Freighters, anglers clash in narrow channel

The H. Lee White makes it’s way northbound on the St. Clair River amid a flotilla of small boats and seadoos in this file photo from August of 2016. Glenn Ogilvie

Cathy Dobson

A great fishing season may be contributing to a rise in ‘river rage’ incidents near the Blue Water Bridge, a veteran angler says.

“Fishing is incredible this year and there are many more boats on the river.  It’s probably bringing a lot of people here that are not familiar with how to behave,” said Brad Armstrong, a Bluewater Angler member who has fished the St. Clair River for decades.

“It’s disappointing to hear there are some bad apples.”

The pilots who maneuver huge freighters through the river straights between Sarnia and Port Huron say they’re seeing more risky behaviour from small vessels venturing too close and moving too slowly out of the way.

On July 2, two southbound freighters encountered a 16-foot aluminum fishing boat just north of the international span.

The small vessel was steering toward the first freighter and refused to make way.  The freighter captain signalled danger with five short horn blasts, but the fisherman didn’t move, said Capt. George Haynes, a registered pilot and vice-president of the Lakes Pilot Association based in Port Huron.

“There’s 3.5 knots of current in that area and the channel is only 600 feet wide with several turns,” Haynes said.  Some ships are as long as three football fields and can’t change direction once committed.

“The first freighter had to begin turning early and the smaller boat was only 15 feet off the ship as they passed,” said Haynes.  The captain reported the boater looked up at him and defiantly yelled, “You get out of my channel.”

Forty minutes later, the same small boater repeated the behaviour with a second freighter. Again the big ship had to turn early, pushing it closer to shallow waters.

“It puts the ship in jeopardy of getting out of control and there’s potential for a collision,” said Haynes. “That fisherman’s behaviour was very dangerous.”

Small boats run the risk of being struck or sucked into the ship’s massive propeller. Haynes said he’s hearing numerous stories from other pilots about small vessels that aren’t staying clear.

Some frightened boaters have even jumped overboard into the water, which is the worst thing they can do, Haynes said.

“It’s very important that boaters stay onboard, or hang on to their boat if it overturns, in order to avoid being sucked in,” he said.

“There are so many fishermen and pleasure boaters in that area between Port Huron and Sarnia. Most everyone has the common sense to get out of the way.

“I’ve never had someone intentionally get in the way.  That’s a new one.”

Many captains are fishermen themselves and respect the fact the waterways are for everyone, he said.

“But we want them to realize that’s one of the trickiest spots in the region to navigate.”

By the time the U.S. Coast Guard arrived on July 2 the fishing boat had left. The Lakes Pilots Association offered $200 for information leading to the man’s identity.

Last week, the fisherman voluntarily came forward and is subject to an investigation that could result in a fine up to $3,000.

Haynes said one positive was a meeting organized involving pilots, sport anglers, Canadian and U.S. Coast Guard, the OPP and Port Huron Sheriff’s office.

One suggestion was to make the popular fishing spot north of the bridge a safety zone with heavy enforcement. Police said it was a good idea but impractical,” said Haynes. “They don’t have the assets.”

“So education is the way to go.  We don’t want anyone hurt in one of the busiest areas of the Great Lakes system.”

Armstrong agrees.

“It’s a standard rule that the ship gets the right-of-way,” he said. “I believe there are people who are coming to the area for the first time and they need to learn the laws.

“I’d say they are pushing their luck.”