s confident he and the industry will get through the COVID-19 crisis.

“I worked my way right through three recessions and one depression, and I kept working anyway, so I guess I’m going to keep working through this one.”

The Federal Dart, a 655-foot (200m) Great Lakes freighter, bulls its way upstream in the St. Clair River at Point Edward, through a screen of pleasure craft and a fishing boat coming back to the harbour. Photo: Mike Hensen/The London Free Press/Postmedia Network


Every task aboard now seems to take longer, with beefed-up sanitation to fight COVID-19, Derraugh said. Even something as simple as unpacking groceries take twice as long.

But beyond that, said Jim Ryan, captain of the CSL Assiniboine, “work continues for us as normal.”

Employers have gone above-and-beyond to provide crew members with personal items and special requests they may find hard to satisfy without leaving the ship.

“It’s not really scary once you’re on board the ship,” said Ryan, citing a benefit of being cut off from the outside world during a pandemic.

Even the isolation factor begins to subside, he said from his ship, near Sault Ste. Marie.

“I haven’t had too much issue with the cabin fever part of things. I think most people realize that we’re in the middle of a medical pandemic, and everybody wants to be safe.”

The Federal Dart, a 655-foot (200m) Great Lakes freighter, bulls its way upstream in the St. Clair River reaching the Blue Water Bridge area at Point Edward. Mike Hensen/The London Free Press/Postmedia Network

To read more of the original story and see related articles, follow this link to The London Free Press website.
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