From mariner to harbour master of the Port of Montreal

The Port of Montreal’s harbour master, Jean-Luc Bédard, retired on January 24 after 41 years in the marine industry, including 24 years at the Port of Montreal, where his last position was Vice-President, Operations, and Harbour Master. Here he shares his thoughts on the marine trades.

Jean-Luc Bédard

Is the occupation of mariner for everyone?

There are as many different types of people among mariners as people on shore. But yes, they have certain character traits: they like their independence, they’re comfortable with themselves and they don’t need to be homebodies to feel good. They are also rigorous people. Even the lowest rank sailors are thorough - a necessary quality to keep a vessel running smoothly. A crew member who works carelessly is quickly rebuffed by fellow crew members, because they’re the ones who will pay the price for poor work done by a slacker.

Does the profession attract people who want to see the country?

We see less and less of the country! The shipping industry has changed enormously. Vessels don’t stay dockside as long and, during stopovers, there is a lot of work to do on board.

The job of naval officer is increasingly a profession. The technical aspect is more important, because the electronic navigation tools are getting more sophisticated. Also, we’re away for shorter periods than before.

Is the training hard?

When you graduate, you are a third officer. If you want to climb the ranks and become second officer, then first officer, then captain, you have to be able to juggle work and school, because you have to put in time at sea. It’s demanding.
What I appreciated about my studies is that beyond the technical knowledge, they teach you a way of thinking. They teach you to be sure of yourself and of your results. I remember an exam where we had to balance a magnetic compass. The professor came close to me. I was having a hard time, yet I was sure I was applying what I’d learned in class. I started over and over again. Until I started thinking that a factor outside my control was influencing my results. I told my professor, who grinned and pulled a magnet out of his pocket. He did that on purpose to unsettle us and put us to the test, to teach us to trust our results. This attitude is essential, and all the more so when danger threatens at sea.

Do you come from a family of mariners?

When he was an officer on merchant ships, Jean-Luc Bédard
sailed a lot in the Far North.

Not at all! Not many ships sail by Victoriaville! Around age 13-14, I went to my uncle’s to help harvest the hay on his farm, close to the river near Dechaillons. In the evening, we watched the boats go by. I thought they were beautiful and majestic. I loved their quiet strength. I began to imagine myself on one of them. At age 16, I embarked as a young apprentice on a ship leaving for the Arctic; at age 26, I was first officer, and at age 29, captain. You have serious responsibilities at a young age.  It builds character.

What was your biggest thrill as a foreign-going seafarer?

I was 24 or 25 when I crossed the Atlantic for the first time in my life. I was second officer on a merchant ship bound for Algeria. I had to use the stars to take the ship’s position on the nautical chart. According to my calculations, we were heading right to the Strait of Gibraltar, the only gateway from the Atlantic Ocean to the Mediterranean Sea between Spain and Morocco. The captain asked me what time we would see land. “About ten forty-five,” I replied. I was afraid I was mistaken. But at exactly that time, I saw emerging through a light mist, Europe to the right, Africa to the left and in between, right in front of the ship’s bow, the passage through the Strait of Gibraltar. I will never forget that moment.

For 23 years, Jean-Luc Bédard spent a few hours each
New Year's Day aboard the first ship of the year to
arrive in the Port of Montreal. Here, he welcomes
Captain Chodankar, master of the Fedreal Spey and
winner of the 2014 Gold-Headed-Cane.

Why did you leave that life to become a manager at the Port of Montreal?

I loved the job, but the Port of Montreal offered me an opportunity to expand my horizons. It provided a more diverse work environment, the opportunity to get involved in several areas and to work in concert with colleagues. I really enjoyed the interrelationships at the Port. Every day I learned from people willing to share their knowledge. For example, I didn’t know anything about railways; I learned.

It was quite a change!

Yes. I had to approach things differently. When I sailed, I thought of the docks as huge concrete berths that could damage my poor frail light vessel. Once ashore, it was the opposite: I saw large vessels that could damage my poor fragile berths!

When I sailed, I only saw the booms from which grain was loaded into my ship’s hold. On land, I was able to discover the inner workings of the grain elevator. That meant I could see operations from both sides.

What is your legacy at the Port of Montreal?

I hope I managed to establish a culture of change. Change is essential. The ability to adapt to a changing environment is the most important thing, both for a person and for an organization. I hope I have passed on this appetite for change.

Could you recommend a naval career to young people?

I encourage everyone to become a mariner! You have a great occupation. Even if life takes you elsewhere, you can always go back to it. You’re never badly off.