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The River as a Way of Life

Pilots, by the very nature of their profession, become experts of the waters in their district. They are the logical advisors to those responsible for the safety of navigation.

Pilotage, St. Lawrence River, Part IV, 1970

It is late December.

Down on the river, several bays are starting to ice over now. Open areas of water seem to be ‘steaming’ with vapour-like trails of rising mist river men call sea-smoke. Navigation on the St. Lawrence River is coming to a close. Outside, in downtown Brockville, it is beginning to snow.

If any of this unsettled weather bothers the man seated in front of me, he doesn’t show it. We’ve agreed to meet here in the city of Brockville, which is about halfway between Cornwall and Kingston. Later this evening, he’ll pass through here again. Only this time, he’ll be on the river, guiding a 700 foot long, 25,000 ton displacement foreign ship outward bound for some port in far away Europe, probably carrying a cargo of grain. But time is running out and bad weather is closing in.

Just imagine, climbing out of bed at 3:00 am, reporting for work in a small boat in December, and then scaling a forty foot steel wall, climbing a rope ladder hand over hand in freezing temperatures with icy water below. For Captain Pierre Boucher of Prescott Ontario, this has been a way of life for more than thirty years.

“They tried to make a priest out of me,” laughed the sixty one year old Upper St. Lawrence Seaway Pilot. “But I said, ‘Dad, you’re wasting your time. I want to be a sailor.’” Although refusing his father’s wishes, Boucher stepped into his father’s shoes. Captain Jean Boucher, Pierre’s dad, was a sailor himself. “It was part of my upbringing,” he says, “I knew from the time I was five years old just what I wanted to do. I remember collecting pictures of ships and pasting them up in my bedroom.”

Seafaring has been a way of life for the Boucher family. Pierre’s younger brother Andre is also a seaway pilot. Growing up in Notre Dame de Pierreville, Quebec, on the south shore of Lac St. Pierre, it was only natural for most young boys to grow up to be either fishermen or sailors. “My great grandfather was a lighthouse keeper in Sorel. My grandfather was a fisherman who also sailed for a little while,” Boucher remembers. “My dad was a captain for Hall Corporation. He was one of the original pilots in 1959 when the brand new St. Lawrence Seaway opened.” Indeed, Pierre Boucher holds his father’s memory in high regard. The elder Boucher passed away about a month ago at 94 years of age. “Dad sailed for 50 years, retiring in 1982,” he said. “He began sailing at the age of fifteen and worked his way up to captain. When the seaway opened there was a need for many pilots. He was one of the guys who were called. He had a lot of experience in the old canals.”

Getting his feet wet in 1965, Pierre also started sailing at age 15. “My first captain’s job was with the Quebec and Ontario Paper Company based out of Thorold, Ontario,” he said. “I was 26 at the time when the company said they had plans for me.” Those plans involved the young captain bringing a foreign ship from Spain over to the Great lakes to add to the fleet. By that time, Captain Pierre Boucher had plans of his own. “I had written the exams for pilotage on the river and was on the waiting list for the Cornwall – Kingston district,” he said. “Three months after I had this job I got my call for pilotage. I called the general manager and said, ‘I have something to tell you.’ He looked at me and said, ‘You’re going to pilotage, eh?’ And I said, ‘What would you do if you were me?’ Well, he said he couldn’t blame me.” Thirty two years later, Captain Boucher has never looked back. “I love my job. I love going to work. It’s wonderful.”

So, just what is life like for a St. Lawrence Seaway pilot?

Captain Jean Boucher, the senior Boucher, was one of the original pilots in 1959 when the St. Lawrence Seaway opened.  Photo from Soul of the River, by Shawn Thompson 1997.

For Captain Boucher, it means taking a foreign going ship or ‘saltie’ through some of the most dangerous areas of the St. Lawrence River. Night or day, good weather or bad, foggy or clear. On a ship he has probably never been on before with a crew he has never met. “It takes about three years to get comfortable with the different ships,” he said. “When you get aboard a ship, instinct plays a big part. It takes you about two minutes or two movements of the engines, one movement of the wheel and you pretty well know how the ship’s going to react. We do get the same ship now and then. But most of the time it will be something new.” Changes have taken place in ship handling since his father’s era too. “In my dad’s time they had the big steering wheel. Today it can be just a ‘joy stick’. You’ve got the electronic auto pilot and A. I. S. (Automatic Identification System), prior to 1980 there were very few salties with a bow thruster. Today we have ships with thrusters both fore and aft. And of course, there are the engines. Most back then were steam turbines and when you manoeuvre a ship with steam turbines it takes much longer to get the engines to go ahead and back. The ships were much harder to handle then. Better engines today with faster response.”

Captain Boucher’s district is International District # 1 from Snell lock in Massena, N.Y. to Cape Vincent N.Y. a travelling distance on the river of roughly 84 nautical miles one way, every trip. And it is constant vigilance every moment. Down bound, from Lake Ontario to Montreal, the pilot boards the ship from a pilot boat located at Cape Vincent, N.Y. He then maintains contact with different Seaway Traffic control stations, both American and Canadian, reporting his times of arrival at each calling in point as well as maintaining contact with different vessels in the area. There are some very tight corners where ships simply cannot meet.

“I would say the most dangerous would be the Brockville Narrows because of the nature of the bottom,” Boucher says. “There is no room for error. And the American Narrows, too. Small boats can also present problems. You wonder how people have enough brains to accumulate enough money to buy a big boat but not enough brains to stay out of the way of a bigger ship.”

Knowledge of the river is essential. “You have to know where the rocks aren’t,” Boucher states emphatically. “You have to be able to close your eyes and visualize the river from one end of your run to the other. And be able to tell where you can go outside of the buoys if you have to. All the courses and the currents, you have to memorize. In our district, the one big thing is making the lock with the wind. I go in ‘on the fly’ straight in, without using the approach wall. I think more and more guys are doing the same. It certainly requires all of your attention. I started sailing with a lot of the older guys who would tell you, ‘when you're here, you gott’a steer there’. One engine, one rudder. Not like today with bow thrusters. The main thing is, you can steer anywhere, as long as you can control the ship. Back then, there was a way of doing things because the ‘ol times told you so, but it’s not true. It’s like getting married. What’s the recipe for success? It depends on who you get married to. Same thing.”

What qualifications do you need to become a river pilot?

“Well, you have to have the appropriate marine certificate of competency,” said Boucher. “At least ‘Chief Mate Near Coastal’ and then a certain number of trips through the district that you are applying for. Then there are the exams, both written and oral for the district. If you pass, then you are put on a waiting list. When your turn comes up, you become apprenticed. This includes fifty trips one way through the district. Then you are assessed by the Pilot Corporation and by the Pilotage Authority.” Would he recommend a career in pilotage for a young person today? “Well, yes I would,” Boucher replies, “because it’s a good job. The problem for them would be to actually get in. There is no need for pilots right now. We’re on the downward side.”

Transportation in the St. Lawrence Seaway has changed dramatically since 1982, the year Captain Boucher’s father retired. Although the shipment of freight climbed ever steadily since opening in 1959, from about 30 million tonnes of cargo in 1960 to 74 million tonnes in 1980, the recession of the 80’s hit shipping hard. “We lost 75% of our ships, almost in one shot that year,” Boucher noted. Then, an event at the other end of the world put a stop to transhipment of grain to the Soviet Union when that country invaded Afghanistan. The United States retaliated with an embargo on 17 million tonnes of anticipated grain shipments to the U.S.S.R. Unfortunately, the grain market never really came back. Shipments of iron ore were down 54% at the end of September of this year to 4.3 million tonnes, compared to 9.5 million tonnes at the same time last year. Overall, 19.3 million tonnes of cargo had been shipped up to the end of September, which is down about 10 million tonnes from the same time last year.

“And this year is the worst. Bad to the point of being critical. The number of ships you see today is only about 10% of what we used to have back in the 1960’s and 70’s,” Boucher said. “The good years. This time of the year at the anchorage in Prescott, there would be 25 or 30 ships waiting their turn due to a snow storm or bad visibility. Toward the end of the season at least that number at anchor, always.”

The St. Lawrence Seaway has been in business now for fifty years. Is there a future for Highway H2O as it is now called? “The seaway was built for two main cargos,” Boucher explains. “Grain and iron ore. Grain would go out of the lakes and ore and steel would come into the lakes. The grain goes west now and there hasn’t been much demand for steel. Most of the ships we pilot now are tankers. Liquid cargo is our main product being shipped. But I think you’ll see a reorganization of products moved in the seaway. We have to. Our highways now are overcrowded with traffic.

Captain Boucher reaches for his cell phone in his jacket pocket. It’s a call from his brother Andre.

They’ll be taking the saltie at the Cape together tonight. This time of the year, when most of the light buoys have been removed for the winter, it becomes double pilotage for safety. Hanging up, Pierre says, “I always tell everybody 25 more years. The day to retire for me is the day they call me at 3:00 am and I don’t feel like going to work. That’ll be the day I call it quits.”

Until then, the Boucher brothers will continue to follow a family tradition. They have to. Just like their father, it was never a job. The river becomes a way of life.

By Brian Johnson, Captain, Wolfe Islander III

Brian Johnson is one of five captains of the Wolfe Island car ferry Wolfe Islander III. He has worked for the Ontario Ministry of Transportation for 28 years, recently celebrating 20 years as captain. Today, Brian combines his marine career with writing. Brian co-edited Growing up on Wolfe Island, a compilation of interviews and stories with Sarah Sorensen. He is also the founding and immediate past president of the Wolfe Island Historical Society.

This story was first published  by Captain Johnson as an assignment from the Kingston Whig Standard as a series in celebration of the 50th Anniversary of the St. Lawrence Seaway which started on February 16, 2009. There were eleven stories. The story submitted  here, first published on January 3, 2010.

Posted in: People
Please feel free to leave comments about this article using the form below. Comments are moderated and we do not accept comments that contain links. As per our privacy policy, your email address will not be shared and is inaccessible even to us. For general comments, please email the editor.


peter brooks
Comment by: peter brooks ( )
Left at: 12:47 AM Friday, January 15, 2010
Brian, I don't know if you remember me. Charles Brooks is my Dad. Love your personal intereststories. Keep them coming Regards Peter Brooks
Brian Johnson
Comment by: Brian Johnson ( )
Left at: 7:32 PM Friday, January 15, 2010
Hi Peter
Of course I remember you!
The good 'ol Gan Boat Line days on the Thousand Islander! I well remember you on the Thousand Islander as I scooted for position at the Castle in the Miss Rockport II (1974)
Great hearing from you!!
brian j
Comment by: Stephen ( )
Left at: 10:16 PM Sunday, January 17, 2010
Capt. Boucher, What is it about the narrows bottom that challlenges? Is it upwelling currents, that surfaces features which makes my lapstrake hull feel like it squiggles? Thank for all the tonnage you have taken through and kept rock, bottom, and media free!
Comment by: LIAM MORAN ( )
Left at: 12:23 AM Wednesday, February 6, 2013
In mid l950"s I sailed as Radio Officer with Saguenay Terminals out of Montreal on "Sunrip" and "Sunwhit". Now 78 years old I would imagine that most of my fellow officers are now deceased.However two cadets may be still with us .One was Rene Theberge and the other man was by the name of Gaudet also a 4th.Officer by the name of Alain Dennis or Denis - all Frence Canadians.Understand my good friend Ferdinand Bedard has passed away.Would greatly appreciate and information on the above gentlemen.Perhaps they sailed as Pilots in Canadian waters. Very many thanks, Liam Moran
John Hollenbeck
Comment by: John Hollenbeck ( )
Left at: 8:29 PM Monday, April 8, 2013
I remember reading about the Boucher Family,Denis Conway, and all the other pilots in "The Soul of the River". Try to get up to the River whenever I can
Liam Moran
Comment by: Liam Moran
Left at: 7:20 PM Tuesday, December 30, 2014
Sailed with Saguenay Terminals as Radio Officer mid to late 1950's.Searching for Officers who sailed with me during that period. Some names - Ferdinand Bedard,Henri Allard,Alain Denis,Rene Theberge and a young Cadet by the name of Gaudet. I wonder if the present Alain Theberge or Jean-Luc Bedard are related to the above Ferdinand or Rene?. I am living in San Francisco,Ca.for the past 50 years and am 80 years old now.I would love to hear from or about these great men. Thanking you for your time. Liam Moran
Claude meldrum
Comment by: Claude meldrum
Left at: 11:20 PM Saturday, April 4, 2015
My Dad Captain Ronald Meldrum was employed by Saguenay Shipping and our family moved to Trinidad in 1948 where my Dad was one of the marine superintendents at Chagaramus. We returned to Canada in 1954 where my Dad remained employed by Saguenay in Montreal. Does anyone remember my Dad. He passed away in 1975 at the young age of 69.

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