Last updated on November 19th, 2023
Diane and Stephen aboard the Algoma / Photo credit: Diane Blake
By Diane Blake, Guest Writer
The plan was to meet the ship in Hamilton Harbour and spend Friday night on board in preparation for an early departure to Montreal on Saturday morning. The Algoma Strongfield would continue to Quebec City, another 24 hours of sailing.
We arrived and were greeted by the Captain and First Mate. Our cabin was just below the very top deck, or bridge. It was very clean and serviceable, with a sleeping and sitting area. We were up by 7:30 the next morning and went downstairs, the equivalent of four stories, to the mess for coffee and a delicious breakfast.
After the Algoma had finished loading its cargo of grain, we left Hamilton, moving under the Queen Elizabeth Way into Lake Ontario. The recreational boats quickly moved out of our path. If they didn’t, the pilot blasted the horn and they scarpered!
Stephen takes up residence in the captain’s chair / Photo credit: Diane Blake
We travelled across Lake Ontario, more or less down the middle, so that we could see both sides of the lake. We passed familiar places that looked very small along the shore. My husband Stephen took up residence in a large comfy chair on the Bridge near the Captain which had four computer screens that showed our position, details of other ships nearby, the weather and the water depth. He absolutely loved it. It is important to know the position and speed of other large vessels so that the Algoma Strongfield can adjust its position and speed. This is essential when sailing through the Saint Lawrence Seaway, as parts of it are narrow and shallow.
We enjoyed chatting with the crew of 16. We discovered a different way of life. The shifts change every four hours: 12 – 4, 4 – 8, 8 – 12, every 24 hours. The men, (there are some women crew on the freighters but not many), spend two months on the ship and one month off. There is no sailing between January and March. At least a third of the crew were from Atlantic Canada.
On the bridge, we got to know the Captain, the First Mates, the Chief Engineer and the helmsmen. In the Mess, we had the opportunity to talk to other members of the crew. We toured the ship and the engine room. We were shown all the safety features, including the escape pod made famous by the film “Captain Phillips.” The engine room went down three levels to the very bottom of the ship. The machinery was noisy, but everywhere was clean and well looked after. Systems are designed with consideration for the environmental impact.
By 8:00 pm on Saturday, we were at the eastern end of Lake Ontario. It was beginning to get dark but we could see the lights of Kingston and the wind turbines in the area. We approached The Thousand Islands, where the boat traffic was heavier and the pilot and helmsman used the radar and their eyes to avoid a collision and the shallow water.
When we woke up in the morning, we were in the St. Lawrence Seaway. Built in 1959 by the US and Canada, it is a series of locks and navigable channels that allow large vessels access to the Atlantic Ocean from as far inland as Duluth. Unfortunately, as freighters have increased in size the shipping and economic value has been restricted.
After breakfast, we were back on the Bridge and arrived at the second lock on the Seaway, the Bernard H. Snell, in the US side of the waterway (we slept through the Eisenhower!). The drop is just under 14 metres into the Wiley-Dondero Canal.
View of the canals from the deck of the Algoma / Photo credit: Diane Blake
The wall leading into the lock is angled outwards and so the ship hugs the left side to guide its way in because there is so little room. Some of the locks have digital monitors that show how far the ship is from the lock gate, or a member of the crew stood at the bow and told the pilot how far forward he could go via a walkie-talkie.
I have to confess that my first date with Stephen in 1984 was to the Peterborough lift locks. It partly explains why it was so fascinating.
We continued eastward. At Cornwall, we passed under the International High-Level Bridge. The water opened up into Lake St. Francis and we donned the regulation hard hats and safety vests to walk to the bow and enjoy the warm sunshine and look at the cottages. All that was missing were the lounge chairs and rosé! It’s no surprise that alcohol is not allowed on board, but tea, coffee, and soft drinks are always available.
As we proceeded through the Upper and Lower Beauharnois locks, the crew on the bridge became aware that the freighter in front of us had run into difficulties and we needed to slow down to allow her the opportunity to make up for lost time. As the sun set we realised that we would be delayed reaching Montreal. The situation worsened as we went gradually across Lake Ste. Louis, through Côte Ste. Catherine dock and under the Champlain Bridge. The sunset and twilight view of Montreal was stunning.
Eventually at the Ste. Lambert lock, with the freighter in front disabled, we performed the difficult manoeuvre of pulling ahead, but it was a slow process in the narrow channel with shallow water on the right. We now understood why the schedule was so changeable.
The Captain and his crew were experienced and careful. We were patient, although I was looking forward to a hotel room with a larger bed! We finally disembarked at 1 am in the pouring rain, later than we expected, but we had a tremendous experience and made some new friends.
Diane’s Tips for Slow Travel on a Freighter
- What surprised you most about travelling on a freighter versus more conventional ways to travel?
It was very easy to become part of the “crew” – everyone was relaxed and very enthusiastic to tell us about his or her part of the operation.
- What item would you recommend someone pack on a freighter trip?
Comfortable, casual clothes are a must and a windbreaker.
- How was the food?
Our boat had a chef and the food was well prepared and fresh.
- What do people need to know when planning a trip on a freighter?
The schedule changes, so you need to be flexible on departure and arrival times. The shipping company staff communicate the changes but with very little notice.
- Do you think this would be a good experience for women?
Depends on the woman’s personality, but generally a partner/friend would be more fun and less intimidating.
- Would you recommend it, and if so, why?
Yes, I would recommend it because it is a unique experience and an insight into a working world few landlubbers know about.
- What did you learn that you didn’t know before about freighters?
The hierarchical structure and varied backgrounds of the crew, the difficulties of navigating a large boat through locks, the sophistication of navigational technology.
- Did you learn anything about yourself that you didn’t know before?
I’m too old to share a double bed! There’s lots of fresh air available on a boat, but I need places to walk.
- Do you know how people can take this freighter?
Is it open to the public? Freighter trips with Algoma Central Corporation have to be arranged privately but if there are other companies that do offer trips to the public, they are worth investigating.