Down to the sea in ships

“People don’t have any understanding of the complexity of the operation”



It’s 6:30 on a picture-book perfect July morning, and Iqaluit’s sealift beach resembles the early, chaotic stages of a construction site.

Four giant yellow loaders rev impatiently as they wait their turn to plunge into the shallows of Frobisher Bay, retrieving loads of cement and lumber from one of three barges ferrying cargo from the Anna Desgagnés, anchored offshore in waters 27 metres deep.

The tide is coming in, and the men and their machines have just two hours this morning to get as much cargo as possible off the Anna Desgagnés and onto trucks waiting up the beach.

As each barge approaches the shore, pulled by a tug, a loader heads into the water, picks up a skid of two-by-fours and a huge sack of cement, and lurches onto dry land. Later in the day, another window opens up, and the crew will have a couple of hours to finish unloading the last of the cargo from the ship’s first sailing of the season.

From the beach, the Anna Desgagnés looks like a toy ship that could float in a bathtub. Board the ship, and you enter a floating city with enough storage space to re-supply Iqaluit and several other Arctic communities, park 70 cars and sleep dozens of people, each in his or her own private quarters. The ship’s power plant generates enough electricity for a town of 500.

The largest vessel in the Transport Desgagnés Inc. fleet, the Anna is massively self-sufficient. As it travels up from Montreal and throughout the Arctic, it carries its own heavy equipment — loaders, forklifts, barges and tugs. If anything breaks down, there’s a machine shop where replacement parts can be made from scratch.

Two visitors toured the Anna last week on the last day of her stop at Iqaluit. The tour guide, fittingly, was a larger-than-life guy named Waguih Rayes, general manager of Desgagnés Transarctik Inc., the sealift partnership of Transport Desgagnés and Arctic Cooperatives.

Rayes, who originally hails from Egypt, wears his trademark cowboy hat festooned with a gaudy hatband. He smokes small, French cigars, and is preternaturally cheerful even early in the day when most people are still asleep.

There’s not much that Rayes doesn’t know about the Anna, or, for that matter, about Arctic shipping. Beginning in 1986, he spent about 10 years working for the the Nunavik government. Much of his job involved negotiating with shippers. After a few years on his own as a consultant, he went to work for Desgagnés Transarctik.

The Anna was built in the former East Germany for the Russian navy at about the same time that Rayes went to work in Nunavik. It was purchased and refitted by Transport Desgagnés in 1998. “Do you see those two cranes?” he said. “Those were built to hold gun turrets.”

There’s a special hold made of extra-thick plate steel, which the Russians used to store mortar shells and ammunitions. “It can contain an explosion,” Rayes explains. That’s handy, because the Anna is hauling dynamite for a mine site.

A huge ramp that the Russians used for tanks and troop carriers in amphibious landings comes in handy when the Anna unloads cargo at communities that do not have port facilities.

Rayes’s running commentary about the Anna, its dimensions and unique features has a Ripley’s Believe It Or Not quality — the ship has a cargo capacity of 25,000 cubic metres; its operating expense when it’s under steam is about $45,000 a day; its navigation crew numbers 23 and its operating crew 15 or 16; and its daily fuel consumption is 29 tonnes.

Usually, the Anna burns only petrodiesel. But on this trip, one of the generators is burning a mixture of petrodiesel and biodiesel, or as the ship’s chief engineer explains helpfully, “stuff squeezed out of pig fat” at a processing plant in Quebec.

It’s an experimental project, with Environment Canada monitoring emissions from the 80-20 diesel-pig fat mixture.

But there’s a problem — researchers could only locate about 29,000 litres of pig fat for this trip, which will last for about two weeks. The Anna will run out of biodiesel long before it returns to Montreal.

Meanwhile, the search is on for more animal fat for subsequent trips.

Aside from its other unique features, the Anna also boasts its own swimming pool, which, as Rayes explains, is used for an Arctic initiation ritual.

On the ship’s first trip north every year, the pool is filled with water, to which large chunks of sea ice are added. Then, with everyone else jeering and cheering, new crew members are required to strip down and take a dip in the ice water.

Throughout the ship, instrument panels still have the original Russian labels and instructions alongside more recent ones in English. That’s because, come winter, the Anna is leased out for international charters with a Ukrainian crew.

“People don’t have any understanding of the complexity of the operation,” Raye said. That’s especially true when it comes to the ownership and management of the fleet.

The shipping line was started by the Desgagnés family in the 1950s, but by the 1980s, the company’s accountant had purchased the entire operation. Still, Desgagnés descendents are everywhere in the company. The captain, for instance, is Jerome Desgagnés. The ship’s beach master is a cousin, Jean-Noel Desgagnés.

Like the members of the founding family, Rayes cannot imagine a life that does not involve ships. “I’ve taken care of sealifts since 1986, first as a client, and now as a supplier. It’s more than a job. It’s in my blood.”

Seafaring may not be the only thing in his blood. Rayes has applied a thick layer of mosquito repellent to his face and hands to try to discourage insects that swarm and annoy even hundreds of yards offshore.

The potent chemical has found its way onto his small cigar, and Rayes tosses it away in disgust. “That mosquito spray, it tastes terrible,” he said. “Do you know, it can melt plastic. Can you imagine what it does to your insides?”

Such are the hazards of the seafaring life, so far from Montreal and so close to the Arctic’s abundant supply of biting insects.

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