High Arctic Haulers

Meet Canada's youngest first mate

At 25 years old, Guillaume Rosso was already an experienced hand on Canada's Arctic cargo ships

At 25 years old, Guillaume Rosso was already an experienced hand on Canada's Arctic cargo ships

At 25, most Canadians are usually finishing school, travelling or starting out in their first "real" jobs. Not many of us are in charge of delivering thousands of tonnes of important freight by ship to remote communities in the High Arctic.

The protégé

That's exactly what Guillaume Rosso does for a living — he's the youngest first mate in the country. 

"People look at my age and they say, 'Yeah, you're way too young,'" says Rosso with a smile. "I know my shit — if I don't know it, I'll learn it, and I'll learn it quick."

He has every reason to be self-confident. Known as a hard worker and problem solver, Rosso has garnered much respect among the management of Desgagnés, the shipping company he works for, which is the focus of the new CBC series High Arctic Haulers. Rosso already has six years experience sailing to the Arctic.

"When I see a kid who's interested in learning, being good at his job, yeah I encourage him. He becomes a protégé," says Michel Duplain, a seasoned Desgagnés ship captain. "Guillaume, as first mate, he's very dedicated. To work with people like that, it's fun."

Guillaume Rosso working aboard the Sedna Désgagnes. (High Arctic Haulers/CBC)

A lifeline for Northern industry

In fact, Duplain specifically requested Rosso to be his second in command onboard a massive ship called the Sedna. On their first voyage, Rosso looked after loading, tracking, securing and delivering 25,000 pieces of cargo to 10 communities in the High Arctic.

These shipments, known as "sealifts," are essential. Without roads or rail lines, these communities in the North are isolated and don't have many ways to bring in items they need, including food, vehicles and building supplies.

Loading the sealift, bound for the Arctic

3 years ago
Duration 1:36
Loading cargo ships that are headed into the unpredictable weather conditions of the Arctic is a precise process.

In the community of Pangnirtung, for example, a successful Inuit-owned fish plant relies on the sealift to deliver all its equipment and packing supplies. The fishery is one of the largest employers in the region and can't afford a shutdown.

"Without them, we won't be able to ship anything out. That 1.1 million pound of turbot has to be shipped out from the community to Asia," says Saskiasie Sowdlooapik, the plant's executive director.

The cold and ice have a stranglehold on the waterways to Pangnirtung and the rest of the region for most of the year. The ships only have the summer months to complete their runs. Still, high winds, heavy ice flows and human error can cause catastrophic delays. 

"At every point of our job, it's a challenge," says Rosso. "You gotta find solutions quickly."

When I see a kid who's interested in learning, being good at his job, yeah I encourage him. He becomes a protégé.- Michel Duplain, captain, Groupe Désgagnes 

A hard life on the water

Not everyone is cut out for life at sea in the High Arctic. Like the communities they serve, crew members are isolated, often away from their families for several months at a time. The work is rewarding, but it's difficult and it's risky. For all these reasons, Desgagnés struggles to find new recruits.

"A lot of young people start to work," says Daniel Desgagnés whose great-grandfather started the company in 1866. "But when they start to think about family and to have kids, it seems a lot of them go to work onshore. It's the new reality."

Guillaume Rosso (left) and his colleague Guillaume Foster. (High Arctic Haulers/CBC)

'I can remember every trip I did'

For others, like Rosso, working in the Arctic almost feels like a calling and they love their life on the ship. 

"I can remember every trip I did," says Rosso. "Everything that happened had something to do with how I am now. Every bad experience, I've taken it as a good one. It comes from my dad. He's the one that taught me to work."

Rosso's sign-on to the Sedna as Captain Duplain's second-in-command is documented in Episode 4 of High Arctic Haulers