By William Hryb

If there ever was a shipping season that cast a net of optimism, it is this one. A palpable enthusiasm not seen for many years has bolstered port spirits, providing those who make a living on Thunder Bay’s waterfront with a refreshing boost. Anticipating a relatively early start to the shipping season, the government icebreaker Samuel Risley arrived in mid-March encountering 24 to 32 inches of ice in the inner harbour. When the Sault Ste. Marie locks opened for traffic on March 25, the race to be the first ship to Thunder Bay was on. Three ships were in the race – the MV John B. Aird and hot on her stern were the MV Algoma Montrealis and MV Ojibway.

The MV John B. Aird arrived first at the Viterra ‘B’ elevator at 11:26 a.m. on March 26 to officially open the port for business. Veteran Master Capt. Doug Parsons said, “The first voyage of the season was a little slow … but that is to be expected at this time of year.” At a welcoming ceremony, Capt. Parsons was presented with the traditional Top Hat by Fred Stille, Chairman of Thunder Bay Port Authority. The hat is made from beaver fur, symbolizing the fur-trade that flourished in the region two hundred years ago. “I was a little surprised … I was just about here before I found out we were going to be the first ship. It’s a sign of spring and getting things moving for another year, so it’s kind of exciting,” Capt. Parsons said.

This year will be first full season without the Canadian Wheat Board’s monopoly after the conservative government dissolved the almost eighty year-old agency last August. Port officials are looking at the repercussions as favourable. “It’s a big change for the port this year. We always look forward to the first ship, but this time, with the change in the Wheat Board and the new ships that are coming out this year, it’s more exciting than usual,” Tim Heney, CEO of Thunder Bay Port Authority said.

On the international side, the Port honoured Capt. Stanislaw Sobol of the Cyprus-registered MV Isadora at the sequel Top Hat ceremony hosted by the Port Authority on April 3. The occasion was extraordinary as the 14-year-old vessel marked its 14th visit to Thunder Bay, arriving at the Viterra ‘A’ elevator at 8:08 a.m., Tuesday April 2. The MV Isadora’s return underscored the important role Polsteam (Polish Steamship Company) plays in the port’s grain trade, making up 10 per cent of all foreign vessel calls in the last five years.

Although Fednav’s MV Federal Nakagawa, with Capt. Sanjay Chaturvedi at the helm, arrived four days earlier on Friday March 29 – the earliest arrival of a salt water ship ever, the ship would have to play the bridesmaid’s role as it anchored outside the breakwater to await cargo. Port Authority rules dictate that to win the honour of the first ship, it must come abeam of a light marking the entrance to any of the five entrances to the port, therefore the Polsteam vessel MV Isadora was the victor this year.

On board for the MV Isadora’s voyage from Port Huron, Michigan, to Thunder Bay were two veteran American pilots, Captains Andy Scuillo and John Swartout. Due to the long hours involved with ice navigation, the district Pilotage Authority assigned two pilots to insure a safe voyage. “There’s not much glory for the pilot of the first ship of the season … I’ve been on the first ship to quite a few ports in my 34 years in the business … the Masters really deserve the recognition” Capt. Scuillo said.

Paddy Johnson, President of Thunder Bay Grain Trimmers Limited, founded in 1883, was positive in his comments about the arrival of the first laker and salty to the Lake Superior port. “Being the oldest company on the waterfront gives us a unique perspective to the grain trade … we have seen the ‘ups and downs’ in this business over the last 130 years and hope the good start to the year continues.” Thunder Bay Grain Trimmers are integral to grain loading operations, as they are responsible for the important and crucial task of positioning elevator loading spouts into vessel cargo holds – load rates can range from 1,200 to 2,500 tonnes per hour, therefore, vigilance by expert grain trimmers on board is mandatory.

With the new season getting underway, Canadian Sailings sat down with Thunder Bay Port boss Tim Heney to discuss the upcoming season:

C.S.: What significance do you put on the first ‘salt water’ ship arriving at the port?

Heney: The first Salty in the Port of Thunder Bay is a special event each year that signals the coming of spring and the beginning of a new shipping season. We are also reminded of the awesome capability of the Seaway to bring a ship from anywhere in the world 2,300 miles inland to the center of Canada.

C.S.: Give us a sense of what you think the shipping season will be like without the CWB.

Heney: We saw a surge in wheat shipments through the port last fall and a significant increase in wheat shipped on ocean vessels. We are certainly hopeful that this trend continues into the 2013 shipping season. There is significant carryover from last year’s crop to be shipped. However, predicting this year’s harvest is a difficult task.

C.S.: Special project cargo shipments have become Thunder Bay’s niche specialty in the last eight seasons. What do you expect for 2013 in for project cargoes at Thunder Bay?

Heney: Project cargo in many cases arrives on fairly short notice. The port has quoted on numerous projects for this year including wind turbines, power distribution equipment and various equipment components. The growth in these shipments over the past eight years has been quite dramatic but accurate forecasts are difficult. This will be the first full year for our new crane, and we consider the machine to be a further attraction to the port for these types of shipments.