Introducing The Brotherhood which has made the tricky St. Lawrence one of the safest waterways in the world
ONCE upon a time I knew a pilot and he looked his part; that is to say, he looked as if he had slipped out of a story by W. W, Jacobs. He was red-faced, he had a goatee, he wore a peaked cap, he swore nautically, and his capacity for beer coincided precisely with my capacity to pay for it. He was, he assured me, an excellent pilot, but as the only boat which used the harbor was a small pleasure steamer he didn’t get much opportunity to practise. The only work I ever saw him do was scull out three times a week to the steamer and collect ten and sixpence from the captain.
I have assumed that all pilots, more or less, were cast in the same mold as this friend of my youth. I have thought of them as well-seasoned old salts with a fondness for cut plug, free beer and full flavored stories. Most landlubbers, I suspect, share my mental picture and it’s wrong, quite wrong.
The pilot of today is—but just a minute. The best place to meet one is at Father Point, Quebec. Picture, please !
You will observe on the right a village of frame houses fronting upon the sea, with a church commanding the town and a ramshackle wharf sprawling out into the water. This, ladies and gentlemen, is Father Point, headquarters of the world’s most famous river brotherhood. Here, liners and tramps pick up their pilots for the voyage up the St. Lawrence—the most intricate deep waterway in the
Next, please !
The vessel on the left with rusted plates and salt-streaked hull is the S. S. Ebenezer M'Conkey. a tramp inward bound from Buenos Aires. If you follow my pointer you will notice that it is flying a peculiar flag consisting of a blue square on a white ground. The flag indicates that the master requires a pilot. Over here on the right is the Jalobert coming up abeam of the freighter.
The Jalobert is the pilot launch from Father Point.
Ah, here we have the pilot himself—quite different from your conception of what a pilot should be, eh? He is, you see. a young man—thirty perhaps.
I want you to pay particular attention to his clothes. Not very nautical, are they? You
see the natty suit, the kid gloves, the velours hat—he looks like a bond salesman, doesn’t he? But let me tell you, ladies and gentlemen, there’s nothing sissy about this young man. He knows his job, and he knows ships, and he’s a member of the finest pilotage service in the world.
All right, Bill, switch on the lights.
Like a railway engineer, a river pilot is usually taken for granted. Passengers never have cause to think of him unless he makes a mistake, and as a St. Lawrence pilot is as nearly infallible as a human can be, he spends his life in pleasant obscurity. Which is a pity, because his job is just about as interesting a one as you will find.
It is a curious truth that men with interesting jobs are about as communicative as well-behaved oysters, and pilots are no exception to the rule. When I tried to find out something about them I was greeted with friendly handshakes, cordial smiles—and silence. Their job interesting? Pouff ! Nothing to it. But had I heard the joke about the Quebec politician?
I hadn’t and I listened, and it was a very good joke but it had nothing to do with pilotage. I probed this way and that, trying to get information, but these ever amiable men were like politicians in exile—they had nothing to say about themselves. At last I sought out Captain Battle of the Antonia and he helped me out.
“Come with us down the river,” he said, “and then you can see for yourself just what happens.”
I not only saw what happened, but I learned something, too, about the lore of the rivermen. It is interesting lore, for these rivermen pilots they are today—belong to one
of the strangest guilds in the world. Until recently it was a close guild, for new members could only be nominated by those in the service. Fathers “put up” their sons, with the result that the business of pilotage was almost hereditary. Today vacancies are advertised in the Canada Gazette, but custom dies hard and most of the applicants are the sons of pilots.
The Brotherhood of the River first came into existence a century ago. At that time nobody knew when to expect ships, so fishermen along the south shore would set out in twentyfoot luggers and sail for days down the Gulf looking for barques and brigantines which needed piloting to Montreal. It was cheerless work and there wasn’t much money in it, for as soon as a sail was sighted every lugger in the vicinity made toward it and the pilotage dues were arranged by Dutch auction. The fisherman who quoted the lowest price was given the job of taking the vessel into port.
After years of cut-throat competition, the rivermen banded themselves together and took turns in meeting the incoming ships. The society at first was loosely governed, but in 1830 it was incorporated as a company and operated in much the same manner as a trade guild. The members themselves made their own rules, nominated apprentices and determined the qualifications of pilots. Headquarters were established at Father Point, and instead of the twenty-foot luggers three schooners were secured. All pilotage dues were pooled and shared equally among the members.
Twenty-five years ago the Dominion Government took over the pilotage service, but the Brotherhood of the River was not disbanded. The pilots retained all their dignities and rights, but the prerogative of electing apprentices was stopped. Instead, applicants were required to pass a stiff examination in English, French, mathematics and so on. They were also required to undergo five years apprenticeship, to serve forty-two months at sea, and to hold a coastal mate’s certificate before being recognized as qualified
Mention of the five years apprenticeship gave most of the pilots I spoke to, a hearty laugh. Five years, b’gosh ! Most of them served anywhere from five to fifteen years before being admitted to the guild—and usually it was nearer fifteen than five. To be sure, they can afford limousines today, but during the ’prentice years it was only paternal generosity which made carfare possible.
For the purposes of pilotage the St. Lawrence tradeway is divided into two sections. Fifty-five pilots operate from Montreal to Quebec, and approximately the same number run between Quebec and Father Point. Officially no pilot knows the whole of the river. As freighters sometimes take forty hours to cover one leg of the journey, and as the pilot must be on the bridge the whole time, the wisdom of the regulation is apparent. The responsibility of handling a ship for two whole days without a moment’s cessation is enough for any man.
The responsibility of a pilot, by the way, although real enough, is the subject of popular misconception. The average landlubber believes that he assumes
command as soon as lie steps aboard a ship. That isn’t quite accurate. His official status is “adviser to the captain,” and although in actual practice he gives his orders direct to the man at the wheel, there is a good old Spanish custom which makes the captain responsible for an accident should one
They don t occur very often on the St. Lawrence, however. If you doubt this, try to recall when you last read of a grounding, or a collision, or a wreck between Father Point and Montreal. My bet is that you will not remember a single one; and yet any navigating officer will tell you that the St. Lawrence is the trickiest stretch of water in the world, trickier even than the Hugh.
Paradoxically it is the safest waterway in the world; and it is safe largely because of the knowledge and skill of those five score French-Canadian gentlemen who belong to the Brotherhood of the River.
But you must see one at work, then you will understand better their amazing ability.
'T'HE S. S. Antonia cleared her berth. A tug. straining at A its tow line, churned up a whirlpool of seething water, and almost imperceptibly the liner slipped out into the stream.
A bell rang. There was movement on the bridge. The commander crossed from the starboard wing and entered the chart room, where a man waited who seemed out of place among the uniformed officers. He was a short man, dark complexioned, and he wore a civilian suit and cap. He was chewing gum, and he appeared uninterested in the business going on about him.
But his eyes were curious. They were blue eyes, etched about with tiny crow’s-feet, and peculiarly narrowed by wind and rain and a constant searching for distant things.
"All right, Mr. Noad,” the captain said. “Will you carry on?”
The pilot nodded and gave a low-voiced order to the wheelman. More orders followed, unhurried, and given with the same apparent lack of concern. It might have been a skiff he was steering in an open lake. The Port of Montreal, shrouded in blue haze, slipped away behind us.
We passed under the Harbor Bridge; and Emilien Noad, the pilot, left the wheri bouse and joined me.
“Awkward,” he said, jerking his head back._
I shrugged. “It looked easy enough.
With a miserly regard for words, he explained the difficulties to me. There was a lot of shipping. The channel was narrow and it ran close inshore. The Lachine Rapids, which entered the navigable river below the bridge, set up a drag along the wharves. This drag, known as the Ste. Marie current, was variable—varied as much as five knots from day to day.
“You noticed all the boats tied up to the wharves,” he went on. “If we had passed them at any speed the suction of our ship would have snapped their cables like packthread. We had to leave the harbor dead slow, and that’s awkward with a variable current.
Might not have steerageway.”
I looked at him with new respect.
’’But you must allow for the
“Sure; we kind of know how strong
I wondered by what particular sorcery he could know the speed and direction of ever-changing currents. I was to learn afterward that it was not sorcery but the peculiar intuition that comes after long years of experience.
Emilien Noad began officially to serve his apprenticeship on the river when he was sixteen. Before that he had taken an unofficial course in river lore and legends. He mixed with sailors, pilots, longshoremen, stevedores—with anybody, in fact, who could teach him anything about the navigation of the St. Lawrence. At sixteen he was considered a fit and proper person to be given apprenticeship papers: and sixteen years later he took his first boat up the river. He was thirty-two before he could subscribe himself. “E. Noad, Pilot.”
With Emilien Noad on the bridge of the Antonia was Charles Bouille, an apprentice in his fifth year. Bouille could probably handle a ship on the river as well as the next man, for in addition to five years experience he had behind him three generations of pilots. But he is still learning, and when I suggested that next year he would be taking up his own ships he smiled at my lack of knowledge.
“There may not be a vacancy for years,” he said. “For me, I just carry on up and down with other pilots until
And because it isn’t pleasant to talk of dead men’s shoes he left the sentence gently suspended.
There can be no doubt about the adequacy of a pilot’s training, but even on the St. Lawrence mishaps have been known to occur—laughable mishaps usually. Men still talk of the strange calamity that befell the Iphigenia, but there’s nothing calamitous in their telling of it. It was funny, b’gosh. Attendez!
Cutting Down Overhead
'THE Iphigenia, it seems, was coming up from Quebec to •*Montreal for the first time. She approached Quebec Bridge, and the passengers were treated to that familiar optical illusion which makes the masts appear to tower far above the girders. The captain, however, knew his ship, and the pilot knew his bridge, and the Iphigenia slipped safely under. There were long drawn “Oh’s” from the passengers, who had never witnessed the seeming miracle before—and that was that.
The vessel proceeded on its course and came at length to Three Rivers. Strung across the St. Lawrence at that point there is a power cable, but the passengers, having
witnessed the illusion at the bridge, paid no attention when the foremast loomed starward above the spidery obstruction. Captain and pilot were equally unconcerned. They knew the height of the mast and the height of the cable, and the rest was simple arithmetic.
But suddenly something happened. Just when the illusion should have ceased being an illusion, just when the conjuror should have stepped fonvard and said. "You see, ladies and gentlemen, how simple it is, ” there was a crash aloft and the cable parted as if snapped by a Titan. It snaked, fortunately, far wide of the vessel’s sides, and the Iphigenia proceeded on her way without so much as a jolt.
The pilot and captain were perturbed, but not nearly so perturbed as the inhabitants of Quebec who went without electricity that night. Next morning explanations were in order and it was discovered that the cable had sagged below the regulation height. For the benefit of intending passengers leaving Canada by the river route, it is perhaps worth mentioning that bridges do not sag.
Of course the story has a moral, for which I am indebted to Emilien Noad. "It just goes to show,” he said, “that even pilots must watch their overhead.”
Data Often Unreliable
'T'HEY must watch a good deal more than that, too. If 4you look at a chart of the St. Lawrence you will see the river, comfortably wide, winding in the purposeless way of rivers from sheet to sheet. Pretty soft taking a boat up a nice big stream like that !
But look a little more closely and you will see a narrower channel zigzagging erratically from side to side of the parent river. The narrower channel is a thing of necks and bulges and dotted links. By keeping to it the pilot finds safety; by overrunning it as much as a hairbreadth he finds trouble, the bottom, and his way into an Admiralty
In some places the navigable channel is only 500 feet wide, and as many of the liners using the river route are well over 500 feet long, little leeway is allowed for errors. And ships must pass in the narrow sections as frequently as they do in the wide open spaces—a fact which further adds to a pilot’s difficulties.
In order to demonstrate what a ticklish business it is to navigate a ship in the river, I have worked out an abstruse mathematical problem. To those cynical people who distrust all printed statistics let me say at once that I used algebra; so it must be right.
Assume a 500-foot boat in a 500-foot channel. Assume that it is proceeding on its way at a speed of twelve knots. Assume that the pilot makes a mistake of fifteen degreeswhich isn’t much, considering that he has 360 to choose
Problem: How long would it be before he struck trouble?
Answer: One minute and a quarter.
Now a minute and a quarter isn’t very long in which to spot a slight mistake, and yv hen it is considered that the channel twists and turns like a boa constrictor and that everywhere there are tides or currents, it will be seen to what nicety the pilot must work.
Obviously it would be impossible to take a ship down the river by dead reckoning, so a thoughtful Government has provided navigation aids consisting of buoys and leading marks. The buoys are placed zigzag fashion on each side of the channel, and the pilot’s job is to keep his vessel between them. Sometimes the buoys are knocked or
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dragged out of position, in which case they are considerably worse than useless.
A leading mark ashore consists of two lowers, one placed some distance behind the other, so that by aligning them with the bow or stem of the ship the pilot can strike a true course with certainty. The great value of a leading mark amies at a tum in the river, for then, after the ship has been swung, the pilot is able to hold it exactly in the channel.
In different sections of the river the depth of water varies from hour to hour, and both pilot and captain must keep posted on these changes. Thirty feet at low tide is the
minimum depth according to the chart data
but the data is more a matter of hope than achievement. It doesn’t take into amsideration such an exceptionally snowless winter as we have just had; and at Cap à la Roche, where there is a dredged channel through solid rock, the height of water is flirting dangerously dose to the minimum. At this particular point there is yet another aid to mariners. It amsists of a standard with peculiarly arranged arms which can be moved in the fashion of a semaphore. These arms are set to indicate the depth of water in units of six inches.
In spite of all the aids to navigation.
however, it is the pilot who makes the river safe. Stored in his head there is information which is given on no chart; information known only to the Brotherhood of the River. He can judge the force of this current or that; he can tell at a glance when buoys are out of position; he knows a thousand landmarks which were not placed by the Department of Marine.
At night, as in the daytime, pilots make use of data not given in the sailing directions.
I remember standing on the bridge while young Charles Bouille, the apprentice, was giving directions to the quartermaster at the wheel under the supervision of Emilien
We were nearing Quebec Bridge from the east, and ahead of us we could see the huge span in shadowy silhouette against a spangled sky. There were lots of lights on the river and still more lights sprinkled along the barely discernible banks. They were confusing, these lights, and a landsman would have been tempted to shut his eyes and hope for the best. To me it seemed like driving a dirigible through the Milky Way.
Suddenly I heard Bouille giving instructions to the wheelman, and I heard, too, the monotonous repetition of orders. It ran, as I recall, something like this.
“Steady as she goes !”
“Steady as she goes, pilot.”
I turned to Emilien, who leaned with elbows resting on the bridge rail.
“Why on earth did he turn the ship just that little bit, and how did he know it was necessary?”
Noad pointed to a light ashore a little brighter than the other lights about it.
“He saw it flicker and he knew he’d gone a bit far over. You see there are trees to the left front of that light. If we start getting too far over the trees make it sort of twinkle. He brought the boat back until the light was shining clear.”
That impressed me as pretty neat, but a little while later I nearly lost faith in Charles. We came to a tum in the river. It was marked by gas buoys which flashed white to port and red to starboard. I heard the apprentice give orders for swinging the boat, and slowly the bow came round until it was well outside the red buoy. I waited a moment to hear him correct his mistake, but l.e didn’t, and then I grabbed Emilien’s arm.
"By Jove!” I said, or words to that effect, "he’s going to pile us up.”
But Emilien remained calm.
“That’s all right,” he grunted. “There's a set across the river and he’s allowing for it.”
Sure enough the liner was carried back between the buoys and we glided safely between them. Kaye Don couldn’t have done it better.
Forty Hours On the Bridge
A PILOT who takes a liner up or down the river has a much easier time than his confrère aboard a freighter. Freighters ' usually lack speed, and there are certain stretches between Father Point and Montreal where speed is very necessary. Near Cap à la Roche, for example, there is a nineknot current at ebb tide. Boats with less speed than that proceeding up river are compelled to anchor until the tide turns.
Then again a freighter is very often “hard mouthed”—to use an extremely unnautical term. It will not respond readily to the rudder, and with such narrow margins between danger and safety, easy handling is the one quality in a boat which a pilot craves.
Charles Bouille told me of an awkward boat which suffered mishap in the channel. It was a freighter of patent construction and it—but let him tell the story himself.
“She is an Italian ship,’ he said, ”an’ I am on her wit’ the pilot. She looks ver’ funny and she steers like a Quebec calèche. You understand, eh?”
“There has been engine trouble in Mont-
real, an’ when we slips the tug in the channel the captain looks like he’s not sure he’ll ever make Italy. Not so happy, I guess.
“We are going down the river an’ I am at the wheel. Suddenly the boat heads for the bank and I pull the wheel hard over, but nom d’un nom du diable she is without steerageway. The engines is stopped.
“There’s a lot of shouting an’ down goes the anchor—just in time to save her making shoal water.”
The engines, it seems, had gone wrong. Temporary repairs were made, and at last the chief engineer reported that all was well —or fairly well. He thought it would be safe for the boat to proceed.
“I take the wheel again,” Bouille went on, “an’ when the anchor is up, the pilot he rings full speed ahead and gives me directions. Suddenly that crazy boat starts across for the opposite bank. I do all I can to swing her round, but it’s no good. We fetch up in the mud across the channel.”
When enquiries were made it was found that the chief had tried to start his Diesels, but only one would function. In consequence only the port propeller was working, and this had the effect of turning the ship round in circles. The chief should have immediately shut off and signalled the bridge, but, perhaps because he was Scotch and figured half a loaf better than no bread, he kept the single engine running.
“No,” Bouille said in answer to a question, “she isn’t damaged any and later on we get her down to Quebec. No, I never did hear if she got to Itaiy, but maybe she did, for the good Lord looks after fools and drunkards an’ crazy ships.”
As I have already said, pilotage dues are pooled and shared out equally among the members. In a good season a pilot may make as much as $5,000. In addition to this, certain pilots, regularly retained by companies running into Montreal, receive an extra sum for every ship they take up or down the river. It is a prosperous brotherhood today, and those far-ranging fishermen of a century ago would be staggered at the affluence of their descendants. But they earn it—every cent.
The Brother of the River finishes his job at Father Point and from there the captain carries on. But let me show you a last picture.
The lights, Bill !
Ladies and gentlemen, the newly painted freighter on the left is the S. S. Ebenezer M’Conkey, outward bound for Pernambuco. Here on the right we have the Jaloberl. You will observe, standing on the deck of the launch, a gentleman in a smart suit, wearing a velours hat, gloves and spats. He is the pilot who brought the freighter down the river. Still looks jaunty, eh? But look a little closer and you will see that he has dark rings under his eyes and in spite of his dapper appearance he hasn’t shaved for a couple of days. Quite a time he’s had. Forty hours on the bridge bucking dirty weather and feeling his way through fog. But he’s used to it, and you couldn’t tempt him to take another job. He belongs to the Brotherhood of the River, just as his great grandsire did. And proud—well, look at him.