CaPT. jean-luc bédard

Port of Montréal Harbour Master Retires

Capt. Jean-Luc Bédard, 57, retired as vice-president and harbour master of the Port of Montreal on January 24, 2014, following a 41-year career in the maritime industry. After navigating the Great Lakes, the Arctic, coastal waters and the high seas, Capt. Bédard joined the Port of Montreal as harbour master in August 1990, and was promoted to vice-president of operations and harbour master in June 2002. PortInfo sat down with Capt. Bédard prior to his retirement to discuss the issues he and the port have faced over the past 23 years and the challenges and opportunities that lie ahead.  

What was your first big challenge as harbour master?

Captain Jean-Luc Bédard

The president of one of the port’s major container shipping lines came to see us to discuss issues related to the navigational depth of the St. Lawrence River channel. 

We worked with the Canadian Coast Guard and the pilots in 1991-92 on a maintenance dredging project that involved cleaning high spots along the bed of the channel. This increased the recognized minimal water depth between Montreal and Quebec to 11 metres (36 feet) from 10.7 metres (35 feet). (It was the first project since 1952 to increase water depth in the channel.)

We also worked with the Coast Guard on new standards for underkeel clearances (the distance between a ship’s keel and the river bottom). Reducing the standards provided between six and nine inches of extra navigable water depth for the larger vessels sailing to Montreal.

The maintenance dredging project combined with the reduced underkeel clearance standards allowed the biggest of vessels calling the port to load more cargo in all conditions.

But efforts to increase water depth did not end with the maintenance dredging project?

That is correct. In 1999, we led a project to increase the minimal depth of navigable waters in the shipping channel to Montreal by an additional 30 centimetres (one foot), to 11.3 metres (37 feet).

The project involved the selective dredging of shoals in well-defined sectors of the navigation channel between Montreal and Cap à la Roche, located downstream from Trois-Rivières. The desired depth already existed over 98 per cent of the surface area of the channel bed. The project, therefore, was confined to shaving shoals up to 30 centimetres thick in the well-defined sectors.

Increasing the minimal depth once again helped further optimize the loading of deep-draft vessels sailing to Montreal.

What was your most trying time at the port?

In February 1993, shipping to and from Montreal was exceptionally interrupted on and off because of a series of ice jams that formed in the Lake St. Pierre area, about 100 kilometres (60 miles) downstream from Montreal. To have the port virtually close for a month was hell. I worked seven days a week, 16 hours a day, during that period.

We needed to find a way to prevent these ice jams from occurring again. We consulted with pilotage and environmental authorities, shipping lines and other representatives of the maritime industry and worked with the Canadian Coast Guard, which adopted an action plan that November to improve winter navigation on the St. Lawrence. This action plan has helped ensure efficient winter navigation to and from Montreal.

How were you able to bring about these significant changes in such a relatively short period of time?

The maintenance dredging project, the selective dredging of shoals and the action plan to improve winter navigation made everyone realize that changes were indeed possible and could occur. We were able to make all of these changes because we worked as a team to resolve these issues.

But if you want to initiate change, you have to be ahead of everyone else. You not only have to have the “savoir-faire,” or the know-how or knowledge, but you also have to have the “savoir-être,” or the interpersonal or behavioural skills to rise to the challenges. As a captain, I had the know-how, but I needed the skills to deal with different people to get results – to get their buy-in.

Working in a multidisciplinary milieu on land is very different than working at sea. You can’t be the captain for everyone. You have to learn to work with people with different expertise.

What I appreciated at the Port of Montreal was that I had the opportunity to work with knowledgeable people who had expertise in specific fields, from shipping line representatives, to hydrologists, to communications specialists who would help get the right message out to clients and the public. Everybody here was very generous with their time and knowledge. I never stopped learning.

I worked with an excellent team. I had good colleagues and a strong relationship with clients.

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 Federal Spey and
winner of the 2014 Gold-Headed-Cane.


How have port operations changed throughout the years?

The Operations Department was given more and more responsibility throughout the years. Today, it deals with 54 different types of stakeholders: shipping lines, terminal operators, longshoremen, pilots, tugs, icebreakers, customs, police, firefighters, construction companies, and so on.

Starting in 1993, we built our control centre, which we started from nothing. We also took a new approach to security.

I was given responsibility for railway operations in 1997. It was a different operational mode for me, and that was very exciting. We then started to create performance measurement standards for the railway. That’s normal now, but we were a forerunner back then, in 1998-99. A rule of thumb is that you should be able to improve what you can measure. We had some changes to make regarding better timing and cargo velocity, and we did it.

In 2002, I was given the grain elevator and our technical services department (engineering and maintenance). It was a huge infrastructure to manage, and I needed to look at things in a different way. When I sailed, I viewed infrastructure as huge concrete berths that could damage my poor, fragile, little ship. On land, it was the opposite: I saw big ships that could damage my poor, fragile, little berths!

When I sailed, I saw only the booms that loaded grain into the holds of my ship. On land, I got to see the inner workings of the grain elevator. So I was fortunate in that I got to see both sides of the supply chain.

What are the operational challenges that lie ahead?

There are many challenges to face as a port and as an industry – too many to name. But the refreshing part is that we are given the means to solve them, and we have a coordinated approach to their resolution.

What advice do you have for your industry colleagues?

Listen to what your employees have to say. Sometimes they are wrong, and sometimes they are right. You cannot have good results if you do not like your employees. You have to show respect and show interest. Give them reasons to be proud and you will get better results.

You have to have a passion for what you do. You have to put your whole self into it. You have one life to live, and you spend about one-third of it working, so you better enjoy what you do. I had the chance to do that, and on top of that I met great people. I had fun. I had the opportunity to learn; I’m still learning after 23 years. I put a lot of energy into it. But it’s easier when you work for an organization that has a fundamentally good product that you believe in.

Montreal Port Authority President and CEO Sylvie Vachon would like to take this opportunity to thank Capt. Bédard for his boundless dedication to the Port of Montreal over the past 23 years. The entire Port of Montreal team wishes him a long, happy and healthy retirement.