Icebreaker Montcalm

A Seaman between two Sea.

Flying from Maracaibo, Venezuela , via New York to Montreal and then after an 8 hour bus trip home, I was a little tired after five months in relatively quiet marine life. But what would my father be doing in late April? A hundred activities flashed in my mind, but on arrival, I could see the smoke coming out of his blacksmith shed. The ringing of the hammer hitting an anvil told me he was creating something out of iron. Some of his fishing nets had been dragged after the last storm. A larger anchor was the solution. I also noticed he was building a new fishing boat in cedar. That meant my vacation would be short lived. Clinching each square galvanized iron nail to secure the cedar planks in a fishing boat requires a high degree of precision. A poorly secured nail would weaken the overall structure of a boat working on a rough sea. One consolation though. He worked on these projects only when the wind was blowing too hard to go fishing on the St. Lawrence River.

As a sailor on land is much like a fish out of water, I wrote a couple of letters to various shipping companies. I did receive several positive responses, but no definite jobs in sight. Only the government offered me a job as a second radio operator aboard their icebreakers, but without a definite date nor time. Then, in mid-June, they instructed me to join the Canadian Coast Guard vessel Montcalm docked at the Vickers pier at Montreal. That’s where my father had worked during the war. All that remained of the huge shipbuilding complex was the dock. I spent a few days with my friends in Montreal, visiting the International Exposition or Expo 67, which celebrated its centenary. But city life was not for me. I joined the ship June 27th, and there I began my journey to the Canadian Arctic during the navigational season.

The CCGS Montcalm.

Joining a ship is always full of uncertainties. Victualing the ship, waiting for crew members to arrive, loading stores for the engine room, shore people on board rushing to finish their job  and a host of other activities gave the impression of total chaos.  Normally, the mates are navigating and  the engineers are looking after the engine room, but when I joined, I couldn’t tell one from the other. They seemed to be mingled with shore people everywhere I looked. Since an icebreaker handles various jobs, they require many additional specialists.  Apart from an enlarged crew during the Arctic tour, the icebreaker needs a helicopter pilot and engineer, an ice observer, one or two additional radio operators, a medical officer and I don’t know how many more. As departure time approached, most of the apparent chaos had disappeared and by the time we were ready to leave port in early July, 1967, everything was in order.


CCGS Montcalm, Class A1 Icebreaker at Québec.

Asking around, I learned she was an Arctic Class A1 icebreaker. That sounded very impressive, but when I learned that the strongest were in the Class 8 category, then I wondered what the ship I had just joined could do in the ice, apart from getting stuck. She was a middle-class icebreaker that serviced lighthouses and buoy tenders.  Built in 1957 on the Davie Shipbuilding slip at Lauzon, Quebec, she was designed to make slow progress in ice of about 50cm thick, unbroken first-year ice with no snow cover. However, she could break first-year ice up to 1.5 meters thick by ramming. Probably, she could break through heavier ice ridges, up to several meters thick, but it would be a long and difficult process. The effort would not be worth the fuel expended to try to break such thick ice for very long. She wasn’t built to break multi-year ice such as is found in the Arctic, although she was permitted by her class to sail in Arctic waters, but only during summertime operations. Neither was she permitted to enter any zone that contained a majority of multi-year ice. Being a steamship, she could sail a distance of 15,000 km with a maximum endurance of 50 days if no ice were encountered. All those details were interesting, but would she get stuck in the ice on her trip into the Arctic?

We were finally sea-bound!


Lighthouse at Biquet Island.

Once everything was in order, and all the antennas has been replaced, I was given a short course on my duties. My work shift was noon to 4:00 PM and the midnight shift, mid-night to 4 in the morning. At first, I didn’t appreciate it much, but once we got into the Arctic, that was when the interesting activities began. We stopped at Quebec City for a few hours to load fresh fruit, vegetables and water and proceeded to Bicquet Island, a very small isolated island about 10 km from the south shore some 150km from Quebec. The only inhabitant was the light-keeper. I went ashore in the barge, taking several photos that I’ll include on my blog at once I get the text corrected. Our next destination was the Saguenay Fjord on the north shore, where some routine services were performed at the light-house there.


Bell 206 Helicopter on board the CCGS Montcalm.

Leaving the Saguenay, we followed along the north shore towards Anticosti Island. It wasn’t blowing hard, but there was a 5 meter swell, causing the ship to roll. The hull of icebreakers are designed with a flare angle along the mid-body in order not to get stuck on ice shelves or ledges, so rolling was part of any trip. However, when we got past the east end of Anticosti Island, the strong swells coming from the Gulf had grown to 8 to 10 meters, and the ship was rolling over 45 degrees both port and starboard. It was a bit strange at first to see everyone on the bridge all leaning to port for a few seconds, then to starboard and back again. Since I had to keep my balance, I swayed with them from side to side. Luckily, the heavy swells only lasted perhaps an hour and a half, and then we were into the cold winds blowing down  the Labrador Coast. Since we passed through the Strait of Belle Isle at night, I didn’t see much of the grounded icebergs along the coast, some of them  reported to be 40 meters above water. The hidden part of the icebergs can be 90 to 110 meters below the surface, where they scour the bottom of the seabed. From 60 to 90 icebergs drift into the Strait each year, some staying until late summer and even well into  the autumn. Our next destination was the Button Islands, on the extreme northern tip of Labrador. The Labrador Sea is open water from the Belle Isle Strait to northern Labrador, a distance of about 2500km, where swell and seas are building and subsiding, but icebreakers always roll.

IMG_0075aBarge used to access isolated places.

The Button Islands.

We ran into heavy fog patches a few days before arriving in the area of the Button Islands. The fog had become so thick by the time we arrived that sometimes you couldn’t see the bow of the ship. Normally, activating a marine radio beacon for the navigational season might take a few hours at best, but it turned into days. On the fourth day, the fog seemed thinner, and the helicopter with a mechanic left for the Island with the radio beacon battery. With such persistent fog, I never saw those Islands located in the Canadian Arctic Archipelago. Looking at the Button Islands on Google Earth, they are a group of desolate and uninhabited barren islands located above the tree line at the  confluence of the Hudson Strait and the Labrador Sea. Numerous shipwrecks have been known to have occurred there, but the sea leaves little evidence.  A few hours later, the helicopter pilot called again,  asking me to turn on the ship’s radio beacon. On activating the beacon, I noticed the fog was actually getting thinner. But was the fog going to lift or get worse? He called again saying he could just see the tops of our ship’s masts above the fog bank. A few minutes later, they landed on the pad, safe and sound. With the arrival of GPS (Global positioning system) and  satellites, radio beacons such as that on the Button Islands were phased out. Button Island visitors include many seasonal migratory sea birds, mammals and the occasional  cruise ship stopping for the day.

ButtonIslandMapQuebec City to Button Island


I was hoping to visit Frobisher Bay, southern Baffin Island (now called Iqaluit in the Inuktitut language) as our next port of call. However, it is located about 230 kilometers inside the bay, where the seasonal ice remains later than after the start of the Arctic navigational season. Between the diurnal tides that rise 10 meters above datum, the every-changing strong undercurrents that erode the ice plus the long Arctic days with temperatures reaching 10 º C, the thick layer of first year ice accumulated over winter gradually weakened. However, trying to break the ice to create a route to the port of Iqaluit would take several days and consume a considerable amount of fuel as the ice would be between one and two meters thick. In the Arctic, there are nowhere to refuel, although a tanker is occasionally hired for that purpose. Instead, we headed towards Pond Inlet (which is now called Mittimatalik in Inuit) , 2,500 km further north, at the top of Baffin Island .

Pond InletTrip from Button Island to Pond Inlet, north Baffin Island.

 In the Arctic Ocean, there’s always small ice fields, sometimes massive, including numerous icebergs, coming from northern Greenland and the many islands to the west, on their way southward. On clear days, the helicopter with the ice observer flew ahead to advise any significant concentration and prepared official ice reports for transmission. Luckily, we only had to go off course a few times. My job was to send these reports to the “Ice Center”, located in Ottawa, where they were combined with numerous reports of other ships and aircraft. After turning on the “Mufax” chart recorder and listening to the beeps, chirps and scratches for about twenty minutes, a line-by-line report was produced giving a detailed analysis of the ice. The locations of ice concentrations, stages of development, the forms of ice and a number of additional details provided ice information on the eastern Canadian Arctic. With these two sources of information, the ship was able to sail along the east coast of Baffin Island, to our destination. It’s speed depended entirely on the concentration and type of existing ice.

Pond Inlet, North Baffin Island.

The Montcalm, sailing through the Davis Strait on her way to Pond Inlet, followed closely along the recommended routes created by the charts printed every morning. Pond Inlet has one of the highest tides in the world where it rises 15 meters twice each day. Consequently, the first-year ice weakens and breaks up in early July due to erosion by the continuous rising and falling tides, the every-changing currents and warmer weather. By the time we arrived in Pond Inlet at the beginning of August, the bay was nearly ice-free. Surprisingly, we were not the first ship, since at that time the only means of transporting cargo and people into and from Pond Islet was by sea. A few small cargo ships and a tanker had already arrived, bringing everything from wood and hardware products, food, clothing to heating oil for the buildings and homes and gasoline and oil for snowmobiles and a few vehicles.

Pond Inlet was first visited by John Ross in 1818 in the search for the Northwest Passage. By the 1850’s, the Inuit used it as a major point for trade opportunities with numerous whaling ships. In 1906, Captain Joseph-Elzéar Bernier was the first from the south to spend the winter there. By 1922, the Canadian Royal Mounted Police (RCMP) arrived to reinforce Canadian Sovereignty over the High Arctic. Since the Inuit were a sea-culture people, by the 1950’s, Pond Inlet still consisted of only 20 or so building used by the Hudson Bay Company, the RCMP and a few religious missions. By the time we arrived, the population had grown by a few hundred souls mainly due to the introduction of continuous education and a nursing station. As you can imagine, visiting the entire village didn’t take very long. While Pond Inlet had no pier or wharf, barges were used to haul cargo ashore during the rising and high tide. At low tide, the barge was easily accessible and discharged using tractors and trailers plus shore help. Children were always ready to pose for a camera shot. Considering the difficulty of accessing places like Pond Inlet during that period, I consider myself lucky to have been among the few able to be with the Inuit, one of our founding people, even for so short a time.

Working on an icebreaker – 1967

Was it easy switching from a rusty old tramp ship operating under a foreign flag to a well-maintained Canadian government ice breaker? Not exactly. After getting through typical government red-tape and paper-work, I was issued a new marine dress suit with a white cap. It certainly felt strange after sailing for months in the tropics wearing shorts, sandals and a sombrero. Quebec was in the midst of its aspirations for an independence country. The arrival of a Quebecker on board who spoke broken accented French probably didn’t help their cause. However, after several months aboard a ship with 13 nationalities, getting accepted wasn’t difficult. Although I had to share the accommodations with the medical officer, an old and fragile retired chaplain with some medical training, it didn’t last long. Maybe he didn’t like my life style. In any case, he moved to another room soon after. With windows both forward looking and to the port side, I had a very quiet cabin all to myself with a fabulous sea view. And the food? With several top-notch chefs including a full complement of stewards and galley boys, we ate better than in most 5-star restaurants. It was excellent for the palate but bad for my waist! With a small library, a few movie classics shown every week, free laundry services, evening snacks, cabin steward services – it was like being in heaven ahead of my time. Actually, I even had my own god nearby, the captain.


 View from my bedroom looking forward.

On my last ship, life-boat drills and emergency fire evacuation exercises didn’t exist. On the icebreaker, everyone had a specific place in his lifeboat and fire drills were obligatory every week. Tensions never rose, since everyone knew his job, responsibilities and roll. Most of the crew and officers had sailed into the Arctic for many years. It seemed as if help was only a thought away, they knew the answer before the problem existed. Unfortunately, living in a virtual utopian paradise can’t last forever, as my contract extended only to the end of the navigational season, normally in November or early December. But that’s another story.

IMG_0063 Pond Inlet

View of Pond Inlet from the icebreaker.

My Dream.

What do you think about living where the sun never sets? For me, it would have been my dream, even though it couldn’t be more than 3 month. Unfortunately, dreams rarely live very long. By the time we arrived at Pond Inlet in early September, located at the extreme northern part of Baffin Island, the sun was already setting at 7 in the evening and rising again around 5:30. Most likely, you wouldn’t want to pass the winter there, though. The sun never rises for 3 months, although there is considerable twilight at the beginning and ending of winter at Pond Inlet.

IMG_0053-Pond Inlet

Downtown Pond Inlet, north Baffin Island.

We were anchored in the harbour for more than a week, but it wasn’t a holiday. Actually, I worked 7 days a week. I only had a few hours to go ashore from time to time if the barge was not already ashore. On board my last ship, my duties ended until we sailed out of a harbour. However, the Canadian Coast Guard, while not carrying big guns like the American Coast Guard, still followed the International Telecommunications Union convention of SOLAS. Safety of Life at Sea was created in order that disabled or shipwrecked vessels would be assisted by other vessels in their immediate area. However, there were very few vessels in the far north, so the job wasn’t exhausting, just simply boring.

IMGIMG_0055 Pond Inlet Tanker

A tanker to supply petroleum to the village and other ships in the area.

A few days before leaving for Frobisher Bay, southern Baffin, we received a notice that we might have to open an ice track to Arctic Bay. Arctic Bay is located on the west side of Baffin Island, about four days sailing time from Pond Inlet. Steam was got up, with everyone ready to go. I was looking forward to getting a little closer to the north pole. But like most dreams, a cancellation notice followed a few hours later and everything returned to normal. Sadly, that was my only trip I made that far north, but in 1967, there were very few cruise ships sailing in those water.

IMG_0066 Pond Inlet Daylight

My last view of Pond Inlet, Baffin Island.

Once the cargo had been discharged and other jobs completed on shore, we lifted anchor and steamed out. Our next port of call was Igaluit, about 200km inside Frobisher Bay, located in Southern Baffin Island. Getting out of Pond Inlet was relatively easy, as most of the water was ice-free, although some bergy bits and a few grounded iceberg caused some course changes along the 100km channel. It looked like an easy trip southward, but when sailing in the Arctic, every day is different. In the third week of August, large quantities of ice from Greenland and Lancaster Sound with the occasional iceberg were on their way down the Davis Strait bound for the Labrador Sea and beyond. The daily published ice map did helped a little, but many course changes and speed reductions causes us to deviate considerably from the proposed ice routing.

The Canadian Coast Guard ship Montcalm was built in 1957 at the Davie shipyard, just across the river from Quebec City. As a class A1 icebreaker, she was intended to work the 1,000km long channel of the Saint Lawrence River. Consequently, it was not necessary to have a desalinator onboard. That was before global warming and the green-house effect. By the early 1960’s, she was sailing into the Arctic to render services to vessels blocked by ice. After sailing nearly 2 months, our supply of drinking water was running low.


Finding sources of fresh drinking water wasn’t something easy. Arctic permafrost prevents installation of aqueducts. However, the Baffin glaciers along the Davis Strait produce many inaccessible small river and streams along the coast. But getting ashore through the ice wasn’t easy either, as much of the coastline hasn’t been charted recently. The ship’s barge, with an officer and a few seamen, after navigating through the ice floes and around bergy bits, succeeded in loading sufficient pristine crystal-clear drinking water for several weeks.

Frobisher Bay and Igaluit.

Outside Frobisher Bay, I notice several medium sized cargo ships sailing under foreign-flag, waiting to get through the ice. None of them were designed to navigate through ice. Consequently our mission changed to opening a channel to the ice bound port of Igaluit. Half a dozen vessels were spread around in the open ice, and, by the time we got them lined up, it was late in the afternoon. My job was to maintain steady radio communication with each ship. Due to the varying type, thickness and quantity of ice we would be breaking, speeds varied from very slow to slow ahead, sometimes blocked by the ice, requiring reversing and ramming the ice. When heavier ice appeared, all the ships were instructed to “stop engine” or ” ahead very slow.” By 7 that evening, it was starting to get dark and all ships were instructed to stop and wait until the coming dawn.

IMG_0010 Ships in iceShips displaced by the winds and current during the night.

During the second week of September, the sun rose around 6 A.M. and set just after 7 in the evening. The solar elevation was only 30 degrees around noon, resulting in daytime temperatures remained close to the freezing point. The ships that had been lined up the evening before had again been displaced by the winds and current during the night. Due to the low angle of the sun and poor visibility with some frost smoke, our ship only began operations around 8 in the morning. With all the ships lined up an hour later, sailing was generally slow and relatively smooth in mostly grey-white ice. When we hit more concentrated, thick first-year close ice with some ridging, the ship rattled and shook and sometimes was stopped by the ice. Backing up about two lengths of the ship, she again rammed the ice, the bow climbed up on the ice, and slowly crushed it. However, this operation reduced the ships speed considerably, and more backing up and ramming continued until we made it through the thick ice.

When working on the bridge, the resulting movements in the ice were only somewhat distracting, but when I tried to rest for a few hours before my next shift, it was something else. After five days of slow progress in the ice, we got to within a few kilometres from Igaluit, where the ice was rotten. All the ships made it through the ice without any important noticeable damage, apart from perhaps losing some paint.

Igaluit, Frobisher Bay, south Baffin Island, Canada

When I was in school in the 1950’s, our history book explained that it was Sir Martin Frobisher who “discovered” Frobisher Bay, Baffin Island in 1576. Why would our Provincial Department of Education want to fill our heads with such presumptuous propaganda rubbish! The earliest “discoverers” of Baffin Island were the pre-Dorset culture around 4,000 years ago. They were followed by the Dorset culture a few centuries later and then around 12 centuries ago, the Thule culture displace them. In the 11th century, the Vikings visited the island. Finally, the privateer and explorer Sir Martin Frobisher got lost trying to find the northwest passage to China, and was acclaimed as the original “discoverer” of Baffin Island. He also discovered “gold” on the Island, and brought back several hundred tons of it to enrich the coffers of his country. Unfortunately for him, it turned out to be iron pyrites, commonly called fool’s gold.

IgaluitThe only Capital in the World that has roads that go nowhere.

When I “discovered” Igaluit in 1967 aboard the icebreaker Montcalm in late September, it was a village of a few thousand mainly Eskimos, we now called Inuit. Originally, the site was regarded as a campsite and fishing spot by the Inuit, which they named Igaluit, “place of many fish.” It was opened in 1942 when the American air base “Crystal Two” was built as a stop-over and refueling site for aircraft ferrying supplies to the war effort in Europe, which the American called “Frobisher Bay”. However, the American military left Igaluit in 1963, when there were no longer needed to provide aerospace warning, air sovereignty, and defense for North America, probably due to the cold war. A hospital and medical facility had been installed there in 1959, and was used as a regional center for the entire Eastern Arctic. It included full-time doctors, a school and social services.  As the government encouraged Inuit to settle permanently in the community, the Inuit population grew rapidly in response.

What surprised me the most was the manner the local people dressed. I was wearing 3 or 4 layers of thick clothes, scarves, mittens, caps and anything I could wear to help from freezing. They were walking around with a thin unbuttoned coat, no mittens or caps, as if it was a balmy summer day in the tropics. Acclimatization is the key. If you live there long enough in temperatures of -40C, the humid and freezing northwest gales of spring and autumn are barely noticeable.

Frobisher Bay, and all of Baffin Island, now called Qikiqtaaluk in Inuktitut, has a long and varied history of some 3 billion years, but it wasn’t always there. Up to around 300 million years ago, it was still part in the supercontinent Pangaea. The name Pangaea is derived from Ancient Greek pan meaning “entire” and Gaia meaning “Mother Earth”. It was surrounded by a single global ocean that surrounded Pangaea and was accordingly named Panthalessa. During the following 200 million years, the Pangaea divided into what we now know as the Americas, Europe, Asia and Antarctica. However, 300 million years ago, much of what is now northeastern Canada and Antarctic were actually located within the equatorial zone. Evidence of ancient fossilized forests of pine, spruce and willow have been documented in the area where Plesiosaurs reptiles and razor-toothed marine ichthyodectid fish and sharks roamed the arctic as recently as 70 million years ago. During that period, the annual average temperature was around zero degrees centigrade. After going through five ice ages, global warming and now the greenhouse effect, it is expected that within 100 years, trees will again grow on Baffin Island.

Hall BeachTrip from Igaluit, Nunavut toward Hall Beach (Sanirajak) then redirected to Churchill, Manitoba.

Our ship remained on the Iqaluit anchorage a little over a week. In early October, the northwest gales and cold weather didn’t motivate me much to go ashore. I chatted with a few people, but everyone seemed busy going somewhere. I even met a very attractive young nurse, but she was going in to work at the hospital. Since the icebreaker was on standby awaiting any vessel requiring assistance, I was not surprised when we received a message requesting assistance by a cargo ship unable to enter the harbour of Hall Beach. Located to the west Baffin Island, Hall Beach was a Distant Early Warning radar site with a small Inuit community nearly. A few hours later, we lifted anchor, expecting to arrive at Hall Beach in about 5 days. However, on the third day, we received two messages. The first advised us that our services were no longer required at Hall Beach, as the wind had shifted, and the ice had opened a channel into the anchorage. The second message instructed us to proceed southward to Churchill, in the Hudson Bay, to clear a channel allowing several grain carriers loaded with wheat to leave for Europe before the autumn freeze up.

Black Brant Sounding Rockets.

Approaching Hudson Bay from the Foxe Basin in northern Canada, I started copying the weather forecasts and notices to shipping broadcast on Morse code by the Churchill marine radio station. Brisk northwesterly breezes and clear weather wasn’t very exciting to copy, and the notices to shipping were boringly routine. My ears perked up when I first copied “Security notice of Black Brant sounding rocket to be launched from the Churchill firing range.” Now, that was strange, I never heard about that before. Continuing to copy, I learned these rockets were used to take environmental measurements, perform scientific experiments and study the upper atmospheric conditions in their sub-orbital flight in the range of 50 to 1,500km above the earth. They would follow an elliptic trajectory that lasted about 30 minutes, parachuting to earth within a specified landing area. Inuit rangers were assigned to watch for the landing in the sparsely settled area above the tree line and proceed to recuperate the reusable rocket. This might be something of interest to investigate, since we were expected to stay alongside the pier for a week or more.

SoundingRicketBlack Brant XII

Hudson Bay was mostly ice-free apart from light new ice of a few centimetres thick. In the harbour, the ice was much thicker, but the icebreaker only spent a little over an hour breaking a channel. There were 3 or 4 bulk grain carriers alongside, and sufficient room to dock our ship. Of those ships, only the one flying the Russian flag looked as if it might be interesting to visit. In the evening, I approached the gangway, and was stopped by the security watchman. He looked me over and ask in a surly voice “What do you want?” When I told him I wanted to talk with their radio officer, the “sparks” as the British call them, he nodded me on. It was a recently built ship, with modern radio equipment, although all the equipment name plates were in Russian. When he showed me the bridge, I was intrigued by a glass box with a tiny hammer. When ships are in distress, the radio officer sends out a distress or urgency message. But what do you do when “sparks” is sick or maybe fell overboard? With the little hammer, the glass box would be broken, the position of the ship in latitude and longitude be set, and it would automatically transmit the international distress signal. That was something our icebreaker didn’t have, but then, ours was over 10 years old.

exploringnorthskies4Telemetry room, Churchill Research Range.
Source: Canadian Space Agency

My hopes were dashed.

Churchill was a sleepy village without much social life. The main industry was carrying wheat and grain from Le Paz, Manitoba since 1929 to the port by rail. The first half of the railway was built using conventional methods. However, the remaining 400 miles were built over permafrost. In 1968, there were few reports of structural problems. However, as the permafrost melted, the weakened peat moss caused the tracks to sink slowly in some places. This information could have been of particular interest to shareholders or railroad engineers, but it was not for me. After asking around, I finally got directions to the “Black Brant” rocket range, or at least to the main office.

My hopes were dashed when I was told that the next rocket launch would be in the late spring of 1968 and that no one was at the range located about 5 miles from town. The only people I could find were some technicians working on the helical antennas used to receive the information transmitted by the sounding rocket. This did not seem very interesting, until I asked them how the helical antenna was connected, or, using the technical term “terminate” the antenna to the receiver. None of the technicians acted as if they knew the answer, or were not allowed to talk about it. But a moment later a supervisor came and asked me in a not so friendly tone why I wanted to know.


Well designed Helical Antenna similar to mine.

 After spending several months at sea aboard the Galveston Lumberman without too much to do, I had signed a contract in Quebec City with an agent from the Capital Radio Institute of Electronics (CREI) before the icebreaker left on her trip to the Arctic in July 1967. When I told the supervisor what I was studying, he showed some interest. When I mentioned that I was a radio amateur and had designed and experimented with my own helical antenna to bounce signals off the moon with some success, he began to ask questions. “How did you terminate your antenna?” After a few minutes, he mentioned that when I completed my studies with CREI, I would be assured a job there in Churchill. Unfortunately, I never finished that course. Well, maybe it was not so much a misfortune. First, because I met my lovely wife (who is also an excellent cook) and with whom I’ve been married almost 43 years and, secondly, how else could I have met all the friendly people on Lang-8 who kindly edit my writings?

Leaving Churchill in November 1968.

Once the bulk carriers had finished loading beside the grain elevator, it was clear that our mission in Churchill was coming to an end. With fresh food and enough fuel on board, we left a couple of hours after the last ship loaded with grain had left the harbor and was already outside the new ice that had quickly formed along the coast. Our next destination, the Belcher Islands, now called Sanikiluaq in Inuit, being an archipelago of about 1,500 islands, spread over an area of some 3,000 square kilometers. These islands are located offshore on the east coast of Hudson Bay. We were only a couple of hours in the small hamlet of Sanikiluaq, but I don’t remember why we stopped there. Our next destination was Button Island to remove the battery that we had installed about four months earlier, that activated the beacon for the Arctic navigational season.

However, I never got that there. But don’t despair. My ship didn’t get stuck in the ice, run aground nor sink. It was much simpler than that. Previously, I had caught what I had thought was a cold, but our doctor didn’t like the color of my face, my high fever or cough. When we were near Deception Bay, the Bell-206 helicopter landed at the medical center and returned with a nurse. She neither liked what I had, and I still don’t know what it was that I had. I was taken by helicopter to the isolated landing strip and left there. I waited about 4 hours in temperatures of 15 degrees below zero for a flight to Great Whale River in southern Hudson Bay. The only way to maintain body heat was walking on the landing strip. Finally, when the plane arrived, I was happy to get on board where it would be a little warmer. When we landed at Great Whale River, the airport facilities were not much better than in Deception Bay. In the province of Quebec, many Inuit sites have at least three names. The Government of Quebec calls Great Whale River as “Poste-de-la-Baleine” while the Inuit call it “Kuujjuarapik” in Inuktitut. Whatever name you want to call it, at least there was a regular flight from Kuujjuarapik to Montreal, despite its rudimentary airport facilities. After another long wait in another unheated hangar, the flight from Montreal arrived. I boarded the plane and finally got warmed up. Luckily, when I arrived at the home of my friends in Montreal, my temperature was almost normal and didn’t coughed much. The next day, I took the train to Mont-Joli, about 750 kilometers east of Montreal, where my parents picked me up. Now out of work, I needed to access my unemployment insurance benefits. My next goal was to find an agent of the federal government at the unemployment  office in Rimouski that would promote my cause. The problem was that the same office was infested by a nest of separatists who wanted to become independent from Canada.

Where was that solution to my problem? It was blowing in the wind.

In mid-November 1967 due to illness, I had to leave my ship in Deception Bay. I really did not miss many days of work since, in about ten days, I would have reached the port of Quebec City if I had been still on board, and that would have ended my contract. Those few days I was missing didn’t make much difference, as I had worked enough hours to qualify to apply for unemployment insurance benefits spread over more than four months. While the Canadian Federal Government unemployment insurance system had existed for many years, it was not until the sixties that it became a reliable system. When I went to the office in Rimouski to ask for my benefits, they mentioned that I would have a two week penalty, but could fill in the application forms.

Two weeks later, I was waiting my turn in line in the same office and I realized that everyone spoke French. When the officer invited me in and looked at my file, he seemed compassionate and friendly. However, at the moment I opened my mouth, he stiffened and his face changed. Had I said something wrong? It really was not what I said, it  was my strong English accent when I spoke French. Within 20 minutes from the start of the interview,  I was convinced that my application would be rejected. I had worked more than 1,000 hours, well above the 850 hours required to be eligible for unemployment insurance benefit, but he told me that my French was not good enough to work in the Province of Quebec. Was I surprised? Not at all. As I mentioned in my last posting, Rimouski was known as a hotbed of supporters of  the RIN (Rally for the independence of Quebec) even when I was at the Marine Institute between 1964 and 1966. Now, I had no work and no income. However, I knew that the federal unemployment insurance system did not depend on whether or not I speak French. Some ideas were developing in my head about how to solve this dilemma. In my next post will explain how I solved this puzzle.

Was it really possible to convince the officials in Rimouski that my application was fair, credible and that I should receive my unemployment insurance benefits? Over the next week, I was busy gathering information and writing a report of over two pages describing my training, experience and explained what had occurred. I considered Rimouski staff as helpful, but a bit naive and misinformed about the program’s coverage of Canadian unemployment insurance. As a convinced federalist, I tried to promote the perspective that I had been inadvertently discriminated against by certain factions of the separatist movement in the Province.

There was no point sending a letter to the editor of any regional newspapers, as most of them were members of the RIN. Making a claim in the office of the regional unemployment insurance department at Rimouski wasn’t the best solution either, since they were almost all members of the same association. What high-level federal department of Ottawa could I alert on what was happening? The fundamental objective of the RIN was to separate from Canada and become an independent country. Why not send my report to the Canadian Federal Foreign Minister?

The following Monday, my parents took me to town so I could send my letter by certified mail. Over the next two weeks, I didn’t receive anything in the mail, nor did the phone ring even once. However, at the beginning of the third week, the phone finally rang. It was the manager at the Unemployment Insurance office at Rimouski who called in a surprisingly friendly and very communicative tone. According to him, there had been a serious misunderstanding on the part of one of his subordinates in processing my application. He mentioned that I was to receive 24 weeks of unemployment insurance, and that if I had difficulty finding a job, it would be extended an additional six weeks. Sometimes, a little pressure applied at the right moment can move not only small causes. However, even 47 years later, the separatist party continues to receive the most votes in provincial elections in the surrounding counties where I live. There are traditions that never die, they just fade away.

A Seaman between Seas (2)


Passing the Christmas season of 1967 with my parents reminded me of my youth. It was a time of celebration of the beauty of nature, the collection of lycopodios in the underbrush to make decorations with these strange herbaceous perennial flowerless ferns. With the ingenious hands of my parents, these ferns became great but delicate wreaths of fascinating exhibits and murals that hung in many unexpected ways.   It seemed like we were sitting in the garden of Eden, when we attended the Christmas eve service in our small church followed by the arrival of Santa Claus with his bag of presents. It was also a period that my mother used it to bake all kinds of delicious breads, fruit cakes, puddings and other homemade treats that were scrumptious and finger-licking good.   Among all these activities, I continued to study my correspondence course from CREI (Capital Radio Engineering Institute), participated in amateur radio activities and listened daily to the maritime mobile communications chatter on shortwave. I had written to various shipping agencies to get another job, but here in Canada, almost all ships operating under foreign flags, so my efforts had no effect.


The Leggatt’s Point Church at Christmas, 1967.

However, when I sailed on my first ship, the Galveston Lumberman, I had chatted with many radio operators from ships in the numerous ports in South America, Europe and the United States. Making good friends with reliable contacts in that field was essential in finding your next job. Almost all the operators I had visited had at least half a dozen addresses of shipping agencies, but one name repeatedly appeared on those lists: “Dutch”. He was the owner of “Dutch and Carlsson,” a small shipping office that he managed in New Orleans that provided mainly sailors and officers to ships operated under foreign flags. One day, curiosity overcame me, and I phoned “Dutch”.

His answer was “Fly to New Orleans.” Since my duffel bag was still packed and ready, I flew from Montreal to the city of Mardi Gras in mid-February and arrived at his “office”. What a disappointment! It looked more like a dilapidated bar than an office. Dutch had a soft side for those middle-aged sailors who were chronic wine boozers, mostly too drunk to navigate. I rented a room not far from his “office” and returned several times each day to see if there was anything new on my prospects. Sadly, all I ever heard was “there aren’t any jobs yet.” That was during Lent, so the time passed quickly. However, one day he told me he had found a “beautiful little ship” in Houston, Texas, that was waiting for me.

Back to Index

9 thoughts on “Icebreaker Montcalm




    je souhaiterais m’exprimer en français, si c’est possible, j’ai un tas de faits vécus à raconter de mon expérience dans la marine marchande comme officier radio

  3. Bonjour Laurier,
    Pour moi, il n’y a pas de problems avec le français, suelement mon connaissance gramatique de la langue to Molière. Nous, les operateurs, aurons tan de histoire vrai pas encore disponible au publique.

    Aussi, mon courriel regulier es


    Gilbert R. Bossé (Métis-sur-Mer)


    bon matin gilbert,
    j’avais composé mon expérience à bord du Ceuta un tanker anglais, si tu veux, je peux te l’envoyer à ton adresse personnelle

    • Hola Spud,
      Thanks for your comments. You have a very interesting web site. I’ll have to set up a link for all you guys that have read and linked mine to yours. I’m now up to the end of my maritime travels, but continue writing about my work at the various Coast Stations along the St. Lawrence in 1997 when I retired. Well, they were closing the stations, like all the other including Grindstone, Fox River, Seven Islands, etc.

  5. Luc Vézina says:

    Bonjour Monsieur!

    Je m’appel Luc, fils du Capitaine Jacques Salem Vézina. Mon père a travaillé toute sa vie pour la Garde-Côtière. Il a travaillé sur le Moncalm. À sa sortie en 1957 il était matelot et en 1988, c’est lui qui l’a conduit à son dernier voyage comme commandant du navire. Peu-être vous étiez avec lui ou Vous le connaissez? Je suis en train de prendre de la documentation sur le Moncalm pour faire un Wikimedia sur le Bateau. Il le mérite et je suis un peu déçu qu’il n,y ai pas beaucoup d’info sur le Moncalm car il a été un des navires important pour son époque. Merci de votre histoire ceci est très intéressant. J’ai déja travaillé sur le Moncalm vers les année 1986.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.