• Windword Press

Aboard an icebreaker

The Canadian Coast Guard Ship Samuel Risley proudly occupies the shoreline of Parry Sound at certain times of the year when she is home at her base.

In the depths of November, ice is forming on Georgian Bay and the steam from the open water curls in tendrils up to the cool distant sky.

The Risley is not always at base. She often can be found anywhere away from her base, patrolling on the upper Great Lakes, rescuing stranded ships, tending buoys, and maintaining an ice-free passage where needed. In need, she can even be called further abroad as a Canadian Coast Guard vessel.

The massive ship carries a crew who call the icebreaker home for a month at a time, patrolling the shores and waters of the upper Great Lakes and beyond.

Almost 230 feet long, the Risley is a mesmerizing collection of engineering and manpower, with a well ordered crew running the icebreaker from top to bottom.

Early in the morning, before daylight has made its way above the horizon, the ship sits on the dark waters as the fog of freezing air drifts dreamily around her.

From the shore her steady hum clearly states that she is awake and ready for any adventure which may be presented.

Her lights are low, so that the key signal lights can be clearly seen by any other vessels which may be out on the open water.

Small craft carry people back and forth from shore to vessel.

The crew members are all well trained and post-secondary training is part of the ladder to the higher ranks of an icebreaker crew.

From the captain, to the hands on deck, and down to the kitchen staff who ensure much needed meals are ready for hungry crew members, the ship runs like clockwork.

Those who have been living this life for a long period of time begin to bear the mark of spending a significant portion of their life between sky and water.

Their eyes take on a seemingly permanent expression of gazing across vast waters to a distant horizon, while their hair is usually bleached with the steady exposure to sun and wind. Their skin is tanned and polished into the rose bronze delivered by long periods of time in cold air on bright northern days, as the icebreaker pushes across any of the Great Lakes.

The ship is mainly metal, and once stepping on board, a passenger can not only hear the ship's engines more clearly, they can also feel the engines.

The ship vibrates with a contained power, carefully controlled by the captain who views everything from the bridge and a series of carefully positioned cameras.

Down below, in the engine area of the ship, the noise is so deafening that hearing protection is advised. The sound is so strong that the very fibre of your being begins to alter as it considers the deep calling to become one with the ship. For those who are not accustomed to it, it's hard to take.

Up on the bridge, which is as far away from the engines as it is possible to get on the ship, it is another world. Mahogany trims the entire deck. Vast windows surround the bridge on every side, providing a bird's eye view of the seascape in almost every direction.

Instrumentation panels conveying everything from weather to lake depth run along the middle and around the sides of the entire bridge, providing all the information that can possibly be measured and reported. At all times the lights are kept low, and the horizontal position of the information screens helps to minimize visual distractions so that the main focus is the ever important lake around the ship and the activities on the foredeck below.

With a large crane as part of the ship's equipment, operations and orders have to be controlled down to the millilitre.

Orders are issued calmly and bridge crew members pass the orders along with the same cool delivery until the person the order is directed repeats the order and responds affirmatively, “Aye, aye, Cap.” The order has been received and carried out.

Life on board an icebreaker is a life of order, and intense focus.

It's a life of adventure, careful coordination, quick responses, and deep satisfaction.

At the end of the day, the ship may return to its base once more, gliding through the dark waters again, even more black than they were when the ship left that morning.

The lights from the buildings on shore make it appear as a fairyland. It is surreal to return to land, even after a day on water.

The time has come to return to terra firma, and to bid all a good night and safe adventures in the season ahead.

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