on board the oocl montreal

October 13,2013, 7:00a.m. We are ready to
board the OOCL Montreal. Pilot Eric Bergeron
will be our teacher/guide for the trip.

October 3, 2013. We board the OOCL Montreal with Corporation of Mid St. Lawrence pilots to see them in action on our way to Trois-Rivières.

It’s a beautiful morning, signalling a calm, pleasant trip ahead. Upon entering the wheelhouse, marine pilot Georges Guay of the Corporation of Mid St. Lawrence Pilots (CPSLC), holder of a Class A licence and with close to 20 years of experience, shakes hands with Captain Pritchard, British master of the OOCL Montréal, who will hand over conduct of his vessel to him, which is no small thing for a ship’s master!  Georges Guay and his colleague Nicolas Dumberry have a mission to safely conduct the huge container ship owned by Chinese marine carrier OOCL to Trois-Rivières, 65 nautical miles and about 5 hours away in good weather.

8:30 a.m.:  The pilot takes note of the vessel’s pedigree: 294 metres long by 32 metres wide, 4,400 TEU (twenty-foot equivalent unit) capacity and a 10-metre draft. He finds out about the engine power, the type of propeller and the air draft; all the elements he needs to decide manoeuvres. The OOCL Montreal will depart from Wharf 78 at the Cast Terminal of Montreal Gateway Terminals (MGT) at 9:18 a.m. Destination: the Port of Antwerp, Belgium.  Georges Guay and Nicolas Dumberry will guide it to the bridge at Trois-Rivières; from there, two other pilots will take over as far as Quebec City, where pilots with expertise in the Quebec-Les Escoumins sector will take the last leg.

St. Lawrence pilot Georges Guay, will guide OOCL Montréal to Trois-Rivières. 

For pilot Georges Guay, today started before the sun rose. “The Montreal assignment centre calls us four hours before the ship sails,” explains his colleague Éric Bergeron, a pilot who generously agreed to be our teacher/guide throughout the journey. It works like this: the Laurentian Pilotage Authority (LPA) receives requests from shipowners (marine carriers) and then assigns the navigation professionals to the vessels. The LPA is a Crown corporation whose mission is to operate, maintain and manage an efficient pilotage service.

 As soon as pilots learn where they have been assigned, they get to work checking out the weather conditions, water levels and more. They try to anticipate as much as they possibly can how the trip will go before they even board the vessel.

Anchors aweigh!

We most head through port waters to Viterra Grain Terminal, where the ship can be rotated
and set on course for Trois-Rivières and ultimately, the Port of Antwerp in Belgium.

We’re ready to cast off. The tug has just moored at the side of the giant ship; moving a 60,000-tonne vessel away from a wharf and making it turn 180 degrees is not like backing out of a garage! “The current is dropping, but in front of Cast Terminal, the layout of the wharfs creates a local current that rises. You won’t find this on nautical charts. You have to know the river,” explains Éric Bergeron. No wonder people call St. Lawrence pilots talking nautical charts!

The pilot is in constant communication with the tug, wich is helping the container ship
manoeuver away from the dock and make a 180-degree turn.


The ship is too long to be pivotable here; we must head through port waters to Viterra Grain Terminal, where the channel widens. “Also, the current here works in our favour. It helps the ship turn,” adds Éric. Pilot Georges Guay continuously transmits data and directives to the master of the tug and to the ship’s captain and the helmsman, who is at the helm.

The ship will pivot around itself, its bow slowing heading toward the south shore, and right before our eyes it’s as if the city is unfolding after a good night’s sleep. Éric Bergeron points to the west. “In our field of view, when the biosphere touches the grain elevators, this means that the stern of the ship is safe from the downstream current.” Pilots develop their own individual methods, personal markers as well as the landmarks, or reference points, that appear on maps, such as the cross on Mount Royal, the Olympic Stadium or the bell tower of Saint-Antoine-de-Padoue Cathedral in Longueuil. Navigation is much easier in the daytime thanks to visual landmarks.

Standing side by side, the pilot and I scrutinize the landscape. Where I see a river, he sees a channel;
where I see a bell tower, he sees a landmark; when I fell a breeze on my cheek, he measures
the wind velocity.

“Our work is all about foresight. We have to keep in mind that maybe the engine won’t start in reverse, that maybe the navigation instruments will go on the blink,” explains our guide. That’s why every mariner must know how to use alternative resources such as an old-fashioned magnetic compass and visual landmarks, which never falter.


At last, the ship heads east, joining the downward current. And we’re off!

Along the way we meet the Oceanex Avalon, a regular at the Port of
Montreal that provides a regular service between Newfoundland
and the mainland.

Soon we reach Sainte-Thérèse Island, across from Varennes. We must stay right in the middle of the channel, because the passage is narrow between two walls of rocks. Here, for vessels longer than 270 metres, two ships are not allowed through at the same time.

Sherpas of the river

On the way to Trois-Rivières, the course is winding and the ship will have to make several changes of direction, all calculated and commanded by the pilot, whose attention does not waver for even a second. The captain stays in the wheelhouse, but he has turned over conduct of his ship to the St. Lawrence pilots. They alone have an intimate knowledge of this sector of the river, which they have studied in meticulous detail, and seen over and over in all seasons and every imaginable weather condition. They know by heart all the shoals, the tiniest island, the wind corridors, the banks, and all the steeples of shoreline villages, right down to the degree of the angle of the river’s curves.

Pilots must know how to draw a nautical chart
down to the last detail, starting from a blank
piece of paper.

“After I finished my training, at the final exams, one of the things we had to do was draw part of the nautical chart between Montreal and Trois-Rivières from scratch, on a blank piece of paper,” says Éric Bergeron. Pilots are the Sherpas of the river.

Marine pilots are officers of the merchant marine. “Two years of specialized training and 280 familiarization trips on our segment of the river enable us to develop a sixth sense, to feel the movements of the vessel,” says Éric Bergeron. Technology has made its way to the navigation bridge. Of course pilots use radar and electronic navigation instruments, but their main tool is their visual acuity, together with their experience and judgement.

Captain Pritchard, master
of the OOCL Montréal

Like Sherpas on their mountain, the pilots love and respect their river. “To do this job, you have to be passionate, cautious, have foresight and be respectful of the river. We could never tame it or dominate it. You have to keep in mind that it might surprise us. Marine transportation is always an adventure,” says Georges Guay.

Pilots are required to work in teams of two throughout the winter, as well as aboard merchant ships over 240 metres long, passenger ships more than 100 metres long, tankers over 4,000 deadweight tonnes (the weight of a fully loaded ship) and bulk carriers over 64,000 tonnes. Electronic navigation has made it possible to navigate at night in the winter without reducing navigational safety, despite the requirement to remove light buoys because of ice.

Pilots must expect the unexpected.

Caught off guard

Suddenly, at the mouth of Lake Saint-Pierre, an alarm bell rings. The pilots raise their heads. They check it out. There is a problem with the engine; its system is down for an unexplained reason. Already, Georges Guy is coming up with a game plan: if the engines have to be shut down, the very heavy ship could continue for quite some time on its own momentum. Long enough to get to the Port of Trois-Rivières? And if it stops before that? It could start drifting… Would it be better not to take that chance and head straight for the emergency anchorage at Yamachiche, close by? The pilot must make a decision.

We wish the crew a great trip. They have a long way to go.

But now the engine restarts. Whew! We are left with a little adrenaline rush. The trip ends smoothly. Before reaching Laviolette Bridge in Trois-Rivières, Ocean Group’s pilot boat Jean H approaches; it’s our taxi. It is bringing the two pilots who specialize in the Trois-Rivières-Quebec City section, here to relieve the pilots who left from Montreal; these two will be brought back to shore.

In the belly of the container ship, a small elevator brings us nine decks down, to water level. A door opens and the Jean H. is there to pick us up. The crew waves us goodbye and we reply.

Have a great trip!

Shortly before the bridge at Trois-Rivières, we leave the OOCL Montreal. Two other pilots will
guide it to Quebec City, where two other pilots will take the last leg to Les Escoumins.