Great Lakes freighter crews lose 'sacred right' to shore leave, for now

It's easier to maintain physical distance in some workplaces than others — like on a 300-metre-long freighter that plys the Great Lakes. 

Crews stay afloat so not to spread the virus, and blow horns each night for those battling disease

Algoma Central is one of many Canadian shipping companies that have taken COVID-19 precautions to protect crew members and the public. (Submitted by Algoma Central)

It's easier to maintain physical distance in some workplaces than others — like on a 300-metre-long freighter that plys the Great Lakes. 

Big as they are, their crews sometimes have to work in tight quarters.

That's why some of the big players in the marine shipping industry have now agreed to something called a COVID-19 Trusted Partners Initiative, created by the Chamber of Marine Commerce.

One of the biggest changes for crew members who stop in Windsor is they will be unable to leave the port. 

"It is difficult. This isn't exactly what they signed up for," said Gregg Ruhl, president of Algoma Central, one of the largest shipping lines on the Great Lakes.

Ruhl explained that many crew members have family or friends they may stop and see when visiting ports. Or at least take a break and stretch their legs. 

"I don't like the fact that our seafarers are kind of held on the ship," he said. "Almost a sacred right to have shore leave."

Normally, volunteers would pick the ship workers up and take them to pick up food and personal supplies, but that service is suspended because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Instead, Ruhl's company is providing toiletries and taking special orders for its employees.

They've also began a nightly tradition you might hear if you're down by the waterfront. Vessels with Algoma Central are blowing their horns each night to pay tribute to "front-line workers."

For its part, the Windsor Port Authority has handed out 800 cotton masks to employees at the ports, just as a precaution.

"When you're operating a piece of heavy equipment, you're in equipment by yourself, or you're an operator in a control room, you're [now] by yourself ...  it's not normal or usual for a port worker to be in groups less than six feet, so it's almost a natural separation," said Steve Salmons, president of the Windsor Port Authority.

But for crew members aboard the freighters there are times when they have to work closely, so Algoma Central is making sure they take other precautions.

"Prescreening crew members, reducing contact with the shore, trying to create a bit of a bubble on the ship, a COVID-19-free bubble, almost like your family at your home," said Ruhl. 

"Once they've sort of been on there for 14 days, they kind of trust each other more than anyone else."

Ruhl said the amount of iron ore moving on the lakes is way down because of the slowdown in steel and auto production, but that is being made up for by grain shipments.


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