When I take the ferry from Quebec City over to Lévis, I often see Coast Guard icebreakers lined up at the wharf, as in the feature image at the top of this blog. The middle ship is of course the Amundsen, on which I spent three dramatic weeks overwintering in the Beaufort Sea, when making my film The Blinding Sea.
I am thinking a lot about my grandfather Guy Tombs these days. I suppose it comes from living between Quebec and Lévis, and daily rediscovering the St. Lawrence River with its moods and fogs and incoming saltwater tides and passing ships of all kinds. He was a magnificent storyteller, and his favourite subject was men, ships and navigation.
For example, before the First World War, in addition to his duties as general agent of the Canadian Northern Railway my grandfather was also general agent of the Royal Line of passenger steamships, which consisted of two vessels, the Royal Edward and the Royal George, sailing from Bristol to Quebec and Montreal. They had steam turbines and three shafts, a top speed of 19 knots, and accommodation for 1114 passengers, 344 of them in first class. Many people in steerage, coming over from Bristol, were immigrants seeking a new life homesteading on the Canadian Prairies just before the outbreak of war.
After the First World War, and the demise of the Canadian Northern Railway, my grandfather started his own company in 1921, handling all the freight for the Canadian Export Paper Company.
But in the early 1920s, he also found the time to serve as general agent for an innovative icebreaking coastal freighter, the Sable I, operated by the Bras d’or Navigation Company between Montreal, Anticosti Island and outports along the Gulf of St. Lawrence.
In the mid-1930s, my grandfather had a series of coastal ships built at the Wee Davie shipyard in Lévis. They have sometimes also been referred to as newsprint barges. However, in addition to newsprint, they transported clay, gypsum, lumber, machine parts, package freight and even a few paying passengers along the St. Lawrence, Ottawa, Richelieu and Hudson Rivers. In French they are often referred to as caboteurs or coastal ships, which strikes me as more accurate. These diesel-powered vessels called at many ports both large and small between Montreal and Manhattan, sometimes venturing up to Lake Ontario or down to the Gulf of St. Lawrence. Here is a detail from a photograph taken over the winter of 1949-1950 at the Davie Brothers yard in Lévis, showing the Kermic and GTD hauled out of the water to avoid being crushed by winter ice:
Finally, here is a photo of one of the vessels, named in honour of my grandmother Ethel Tombs. I remember as a little boy how my grandfather used to tease my grandmother, saying old Ethel Tombs was scraping her bottom in the canal! My grandmother always blushed at these words!
I have always seen the St. Lawrence River, from Quebec City downstream, as the gateway to the Atlantic, and there are moving stories to tell, about schooners plying the gulf and blue whales suffocating under thick ice cover (for example, during the winter of 2013-2014) and passenger liners dodging icebergs and innovative companies inaugurating icebreaking freighters and of course the coastal ships my grandfather owned and/or operated. Ships were smaller then.
When I think of the size of my grandfather’s vessels as compared to polar ships in my film The Blinding Sea, I come up with the following comparisons:
Nansen’s polar ship Fram: 127 feet long (39 metres)
Gerlache’s polar ship Belgica: 118 feet (36 metres)
My grandfather’s seven coastal steamers: 106 feet long (32 metres)
Amundsen’s second polar ship Maud: 98 feet long (30 metres)
Amundsen’s first polar ship Gjoa: 70 feet long (21 metres)
So they were roughly in the same range.
Ships and their fates provide analogies for the destinies that await each one of us. There is after all something imponderable about the fate of ships, whether due to tides, currents, freak storms, normal wear and tear, torpedo attacks, icebergs low in the water, collisions with other ships … I remember being on a cargo ship once, in Ungava Bay, when we lived through a violent storm (Beaufort 11), just a few knots short of a true hurricane. Quite the experience. It was fantastic to survive a storm like that, find a safe anchorage, go ashore and get our land legs back!