Oh Captain, Our Captain - Joanne Crack

By: Michael Folsom, Suzy Austin, Brian Johnson and Lynda Crothers

Volume 14, Issue 10, October 2019

The grain shipping season was about to pick up as the brisk autumn air set in. The fall months can be exciting and entertaining for ship enthusiasts along the St. Lawrence River with increased freighter traffic almost daily. And for the first time in several years, one of those enthusiasts won’t be on the shoreline to take it all in.

Joanne Crack, better known to most as Captain Jo of The Prescott Anchor group page on Facebook, sailed her final journey recently, one that had encountered rough seas a few months prior. Having been ill and bed stricken in the hospital for a number of days in June drove Jo nuts. She would share messages with me to give updates of her well-being and anxiety to get back to the Port of Prescott to ship watch. When the news broke of her passing in September, most of those who knew Jo were shocked, or even blind-sided, by her quick departure from the dock of life.

It was 2009 when Jo first reached out to me. I was roughly a year into operating my blog and had a St. Lawrence Seaway Ship Watchers Facebook group that was climbing to over 1,000 followers at the time. She shared her interests and passions of the River with me and we hit it off as two big ship watching fanatics on opposite sides of the Seaway. From her perch in Prescott, Ontario and mine in Clayton, New York, we began to feed off one another’s knowledge and photography.

Our friendship grew over the years, as did the popularity of my blog and Facebook group. I would turn to Jo and ask for a hand in 2016 as my time directly on the River’s edge was coming to an end and she would remain physically present on the River and maintain a strong pulse for what was happening.

Her own Facebook group, The Prescott Anchor, was taking off and piggybacking the Ship Watcher group page in terms of information and followers. She quickly grew a thriving and intriguing following of her own.

I stepped away from maintaining The Ship Watcher website since so much of the web traffic began going to the social media pages for the instant information news feed. Jo was always quick to maintain current and accurate information on her Facebook page, so with my not being “on the scene” like she was, she  carried on. At one point, I tabbed Jo, along with other key ship watchers, Suzy Austin of Wilson Hill/Massena, NY and Lynda Crothers of Wolfe Island, as part of my growing “network” for information. In January of 2018, each agreed to become part of what we now call The Ship Watchers Network. I couldn’t go it alone anymore, so The Ship Watcher became The Ship Watchers. A new website was being put into play, but my time to commit to it was minimal. Instead, Jo surged forward on the social media platform and engaged with followers more than ever before. She became one of my administrators on the page and was more than dependable when it came to overseeing things.

Earlier this month, the laker, Rt. Hon. Paul J. Martin ran aground near Cardinal, but I didn’t have my reporting sidekick Jo this time around. Jo would have been right on top of that situation. She would have enjoyed all of the hype the grounded ship created.

It was a major loss when she passed away, for all of us that are diehard hobbyists. The woman who had a heart, the size of a ship’s cargo hold, was more impactful than she even knew. For nearly five years, she brought people together through The Prescott Anchor and Ship Watchers pages. Thankfully, earlier this summer she was able to gather with some of her followers to celebrate that five-year milestone of operating her page. And, when on the dock in Prescott, she would personally go to meet the Canadian Empress and welcome those aboard to her fine riverside community.

March 2018, attending the Seaway opening ceremony at the Welland Canal,

News of her passing made its away around the community like the sound of a ship’s horn wailing in the night. And quite literally, ship horns wailed for days after she left us. Numerous ships gave Captain's Salutes to Captain Jo when they sailed past Prescott in her honor. The only difference now was that she wasn’t out there with her binoculars around her neck and her arm frantically waving.

My interactions with Jo were only over the internet, never having the chance to shake her hand and meet her in person, despite nearly 10 years of correspondence. And since I didn’t have that personal touch, I reached out to some friends who had and asked them to reflect on their time with Jo as well.

Fair winds, Captain Jo. You now have the best view of this glorious River.

Reflection by Suzy Austin

My first contact with Jo came in May 2016. She wrote me saying that a mutual friend told her I'd be sailing aboard her favorite ship, the Canadian Empress, and she wanted to meet me. When the Empress stopped in Prescott, Jo would roll out a red carpet, put up a welcome sign, and greet all the passengers. That day, we became instant friends, as if we'd known each other forever. We shared the same passion for ships and the Seaway, and the desire to explore.

Joanne Crack and Suzi Austin first meet on board the Canadian Empress.

A few weeks later, our Seaway adventures began. I would drive, she would navigate. Together we would plan our day, based on ship traffic and events along the Seaway.

The summer of 2016, we toured CCGS Griffon at Prescott, Viking ship Draken at Brockville, and HCMS Goose Bay at Johnstown. We visited HMCS Kingston during it's tour of Canadian port cities. We took the Wolfe Islander III ferry to visit Lynda Crothers, who also shares our passion for ships. Jo wanted to meet as many people that we could.

In June 2017, Jo and I sailed aboard Canadian Empress from Kingston to Quebec City. It was a dream trip of a lifetime - that was HER ship. While in Montreal, we got a private tour of Damia Desgagnes before it's maiden trip up the Seaway. In August, Jo found us an opportunity to sail aboard tall ship Black Jack from Prescott to Brockville. When Jo won the Ed Huck Marine photo contest, we went to Rockport to collect her prize and took a 1000 Islands cruise.

In March 2018, we attended the Seaway opening ceremony at the Welland Canal, a place we never imagined we'd go. In July, we toured HMCS Moncton at Prescott. Jo then got a private tour of the Algoma Sault at Johnstown. In October, we made one of many visits to the Canadian Empress during it's stops at Prescott. Jo and I had made friends with Capt. Brian Johnson and many of the crew.

In July 2019, Jo invited me to Prescott for a bonfire with a group of past/current CCG crew. It was a perfect night to sit by the fire, watch the river, and hear great sailor stories.

Joanne on board the HCMS Goose Bay

The last time I saw Jo was August 17 at her Prescott Anchor 5th Anniversary party. She gave anchor pins to each person who attended. Those pins are with me today, always in my purse, so she's with me as I continue our adventures alone. The day after Jo passed away, was the Seaway 60th anniversary at Eisenhower Lock. During the celebration, I watched Damia Desgagnes lock through Eisenhower - it was a sign from beyond that Jo's spirit is still with us.

We always had the best time. We made countless road trips to Iroquois Lock and places all along the Seaway. We spent hours talking about family, friends, and life - and giggling about the mischief we could have sown had we met years ago. She was my best friend, and the sister I always wanted. We were 'Shipsters'. She was a gem who always remembered a special occasion with a gift. She always signed off her messages with "Love You!!! Xxo". We packed in a lot of great memories during the short time we had. Joanne Crack is forever in my heart.

Reflection by Brian Johnson

When my mate Ross Richardson and I brought Canadian Empress into Prescott for her first landing of the season in 2014, we spotted her on shore from a long way out. There she was, all decked out in black, running hither and yon clicking, seemingly, hundreds of photos of our approach. I told the crew from about a mile out to be ‘careful’ Joanne has her zoom lens and she’ll capture us from way out here.

Wow. It was like a family reunion when we landed. We all became instant friends.

Captain Jo and Captain Brian! 

Up until then, on earlier trips with the Canadian Empress landing at Prescott, my cousin, Anne-Marie Johnson who was the director at Prescott’s Fort William, would meet the ship, greet the passengers as they boarded the bus departing for their Fort tour. Anne-Marie stayed aboard and had a cup of tea with me. We were long-lost cousins from Wolfe Island who never saw too much of each other growing up. This was a very pleasant experience for me and one I looked forward to, every trip. In June of 2013, after one of my stops, Anne-Marie suddenly passed away from a sudden brain aneurism. On her 40th birthday, no less. For the rest of the season, my trips into Prescott were depressing, giving me a very lonely feeling. We would depart passing the Fort with ‘one long and two short’ for her fallen commander.

And then, Joanne Crack came onto the scene.

She purchased a red carpet, which would be placed right at the gangway of the Canadian Empress after she landed. Joanne was truly an ambassador for her town. She would introduce herself as ‘one of the Seaway watchers’ and these folks, too, were greeters for the passengers. Among them were Mardy Howe and Helen Mott. Along the river as we headed down toward Upper Canada Village I met more, including PeggyAnn Adamson and Ed Snider who would ‘snap us’ as we went through Iroquois lock. Why, I actually loved this section of the river. All thanks to Joanne.

There was a couple of times she actually wasn’t there, at the dock, waiting for us. Helen who was there with her camera told us “It hasn’t been a good week for her, she hasn’t been out,” she said.

You see, Joanne was a cancer survivor. In her own words she told me, “I’m a proud cancer survivor and one that continues to struggle every day with late effects cancer and always will, off and on for the rest of my life. Early 2004, I was diagnosed with cancer. With this cancer being in my lymphatic system there had to be a primary that metastasized to my left neck. I underwent every single test available to find that primary to no avail. Then the specialists watched before their eyes the cancer spread from my left neck to my right. There was just no more time to search anymore for the primary. I was given a 10% survival rate. Ouch! Can you imagine I had to tell my parents and three teenagers this. One of the hardest things I’ve ever had to do in my life.”

Joanne then went through ‘medical hell’ following this in Kingston. “There was nothing I could do but go with the flow, do as they said, keep strong and carry on. One of the best things during all of this is the great support from my parents, my children and siblings, my large family and so many friends. I will never take credit for all of the positives that came out of it. I didn’t do it – WE did and to this day I have a huge and tremendous amount of loving and caring supporters. They understand because I’ve been an open book."

“Off we went with the treatments, day in and day out for over a month every single day. Do you remember that poem ‘Foot Prints in the Sand’? I read it hundreds of times but never really grasped the full hard core meaning of it until one day, I looked back for myself and only saw one set of foot prints. I remember the exact moment in time. By then my mother and I moved to the Kingston Cancer Clinic. I was now on a Gastro-Jejonal (G-J) feeding tube placed through my abdomen directly into the small intestines. They had to. I was just too sick for it to be placed into my stomach and would have lost all that they pumped into me. The poison (chemo) really began to take over my entire system.”

Joanne went on to tell me her mother’s role ‘in saving her youngest daughter’s life’. Her dad came as often as he could and “…never ever did a night pass that he didn’t call and so many times that put a huge smile on my face. My children and parents and closest friends were all enduring this too, waiting and praying and wishing and hoping for the best possible outcome.”

By this time Joanne was recovering at home. Her brother drove up from Quebec, surprising her to take her for her results in Kingston finally. “We then sat waiting impatiently in my oncologist’s room really not knowing what to expect and with my survival rate being so low, we were bracing ourselves. ‘You are a miracle’ she said, then waves her arms high in a circle saying, ‘THIS is a miracle’. This is the only time I’ve ever cried in a medical office.”

However, the news wasn’t all good. More operations followed to ensure they got everything out, but it would return albeit slowly. This is where her conversation with me about her medical condition ends.

Her Facebook page continued and her demeanor brightened with each new springtime Seaway opening like a child at Christmastime. Up early every morning, she captured her Prescott harbour sunrises with spiritual quotes – many her own - and couldn’t wait to post them. If there was a ship, well, “Woo hoo!” could be heard clear across to Ogdensburg, New York.

Our Prescott Anchor get-together this past August thrilled her. Side-kick Suzy Austin told me she loved every minute. By late afternoon she said goodbye, kissing each of us in turn, telling us she was tired and left the party. It would be her last.

Jo, we’ll miss your ‘Seaway musings,’ your pre-dawn magical photo captures, moving the sun exactly where you wanted her ‘for that best angle’ and your spiritual quotes reminding us all that we are here for only a short time. But man, we do live in the best corner of the world, don’t we Captain? We promise to take care of it. See you at sunrise.

Reflection by Lynda Crothers

I am conflicted with the personal friend who talked to me and the public Lady who loved discovering all about the ships, the River, and the Captains and crew.
She would have loved to travel and cross the ocean on a freighter. She didn't grow up nautical or have the opportunities to sail to different ports or even motorboat along the River, but choosing her apartment near the River gave her the opportunity to broaden her horizons and have a little fun while in the middle of her cancer and all that goes with the illness.

She wanted Prescott to be the dock where all boats were welcome. The Canadian Empress came into Port and she went out and bought a red carpet to welcome them. She would watch for her favorite Capt. Brian Johnston and grow so fond of the crew.

She spent hours with her marine radio and watched if ships had issues or were just waiting for pilots. She would message me to see if I knew of the reason ships weren't moving or what the problem was. If she didn't know the answer, she would put it out on Facebook to see if anyone had heard anything. The times when I heard things on the radio, and she didn't, I would type the conversations and she would comment so quickly. My typing is slow and we would laugh because she was so eager and wanting more info.

She loved her Prescott Anchor and missed it when she couldn't be on top of it with her daily updates, record of ships passing, and future ships up or down. She was one with the River.

She loved talking to people who just tied up at the dock for overnight or a quick stop to find out where they came from and where the next stop would be. She wanted the town to make the area clean and tidy, as well as pretty and would get so upset if the grass wasn't trimmed or there were uneven walkways. She even asked someone for a trimmer to do some of the work herself. She was a hands-on lady and knew what it would take to welcome sailors.

She even wrote in the local paper to spread the word about the River so all of Prescott would be informed. She was very much a key player in terms of news on the Seaway.

By Michael Folsom, Suzy Austin, Brian Johnson and Lynda Crothers

Enjoying her voyage on the Tall Ship Black Jack.[Photo by Suzy Austin]

Editor's Note:  We thank all four authors for their tributes - this editor is moved to tears but left with smiles as I think how lucky our River is to have these ship watchers. The memory of their Captain Jo will live on through their continues vigilance and we thank them.

Posted in: Volume 14, Issue 10, October 2019, People, Places

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Michael Folsom, Suzy Austin, Brian Johnson and Lynda Crothers

Friends of Joanne Crack pay tribute to a St. Lawrence Seaway ship watcher.

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