Made to fit

My dad used to walk the boats all the way to Montreal,” said Capt. Rob Wheeler. His father, retired Capt. George Wheeler, started as a deck hand on the old Lachine Canal and Great Lakes waterways right after World War II. As the little 250-by-43-foot lake boats moved through the locks, the deck hands acted as line handlers and walked from lock to lock rather than reboarding. By the time the St. Lawrence Seaway opened in 1959, George Wheeler had moved up to mate, and new lake boats moved up to 730 by 75 feet to take advantage of the new 80-foot lock width.

Québécois has its distinctive wheelhouse just aft of the bow. The 730-foot-long 40-year-old vessel is powered by a 9,000-hp steam turbine engine.
   Image Credit: photos by Alan Haig-Brown

George Wheeler went on to captain the 730-class lakers and brought his son Rob along on his school holidays. In 1963, the same year that Rob was born, a new 730-by-75-foot laker, Québécois, was launched from the Canadian Vickers yard in Montreal. Forty years later, in late May of 2004, Rob passed on the family tradition by inviting his two sons onboard Québécois, the vessel he commands.

The 40-year-old steamboat was working her way north down the last three locks of the eight-lock Welland Canal. The canal avoids Niagara Falls to lower boats 326.5 feet between Lake Erie and Lake Ontario. Accompanied by their mom, Monique, the boys, 11-year-old Kyle and 7-year-old Michael, watched as their dad rang changes on the brass engine-room telegraph. Kyle was allowed to blow the whistle to signal the boat’s move out of Lock 2.

By 1030 on May 22, Québécois was clear of Lock 2 and was meeting a Dutch deep-sea, or “salty” as the lakemen call them. Wheelman John Rose worked the helm to balance the boat between the bank effect of the starboard shore and the disturbance created by the salty’s hull passing though the confined waterway.

“It is 99 percent feel,” said Rose as he spun the wheel. “The channel doesn’t go all the way over, so it is sucking the stern to starboard.”

The wheelman can tell that the stern is being pulled over without looking aft. Most of this class of boat were built with the wheelhouse forward and the engine room aft. Because the helm is only about 30 feet from the bow, even though it is set back in the wheelhouse, a 24-foot spear-shaped staff angles out at 45° from the stem, giving the wheelman a visual reference. Working in the confines of the canals or rivers, the watch officer more often gives visual references rather than compass courses.

The lock master directed Québécois to tie up along the wall just above the lock to give a tug-barge combination time to clear. After the tug and barge exited the lock, the lock master called over the VHF to say, “Québécois come down to the stop sign.”

The lock wall angled slightly down to the lock, and the wheelman held the port forward quarter of the boat against the wooden rub rails, while the stern moved off the wall to align the boat with the lock. As the boat moved up to the “knuckle” of the wall where the alignment became one with the lock, the captain rang the telegraph for “half ahead,” to give enough thrust to push the stern well off the wall and align with the lock, putting the vessel on a bearing of 344.5°. The heading for each lock is inscribed on a brass plate mounted by the wheelhouse windows.

“You have to anticipate to allow for the delay on a steamboat like this,” Wheeler explained. “Then as you come into the lock, you will be right on.”

With Québécois made fast in the lock, the doors closed and the water was released to drop the vessel the final 46 feet to Lake Ontario. The Welland Canal was built with large 766-by-80-foot lock chambers in the 1930s, and it was to these dimensions that the St. Lawrence section of the Seaway was built in the 1950s. At the same time, the Welland Canal was deepened to match the 27-foot operating depth of the Seaway.

With his family put ashore while in the lock, Wheeler moved the boat (in spite of their large size, these vessels are called “boats,” not “ships,” by their crews) on out between the breakwaters to the open waters of Lake Ontario. At that point the watch changed to alternate between the second and third mates. The practice on the lakers has the captain conning through the locks, the first mate through the open rivers, and the second and third taking the watch on the lakes. In the lock the second and third are in charge of the deck crews responsible for the moorings. First Mate Louis Drolet, Second Mate Constantin Kakouris and Third Mate David MacDonald stand watches four on and eight off. Other responsibilities from cargo to safety and payroll are distributed among the officers.

The vessels in the Upper Lakes Group Inc. to which Québécois belongs are all certified under the ISM/ISO 9000 system. “It works well,” said Wheeler. “I am a relief captain, so when I go from boat to boat, I will find consistent filing systems and don’t have to learn the particular system and procedures of all the different masters.”

Shortly after noon on May 22, Québécois made her way out into Lake Ontario. By 1515 her steady 12.5-knot cruising speed had her 32 miles out from the Niagara River, headed northeast toward the lake’s outlet and the beginnings of the St. Lawrence River. Although she was in U.S. waters at this point, the Toronto skyline was clearly visible through the afternoon rain squalls. Lake Ontario, at 7,340 square miles, is the second smallest of the Great Lakes and has an average depth of 283 feet, which is much deeper than Lake Erie’s average depth of only 62 feet over nearly 10,000 square miles.

This results in remarkably different wave conditions. The officers on watch crossing Lake Ontario explained that Ontario can get some steep waves, but with the relatively short reach, they seldom exceed 12 feet. Lake Erie, on the other hand, is “like a saucer; when a west wind blows, it can slide all of the water over to the east end.” This can so drastically change the lake’s already shallow depths, that laden bulk carriers may have to wait for the wind to abate before crossing the lake, for fear of touching bottom in certain areas at the western end.

By 2015, the weather had turned to heavy rain with sheets of lightning and thunder booming into the wheelhouse. Visibility out the great sweep of wheelhouse windows was very restricted, and the radars were full of squall clutter. Kakouris, who spent many years on deep-sea ships, pointed to the electronic chart plotter with the AIS display and ARPA from the radar. The shape of another vessel showed with its name, Vega Desgagnes, off the port bow. The vessel was not visible out the window and was only a shadow on the radar. When Kakouris clicked the cursor on the image and the drop menu, the AIS display showed it to be 7.24 nautical miles off, with the closest point of approach in 15 minutes. With the other vessel making 14.3 knots on a heading of 246°, they would pass safely within 3.3 miles of each other. Other information described her bearing, rate of turn and vessel registration number. This is the second year that all larger vessels transiting the St. Lawrence Seaway are required to have AIS. The bridge crew on Québécois are fans of the technology, while pointing out that no electronic technology can replace a steady eye and a pair of binoculars looking out the window.

At 2217 the boat passed Main Duck Island, the official end of Lake Ontario and the start of the more confined waters of the Thousand Islands area. The crews went over an arrivals checklist to assure that the anchors were ready for emergency use and that other precautions had been taken.

First Mate Drolet took charge of the navigation. At midnight, when Kakouris took over the watch from Third Mate MacDonald, Drolet continued in charge of the navigation, as he would until about 0530, when the captain would take the boat into the first lock of the Lower Seaway Canal.

All of these waters are controlled by speed limits around 7 to 8 knots, depending on the complex of turns and currents. Until AIS was introduced two years ago, there were actually Seaway police on patrol with radar guns. Now they need only click their cursors on a boat as it tracks across an office radar screen to tell who is staying within the law.

Even on a dark and rainy night, the Thousand Islands are beautiful. As luxurious summer homes on tiny islets slip by the giant hull of the laker, one is tempted to ask about collisions. The stories are long and many through the night watch. Mostly they have to do with vessels waiting too long to make a turn or misreading a light and going the wrong way. “The charts and the AIS show the courses,” Drolet said, “but you have to know the currents and the way the boat will set down on a turn.”

Peering into the murky dark for the next set of green and red marker lights, Drolet explained, “The best place to learn is as the wheelsman. My father was a pilot on the lower river, but I worked my way up from the galley and spent seven years as a wheelsman.”

Pausing to direct the wheelman on the marks for steering under the Thousand Islands Bridge that crosses over the 7.5-mile-long American Narrows, he added, “This is teamwork between the mate, the wheelsman and the people in the engine room.”

When handling the boat in tight places, an rpm indicator, called a “river box,” is used rather than the telegraph. Really just another means of telegraphing a request from the bridge to the engine room, the river box is mounted on a column in the wheelhouse. Two windows allow the mate to dial in the numbers indicating the desired rpm on the main shaft. The engine room reads this and dials in matching numbers on the other two of the instrument’s four little windows. This acknowledges that they have received the request and are making the necessary adjustments. At 12.5 knots, the propeller shaft turns at 82 rpm. As the river adds 3 or 4 knots of current and speed limits are reached, the bridge will ask for 65 or 55 rpm.

Making such adjustments on a 9,000-hp two-stage steam-turbine engine is a little more complex than on a diesel. The Québécois engines are the original General Electric steam turbines with Babcock & Wilcox header-type boilers. As in the wheelhouse, the watches are taken by second, third and fourth engineers, with the chief taking overall responsibility.

On this trip, the fourth engineer was 23-year-old Willis Thomas. He was making his first trip since graduating from his training and was a little nervous. Chief Michel Rouleau had taken care of this by assigning him oiler Raymond Wheeler. He is 76 years old, and there isn’t much that can faze him. He started on the 253-by-43-foot laker Mondoc in 1947 and keeps a photo of her in the 1949 Chicago Christmas parade. Except for a stint owning and training racehorses in the 1960s and ’70s, the boats have been his life.

When the brass telegraph or the river box on the engine room console rings for a change, he goes into action like a man half his age. Two stainless-steel wheels are turned to control the two boilers and steam, so that the appropriate amount passes first to the high-pressure turbine and then on to the low-pressure turbine. The operator must watch the water glass on the steam tank above each boiler. When maneuvering, he must not starve it of water or the tubes can melt. At the same time, too much water will result in the tank’s flooding, so that there is no steam and the boat will lose power. This is the kind of responsibility that could make life very stressful for a junior engineer, but with an old hand like Wheeler in the engine room, there is little to worry about.

By 0530 on May 23, Québécois came down on the Iroquois Lock, the first to be encountered by downbound vessels in the St. Lawrence section of the Seaway. By the time Rob Wheeler had taken the boat through the lock, the sun was breaking through the cloud cover. With almost 27,787 tons of wheat in her holds, the boat was drawing something very near the maximum allowable 26 feet 3 inches. As the sun shone down on her deck, the crew deployed a number of water sprinklers fed by fire hoses. Drolet explained that this is done to prevent the boat from hogging. If the steel decks expand, they can force the bow and stern down and increase the effective draft of the boat by 3 or 4 crucial inches. Vessels that are found to be over draft can be directed to tie up alongside the canal until another vessel can be brought in, at considerable cost, to lighter cargo until the drafts are legal.

For the 20-odd miles and three hours down to the two American locks, Eisenhower and Snell, the view is of cottages and green fields.

The deck crew made up in the American lock in the same way they had in the Canadian locks. Two 1-inch-wire mooring lines were put out fore and aft from each of two positions at either end of the long cargo deck. Mates worked the four line winches, with the lines passing through rollers in large circular fairleads designed to turn to face the direction the line leads as the boat goes up or down in the lock. The line winches are used to hold the boat steady in the lock.

These American locks take the boat down to a series of flooded areas, dredged canals and four more locks. In the lower Seaway, the second and third mates go on a six-and-six watch schedule, with the captain and first mate on the bridge for the lock and river sections, respectively.

Attention remained high on the bridge. At 1120 the boat was passing Cornwall on the north shore. Little Hen Island sat alone off the starboard side just upstream of the large ÃŽle St.-Regis. The mate directed a long port turn against the current, setting down on the boat’s port side to enter the channel between St.-Regis and Cornwall. “A lot of boats have run aground there,” he said as Québécois swept down past another trap for unwary bridge crews.

At 1340 the boat passed between a set of ice booms that break up floating river ice and send it down the main channel to keep the canal and locks relatively ice-free. Self-unloading boats are now carrying more ore cargoes. Some of them have pushed the size limit of Seaway boats up to 740 by 78 feet, leaving just a foot on each side when in the lock. According to Greenwood and Dills’ Lake Boats 2003, there are a half dozen other U.S.-, Canadian- and Bahamian-registered vessels with beams over 75 feet. Of the original 730-by-75-foot class, there were 38 Canadian- and only two U.S.-registered vessels.

By 1530 the boat had cleared the Beauharnois Lock into Lac St. Louis. By 1815 she was entering the final 13 miles of the Seaway above Montreal. This is the Canal de la Rive Sud, which takes boats around the Lachine Rapids that are the reason the Port of Montreal was located here, at the head of navigation on the St. Lawrence.

Image Credit: photos by Alan Haig-Brown

Québécois meets Algowood in the lower St. Lawrence Seaway.

This canal takes the boat through the Cote Ste. Catherine Lock. Along the last leg of the canal, the view off to port was across the narrow strip of land separating the canal from the raging torrent of the Lachine Rapids and beyond to the skyline of Montreal in the distance. At the final lock, St. Lambert, a Montreal Harbour pilot came aboard. He explained the apparent dearth of deep-sea ships in the Seaway. “Rates are $8,000 to $10,000 per day for Seaway-size ships, but rates in Asia are more than double that.”

While the politics and the economics of shipping on the St. Lawrence Seaway will continue to vary, the essentials of safely moving very large vessels at their maximum draft in shallow current-plagued waters will no doubt continue in one form or another. As Québécois was made fast at Grain Elevator No. 4 in Montreal Harbour just before midnight on May 23, Rob Wheeler looked back at a voyage that began 1,222 miles upriver in Thunder Bay at the head of Lake Superior at 1000 on May 19, and he declared another trip on “the H2O Highway” complete.

By Professional Mariner Staff