A Sailors Life On the Lakes


In the early 20th century sailing vessels used docks at the east end of Toronto Harbour while steamships commanded the more centrally located western docks. To the south a two masted schooner; alongside two small sailing barges for local traffic and to the right a Lakes schooner. Source: MMGLK – Snider Collection

Sir John A. Macdonald, Canada’s first Prime Minister described himself as the worker’ friend. To retain power he had to exercise a high degree of skill to keep the support of both the business community and labour. The National Policy that featured protective tariffs to encourage manufacturing was introduced in 1878 just as Canada and much of the world was coming out of a depression but it was obvious that provinces, Quebec and Ontario were enjoying the benefits. By the coming 1887 election the Conservative party knew it was barely hanging on to power and that concessions had to be made to labour to retain their support. Thus was created in 1886 the “Royal Commission on the Relations of Capital and Labour”. Many Kingston, Ontario residents gave testimony – Captain Thomas Donnelly, engineers Gilbert Johnston and Robert Marshall; sailors James Fleming and Willard Stephens; a carpenter, Joseph Thorn and shipwright, Isaac Oliver.

In the 1880s sailors were employed by the day. When they reached a port they were paid off. Kingstonion, Captain Thomas Donnelly claims this was caused by the emerging union movement. The sailors were there to sail the ship while stevedores did the loading and unloading. Donnelly, paternalistic when it suited him was critical of a system that permitted the men to go ashore to saloons and spend their money. The chief characteristic of the Kingston waterfront at the time was a mix of industrial concerns and bars while not to far away there were ‘houses of entertainment’, all operated as enterprising businesses.

Sailors on the Lakes did not have Articles of Agreement as sailors did at sea. The informality of the Lake system created problems for Captains; Donnelly, “I think the men should be shipped and paid off at a shipping office as is done at Atlantic ports. It would be better for the men and better for the vessel owners, and better for the Captains, and would cause less trouble. There would be no such thing as beating men out of their wages” and in a grudging admission, “may possibly be done”. The shipping office system was intended to work in concert with federal and provincial shipping legislation that gave some protection to the sailors – but not on the Lakes.

Forty years earlier the Canadian Lake ship owners had attempted to impose draconian rules. “That no sailor shall be entitled to receive his wages whilst his vessel is trading in a foreign port (United States). That ¼ of his wages becoming due shall remain in the hands of the Master or his employer until he has fulfilled the terms of his agreement, and such be forfeited if he leaves without sufficient cause before such terms is expired, except by giving notice fourteen days previously of his intention to do so or unless with the consent of the Master on board, or at the expiration of his agreement”. Many sailors were barely literate so it did not make sense to obey rules interpreted to them by the Captains who were quick to take advantage of their vulnerable position. Control of sailors on the Lakes only worked when times were tough – during the Depression years of the 1930s, for example.

The captains made the point that once, “outside”, away from a port they are dependent on the sailors. “Half an hour after you have gone out of port, you might require the best work out of your men; of the men perhaps perhaps there are only four in all, and if one of two turn out to be inferior hands there is great danger both for themselves and the vessel and of course these men cannot be replaced” Donnelly goes on to describe the ideal. “We have a class of small vessels on the north shore of the Bay of Quinte that pick up their crews in the neighborhood, and the men stay with the captain all year, and they give better satisfaction then do the men they can pick up at the largest ports” and the essence of the matter, “and fewer expenses are incurred”.

Owners left little margin for safety in meeting unexpected weather conditions when loading their sailing ships. For many owners each passage was a calculated gamble based on escaping gale force winds and high seas. Overloading made ships top-heavy and more prone to working in a seaway as hundreds of joints and fastening held together with spikes and bolts started to move wood planking, opening up seams to let in more water. Manning pumps was backbreaking work and in addition, timber piled high on the deck made the vessels top-heavy. Moving around the deck to handle lines was difficult. Grain cargoes were – slippery. A gust of wind, the schooner heels and the cargo shifts to the leeward side of the cargo hold, or at best piles up on the shifting boards. Permanently heeled the vessel is difficult to handle and if the weight of tons of water are added on deck a ship can easily go down – as many did.

Naturally the owners and captains denied overloading their ships. Captain Parsons told the Commission, “on the American side I have seen many a one that I considered over-loaded; not on this side” No doubt said in mock humility. Sailors everywhere had few rights until after World War Two. Today on the Lakes they are among the best paid workers with good benefits but the lure of shore and steady relationships is important to a new generation of sailors. Shipping companies are making adjustments to their schedules to attract crew and some are willing to accept less money for a month on, month off schedule.

The Marine Museum of the Great Lakes has extensive artefact, bibliographic and archival collections. Go to http://www.marmuseum.ca and follow the Research links.

About curiouslakescurator

Sailed professionally for thirteen years then went ashore to become a marine museum curator.
This entry was posted in A Sailors Life, Sailing and Watercraft. Bookmark the permalink.

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