During summers at the family cottage in West Pugwash, a boy from Oxford sat on the shores of the harbour and watched salt boats manoeuvre through the channel. He watched every time a ship sailed in or out, even begging his parents to wake him up in the middle of the night so he could see a ship come in.
Makes perfect sense, then, that when the boy grew up, he earned a Watchkeeping Mate licence.
“It means that for eight hours of the day, I’m responsible for the ship, its crew and its safe navigation. I share that responsibility with two other mates and we all work under the captain,” explains 28-year-old Jeff Marchant.
After graduating from high school, Jeff thought he wanted to study business but it didn’t take long for him to realize he really wanted to work on those ships he’d watched as a boy. He enrolled at NSCC’s nautical institute in Port Hawkesbury where he learned to be a deck-hand, an entry-level position.
“Once I had that, I sailed with the Coast Guard and that course was one year,” he says. “Then I worked and sailed with the Coast Guard for three years as a deckhand and a wheelsman.”
But with aspirations to become an officer, Jeff left the Coast Guard in 2011 and enrolled in the commercial shipping program at Georgian College in Ontario.
“It’s two-and-a-half years solid,” he says of the program he completed in June 2014. “The way the program is set up, the academic portion is September to April with no spring break and as soon as that’s done, there’s a co-op portion. I spent four months as an officer-in-training on a classic lake ship.”
His co-op provider, who is now his employer, is Algoma, one of the four big shipping companies; another company is Groupe Desgagnés “which people in Pugwash will be familiar with,” says Jeff.
After his second academic semester and co-op, Jeff had the chance to go to China to sail home one of the company’s brand-new Equinox class bulk carriers. This trip also would provide him with deep-sea sailing experience.
“A lot of the co-op providers are within the Great Lakes because that’s where a lot of Canada’s shipping takes place,” he says. “China was an opportunity I’ve never had before. We flew to Shanghai and spent a couple of weeks at the shipyard getting the ship ready to sail. I was still a cadet and had six months of school to complete which was a good way to do it because I got to see all aspects of the ship and everything had to be done from scratch because they were new ships.”
All eight ships in this new class are being built in China so in order to make these lake ships safe for a sea crossing, the company designed a Delivery Voyage Strengthening system in which two eight-foot walls were welded onto the sides of the ship. Those walls were removed once the ship reached the St. Lawrence Seaway.
|Jeff on the deck of the Algoma Equinox in China in 2013.|
According to Jeff, the difference between lake ships and sea ships is weight. Lake ship construction is not as strong as ships built for deep sea because there is no significant wave action to deal with. Lake ships are lighter which means they can carry more cargo.
“All the ships are bound to the Great Lakes so their construction doesn’t allow them to pass Anticosti Island which is in the northern section of Quebec. They’re not allowed to travel east of that.”
Having now experienced both sea and lake sailing, Jeff says he prefers lake.
“There’s a lot more going on, I like the responsibility, and it’s a healthy dose of stress. I’m still learning, there’s no question. I finished the six months I had left at school and immediately went to work as third officer on the Algoma Equinox and I’m still learning the systems. There’s so much more to learn and I want to master it.”
As a Watchkeeping Mate, Jeff works on the bridge.
“I work with an Able-Bodied Seaman (AB) and that person steers the boat for me. I take in all the information available, all the other vessels in my area, course alternations and channels, and I’m responsible for making sure the ship is safely within those areas. The AB is responsible for actually manoeuvering the ship. If it’s time to alter course, I know what the next course is and I’ll look at the AB and say, ‘Please bring the ship to, say, south 1-8-0.’ He or she does the physical work while I do the monitoring.”
He says the 2013 movie, Captain Phillips, starring Tom Hanks, provides a very accurate idea of the work done on a commercial ship like his.
“Less the pirates, of course,” he laughs.
After graduation, Jeff went to work almost immediately and worked for six months straight. While he says living on a ship was hard at first, it didn’t take long to settle in because it’s similar to home.
“On board, everyone has their own cabin. The rooms are really well-furnished for the most part. On every ship I’ve been on so far, everyone has their own washroom and shower. On the Equinox, for example, I had a nice big closet, a refrigerator, a toaster oven, a couch (which on a ship is called a settee). I have a double bed, a great big window, a flat panel television with satellite TV and Internet. I have a desk for doing paperwork.”
And all his meals are provided by a galley staff who cooks for a crew of 18 people plus cadets.
In the hierarchy of a ship, Jeff has been sailing as a second and third mate. When he first started working after graduation, he had no desire to be a captain but the last six months have changed his mind.
“I was always kind of nervous of the position but now I’ve seen different people holding the position,” he says. “I’ve sailed with a few different captains and picked up a lot of good stuff from all of them and now I see that, with the proper training and more experience, I’d have no problem.”
Jeff says there are plenty of job opportunities in the shipping industry for young people graduating from high school.
“There’s a shortage in both engineering and deckside so if you have an interest in either, grab a course calendar and head to Port Hawkesbury or Ontario.”
The commercial shipping year runs from late March to early January and Jeff is using the few months off during the winter for training.
“The licence I’m going for now will be first mate. Once the training is complete and I get enough sea time, I’ll apply for my licence. Once I take a position on board a ship, I will manage the ship, the personnel and be responsible for cargo and piloting. I really want to get this first mate licence. I’m in school mode and I want to stay there and get it over with.”
Besides the challenging work, what Jeff appreciates about his chosen career is that he can live anywhere he wants, including home in Nova Scotia.
“The position pays well, just as good as Alberta, and I actually get more time off than that guy travelling to Alberta. I’m closer to home. While I do spend more than three or four weeks at a time working, I’m home for three months at a time.”