GUEST COLUMN: Times change but freighters remain an alluring mystery

The freighter H. Lee White passed beneath the Blue Water Bridge. Glenn Ogilvie file photo

Nadine Wark

As a young girl growing up in Corunna, freighters passing by on the St. Clair River were a familiar sight.

If I wasn’t hearing them, I was seeing them between the trees, or getting closer to them at the ferry dock. Back in the day, these mammoth ships would pass between the Corunna dock and Stag Island, unlike today, when they use the west channel between the island and the U.S.

This is due to the erosion that’s occurred over the decades, affecting the Canadian shoreline, docks and the island itself. Of course, the River Road from Corunna to Sarnia provided even more opportunities to view freighters and other watercraft.

Many times, my friends and I would be startled by a passing freighter’s loud horn, and awed by its size. They captured our imagination. We thought about where they might be going, and sometimes we’d catch a glimpse of the crewmembers or a captain, and ponder how every day was an adventure, guiding these large ships up and down the Great Lakes.

We also hoped to draw a horn blast, delivered just for us. Our small village of Corunna was a great place to grow up.

Today, I have come full circle and view the river traffic at Sarnia Bay or near the Blue Water Bridge. Freighter watching is a pleasant pastime for many, who find a bench, sit down with their ‘world-famous’ fries, and enjoy the scenery.

Sometimes, they suddenly appear out of nowhere. And viewing a freighter as it emerges from the mist and fog is a surreal experience, and many local photographers try to capture these ghostly apparitions as they rumble ever closer.

Centennial Park is home to an informative plaque, part of which explains the language of freighters. When passing each other, one long blast indicates to starboard (right), and two long means to port (left). One long and one short signals “Understood.” Five short, quick blasts means “Danger” while three short means “Backing up.”

Watching a freighter back up is fascinating. The maneuver, done in a swift and narrow river, gives me new respect for the captains, who commands various crews of deckhands and mates, maintains direct communication with land operations, and sometimes assist with unloading the cargo.

I have never tired of freighters, and continue to watch and photograph them as they appear on our beautiful St. Clair River and Lake Huron.

Nadine Wark is a retired office administrator and freelance writer who lives in Sarnia