In a year of quarantines and election drama, the 2020 shipping season sailed on with essential business to be done. While many of us want to put the stressful year behind us, the shipping season is worth rewinding to look back at what occurred in our region in 2020.
The pandemic had an extensive impact on the US and Canadian economies, shutting down production facilities and limiting the need for supplies. However, ships would continue to sail all season, further proving essential workers, such as seafarers, were helping to keep commerce moving. Nevertheless, at times there were hiccups, delays, and rare reasons to celebrate.
First and foremost if you recall, the 2020 season came to a close on December 31 – 275 days from when it started. And it’s hard to believe that nearly three months – 82 days to be exact – have passed already and a new season will commence on March 22.
Let’s rewind the tape and reminisce about 2020.
Looking back, it was just days before the season was to come to a close, December 26 to be specific, when one of the older Algoma vessels, Algoma Spirit, touched bottom around Cardinal, Ontario, on its approach to the lock, a day after channel markers were pulled in the area. The ship, though damaged, was able to advance to Iroquois Lock where it began to show signs of a significant list while moored to the upper lock wall. It would not slow traffic, thankfully, though the ship did lose precious time to reach Montreal.
The Picton Terminal has been working to become a stronger foothold at the eastern end of Lake Ontario along the north shore. Ownership has strived to improve the dock to increase vessel traffic. One of the celebratory events of the season came on December 18, when the Terminal’s new tug, Amy Lynn D, arrived after a long journey that had brought it across the Atlantic Ocean to its new home. Since then, the tug has made several mid-winter trips across Lake Ontario to Toronto with a barge loaded with stone.
Around mid-December, the mouth of the River off Cape Vincent and around Carleton Island, became more like a parking lot, rather than an h2o Highway. Back-ups due to weather and a need for pilots led to numerous ships having to anchor as the end of season clock ticked down. The lack of pilots was a result of the grounding of Harvest Spirit on the Detroit River, which backed up traffic to the west for several days. Once the ships cleared the Welland Canal, it was a dash to the River, but there were only so many pilots available to accommodate the influx.
Robinson Bay began her farewell tour on December 14, when she departed Massena to begin decommissioning channel markers. The 103-foot tug has been a Seaway staple since being built just ahead of the Seaway’s opening. The tug is slated to return channel markers to the water this spring, and then will become the back-up to the new Seaway Guardian.
As the calendar turned to the final month of the season, many had thought of how lucky the industry and the system had been, with very few hang ups for the year. But, on December 8, tug Lac Vancouver and its barge drifted out of the shipping channel while heading downbound on approach to Eisenhower Lock, The incident would turn out to be minor and after a brief traffic delay, the tug was able to free itself and continue its trip.
A sight to see, and the first of four, came through the Islands in November. The Lois M, a hefty tug, proudly towed a barge with a new bridge destined for Toronto. Everywhere the tow passed, the shoreline was littered with sightseers. The Cherry Street North bridge was constructed in Nova Scotia and embarked on a journey that took nearly half the month to reach its place on the Toronto Waterfront. The next bridge to travel the Seaway is expected in 2021.
On September 10, Federal EMS touched bottom just west of Eisenhower Lock, causing the ship to drop anchors and tie-up traffic. Blocking traffic in the narrow channel before the lock led to a number of vessels having to report to nearby anchorage or lock walls until the ship was moved. Federal EMS had reportedly lost engine power, which caused it to drift. The marine crew from the US locks was called upon to assist in securing the ship. Robinson Bay was sent out to drop crew on the nearby mooring cells before proceeding to escort the ship. Federal EMS moved under its own power with the Robinson Bay following behind. It was led to the mooring cells, where it tied up for inspection. Ship traffic was permitted to proceed soon after.
Two of the US Coast Guard icebreaking class vessels passed through the region around the third week of August, capping off a busy month of activity in the Islands. USCGC Hollyhock headed downbound for a mission on the coast, while USCGC Biscayne Bay headed upbound for her homeport.
Mayday, mayday, mayday . . . the afternoon of August 20 took a turn for the worse for sightseeing tourists aboard an Uncle Sam tour boat while cruising near the Summerland Group of islands. Island Duchess, with 134 passengers onboard, struck a shoal causing extensive damage to the hull of the boat. The crew was quick to jump into action preparing passengers for possibly having to disembark, as they awaited the arrival of rescue personnel and another tour boat to move people. Assistance from several agencies created a bit of confusion on the scene at times, though everyone was removed successfully from the boat. The crew worked to remove water, and temporary fixes were put into place until the boat could be towed to Kingston for repair work to be done in drydock.
Canadian Empress announced on August 12 that the cruise line would attempt to salvage part of their season by operating Fall cruises with up to 48 passengers, well below the 100+ restriction the government had instituted.
IDK (better known to non-millennials as “I don’t know”) . . . well, the easiest thing to say about IMKE is IDK. IMKE definitely didn’t know that on August 8, it would end up grounded just off the Port of Ogdensburg dock. IMKE had attempted to come into the port dock without tug assistance, as many ships do despite horrible currents in the area. It found itself too far to the west side of the dock where it quickly shallows out. The grounding would damage the prop of the ship, leaving it unable to sail on its own after unloading. It would take nearly 10 days before the ship was removed from the Port via tugs and taken to Quebec. IMKE would then sit in Quebec until early September before an ocean tug from overseas came to retrieve it.
Winds were terrible overnight on August 3, so bad that they ripped the Hornes Ferry from its moorings on Wolfe Island on August 3. The ferry was found adrift against the shore of Carleton Island, roughly 3 nautical miles from home.
Seaway Guardian began its delivery voyage to the US Seaway marine base in Massena from Louisiana on July 2. The new primary mission for the tug will be buoy maintenance and ice management. It will also assist in firefighting and emergency operational response on the St. Lawrence Seaway. The new tug cost $24 million to construct as part of the Asset Renewal Program.
Bumper boats? The Welland Canal is a narrow shipping channel that for years has seen numerous ship crossings occur without incident, however on July 11, Florence Spirit and Alanis seemed to have other plans. In what was one of the more severe collisions/accidents on the Canal in recent history, the ships ended up in a head-on collision which was caught on video from shore and caused significant damage to both ships. Florence Spirit had a portion of its bow peeled open like a soup can and damage below the water line caused the ship to take on water, creating a list until cargo could be unloaded to lighten the ship. Alanis suffered the least amount of damage in the incident, and both sets of crew were deemed to be uninjured. The investigation is still ongoing by the Traffic Safety Board (TSB) of Canada. In March 2021, the TSB visited the ship simulator in Quebec to re-enact the incident.
Knock, knock. The Beauharnois Lock door was knocked on a little too hard by a ship back on July 2, which caused enough damage that repairs needed to be completed before traffic could utilize the lock. Minor delays occurred, as expected.
USS St Louis captured the attention of everyone on both sides of the River in June as the newest US Navy vessel made its maiden voyage after being built in Wisconsin. The ship would end up docking in Ogdensburg, its final US port stop before the ocean.
The Canadian government put several COVID-19 restrictions into play in the Spring, including banning cruise ships with 100 or more passengers from entering Canadian waterways. The Seaway has had a growing cruise ship industry over the past decade. The ban, which went into play through June, then was later amended until October. Unfortunately the ban would deflate the progress that had been made by Great Lake ports to draw ships to their cities, as well as to smaller communities like Clayton and Kingston, while also stripping the cruise lines of the revenues necessary to operate their ships. The ban ended up exceeding the 2020 season and it has now halted the 2021 season.
As in the past few years, water levels were the hot topic at the start of the season. As April 1 grew closer, a call for a longer delay before the Seaway opened was requested by residents. The Seaway had pushed the opening to April 1 from its typical third week of March. Outflows were kept at the highest level possible to operate safely and a tug was added to Iroquois Lock to assist ships because of the stronger currents. By mid-April, the outflows resumed a more regular level, and the tug was discontinued from standby service.
The 2021 season will open on March 22, nearly a week and a half earlier than last season’s opening, but more in line with openings from the past decade. Just over 80 days ago, the last season ended, giving the feeling that we have quickly fast-forwarded to the 2021 season, which ship watchers eagerly have been anticipating. The sights and sounds of freighters cruising the region will soon be back, a sure sign of Spring.
Hopefully, the new season will be fairly quiet and will write its own song, rather than replay parts of 2020.
By Michael Folsom
Be sure to check into Mike Folsom's Twitter feed @theshipwatcher and his St Lawrence Seaway Ship Watchers Facebook page, which provides unique perspectives from both sides of the border thanks to the nearly 28k followers/contributors.
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