refurbished ships

Several ships that wintered in the Port of Montreal were refurbished this spring and are sailing once again.

The Camilla Desgagnés spent the winter at Bickerdike Basin in the Port of Montreal. It sailed
again at the end of June.

The sun was shining off of the Camilla Desgagnés at the beginning of June. The ship’s name was painted in bright white letters on its blue hull and its decks were well scrubbed. It was indeed obvious that the Camilla Desgagnés seafarers took great pride in their work. They had arrived in April to refurbish the ship, which had been docked at the port’s M section since last November. They spruced up the ship over a period of several weeks in order to get it ready to sail once again. The Camilla Desgagnés was one of 23 ships that spent the winter of 2012-13 docked in the Port of Montreal.

Why do some ships winter in the port when the St. Lawrence River navigation channel has been open to traffic year-round since 1964? The ships that winter here are those that provide a seasonal service or sail on routes that are inaccessible in winter. The Camilla Desgagnés and the Anna Desgagnés, for example, serve ports in Quebec’s Far North, where water ices up for many months.

Lakers that are specially designed to sail through the locks of the St. Lawrence Seaway, starting upstream from Montreal at St. Lambert and into the Great Lakes, take a breather for three months when that waterway closes for the winter. These ships are registered to sail only in inland waters. But the oil and asphalt tanker Thalassa Desgagnés, for example, is registered for ocean-going travel and worked in the Caribbean this past winter.

Fall arrival

“Once we find a home port, we dock the vessel and leave it there for the winter,” says François Lavoie, the superintendent responsible for the Camilla, Anna and Thalassa Desgagnés. The ship’s electrical system is switched off and is connected to the port’s electrical system. A generator is kept close by in case of a power failure. Exits are closed, hatches are hermetically sealed and smokestacks are covered. The fire line – the piping that provides water in case of fire – is drained. Ballast tanks, reservoirs and cold storage rooms are emptied. The hull bottoms are cleaned out.

Ships are refurbished during the off-season.

Other than electricity, the port offers its winter tenants services for drinking water and garbage collection. The ships are assigned berths according to the work that will be carried out. “For example, ships on which steelwork will be done, and which can be noisy, are docked far away from residents,” said Anne-Marie Fortin, a co-ordinator with the Port of Montreal control centre. The port tries to group together ships that belong to the same company in order to facilitate worker visits.

Winter conditions

The port’s fire prevention inspectors visit wintering ships as the vessels must respect certain security regulations. For example, they must have civil liability insurance and use mooring lines that are made of nylon or another material that is easy to cut in case of emergency.


A ship cannot be left unmanned: a shipkeeper must stay on board. But who wants to spend a long winter, from November to April, on a stationary vessel parked in the ice?


Michel André et Esther Duchesne found and adopted a cat that
spent the winter with them aboard the Camilla Desgagnés.

“I do!” says Michel André. “Me, too!” adds his partner Esther Duchesne. They packed their bags and left their house in La Baie, in the Saguenay, to stay aboard the Camilla Desgagnés. Seated in big leather chairs, they sip their coffee while watching a documentary on a giant television screen in the crew lounge. It’s snowing outside but comfortable inside. Michel retired in 2008, at the age of 65, following a long career as a marine engineer. The job took him to South America, Europe and every location in Canada where vessels are able to sail. A third-generation seafarer, he has saltwater in his veins. His grandfather arrived in La Baie on a vessel that had sailed from Britain.

Now that he is retired, Michel works as a shipkeeper during the winter. He makes his rounds twice a day to ensure that everything aboard the ship is working properly, including the ventilation and heating systems. “I spent all of my life aboard a ship. I feel more at home here than I do at the house,” he says while smiling. Esther, a nursing assistant, retired last year and is now joining Michel as a shipkeeper.

Michel André makes his rounds twice a day. Ship superintendent François
Lavoie also visited the vessel.

“We have similar tastes,” she says. “We don’t mind being alone and we enjoy television documentaries, reading and games.” The couple is well equipped. They have games, puzzles, huge stacks of books and giant balls of wool so that Esther can knit. They use the ship’s kitchen and gym. Esther brings her own pots. “Imagine making soup for two in this,” she says, her arms wrapped around one of the ship’s hug cauldrons. 

They stay in most of the time because they do not like leaving the ship on its own. A quick stop at the grocery store or the pharmacy and they are back in their floating home. They even celebrated Christmas aboard the ship. And while they do not go out often, they have family and friends over. “We are waiting for our son and his wife to arrive with our very first grandchild who we will be seeing for the first time,” they said. There is certainly no shortage of room for their visit!