A day in the life of the Denis M

It’s 8 a.m. on Tuesday and several Port of Montreal employees have gathered at the Denis M, docked at Section M of Mackay Pier, in front of Habitat 67. They have work boots, umbrellas (there’s rain in the forecast) hard hats, life jackets, lunches, a chainsaw, shackles, and other tools and hardware. We are heading out for the day to repair marine fenders.

Fenders are single or double rubber tires that hang on a dockwall. They act as a cushion, preventing ships from scraping or even ripping their hulls against the concrete dockwall during berthing procedures and once the vessels are docked. There are thousands of marine fenders throughout the port.

Gaston Bourgeois, a seafarer with the port’s fleet.

When a ship rubs up against a fender, the cable holding the tire can sometimes snap. This is what has happened at Section 46, our destination today. It’s still mild outside on this mid-September day. The rain and strong winds in the forecast have yet to hit Montreal. We better get moving!

New fenders are loaded onto the barge.

On today’s mission, the Denis M tugboat is pushing the NHB M73 barge. Aboard is a crane with a hook that lifts and moves fenders, the biggest of which – two huge tires held together by enormous screws – weighs 5,200 pounds.

Departing for Section 46 Southeast, located at the foot of Pie IX Blvd., at Sutherland Pier. Lantic Sugar uses the berth.

Arriving at Section 46, we immediately see that a cable holding the fender has snapped. This fender consists of two tires because the current at this location is very strong. The fender will have to be replaced in its entirety because a ring that is used to hold the cable has ripped one of the tires. It cannot be repaired on-site. The port’s maintenance workshop employees might be able to give it a new life. In fact, they’re the ones who make the double-tired fenders in the first place.

We remove the damaged fender by using the hook that is on the crane aboard the NHB M73 barge. The hook can lift up to 12,000 pounds. The crane itself can lift up to 18,000 tonnes! But when aboard the barge, it is limited to 9,000 tonnes, which is still quite impressive.

Pierre Vézina and Philippe Prévost measure the correct length of cable...... that is then cut by Gaston Bourgeois … and then threaded through the eye that is screwed into the tire, much like threading the eye of a giant needle.

We use shackles – four per cable – to close the loop.

We then hoist the new fender. A team member who has followed us via the port road and who works from the berth hooks the cable onto a bollard, a squat vertical post used to tie up ships to the dock.

Michel Dufour is steady at the helm of the Denis M. He moves the barge to a precise location, which helps facilitate the work that his team must carry out. Back up a bit! Move forward slightly! Stop!

Our work is done!

We leave for Section 105, at the extreme eastern end of the port, where another double-tired fender has come undone. The scenario plays out once again, but this time we have to work in the rain and wind, which makes the surface of the barge slippery.

Luckily, the wind and the current are moving in the same direction. When they move in opposite directions, the river gets angry, and the waves pitch and toss the barge, making it more difficult to manoeuvre. And that doesn’t take into account the infamous St. Mary’s Current, which is west of the Jacques Cartier Bridge.

The barge that the Denis M is pushing weighs 120 tonnes and it has a significant draft. It must be moved very carefully. The captain must foresee his manoeuvres well in advance. “You have to know how to battle the elements. If you fight them, you lose,” Dufour said. 


In good weather, Michel Dufour’s team can change some 15 single-tired fenders in a single day. They have only to thread a single tire on one cable with one loop.

On our way home, we travel alongside the berths in order to inspect all of the fenders and look for signs of wear and tear. “Maintenance pays off,” Dufour said. For example, if the fenders are not well maintained and one ends up in the water, it has to retrieved. You don’t want it interfering with a ship. Moreover, the current will move the fender, making its retrieval more difficult. The sounding barge has to be called in to find it. And then the port has to pay divers to retrieve it.

With Michel Dufour’s team hard at work, the port is in good hands.

From left to right :

Pierre Vézina is in his 14th season with the port’s fleet. Previously, he sailed on the Great Lakes and in the Arctic as a vessel operator and crew chief. But there are still plenty of challenges for him working in the port. “Navigating the waters of the port is just as difficult because of the strong currents and the traffic,” he said.

Michel Dufour, who captains the Denis M, is a Dufour from La Malbaie. A longtime seafarer, his father, brother and two uncles have worked as pilots on the river. “It’s family here. This work is in our blood,” he said.

Gaston Bourgeois is 64 years old and has been sailing since he was 17. He has travelled every ocean and throughout the world. He began his career with the Port of Montreal 27 years ago as a vessel operator. His family hails from the Magdalen Islands, where his father was a fisherman. “Sailing is in my soul,” he said.

Philippe Prévost is the youngest member of the team and he represents the future. He has sailed on the Great Lakes and in the Arctic, like most sailors who are members of the Seafarers’ International Union of Canada. He has been a sailor with the port’s fleet for six years and is completing his training to become a captain. Originally from Lévis, ships have always fascinated him. “I’ve always looked for work that has allowed me to travel,” he said.