‘Try not to go out of your mind’: A Great Lakes sailor on life on deck during COVID-19

TVO.org speaks with Kevin Saunders about his time on the Great Lakes, memorable experiences, and how the pandemic has changed ‘the best job a guy could ask for’
By Josh Sherman - Published on Dec 22, 2021
Kevin Saunders aboard the Algoway in September 2017 (Courtesy of Kevin Saunders)



Kevin Saunders has been a “boat guy” for as long as he can remember. “When I was born, my parents lived on a boat — I was brought home to a boat,” he says. From those early childhood days aboard a Chris-Craft moored in Sarnia’s Guildwood marina, to repairing watercraft with his dad as he got older, boats have always been a part of his life.  

 Saunders, now 36, has for the past five years worked on ships, mostly freighters, on the Great Lakes. He has sailed each of them more than once — Erie, Huron, Michigan, Ontario, Superior — and has also travelled the length of the St. Lawrence Seaway and out to Halifax. “It's incredible,” says Saunders, who, when he’s not sailing, lives with his son and girlfriend in Lambton County, and runs a boat-repair business. “I don't know how to describe it: stuff that you just don't see sitting at home or commuting to your job, you know?” 

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Most recently, he was head tunnelman on the Algoma Innovator, a self-unloading dry-bulk carrier, for a six-week stint that ended in mid-September. He was responsible for maintaining and monitoring a hydraulic system capable of unloading 5,000 tonnes an hour. “I’m in charge of keeping all that stuff running,” he explains, describing a sometimes-finicky system of pulleys, bearings, and belts. Even in normal times, Saunders’ line of work means constant change: he’s seldom in the same place for more than a day or two. But the pandemic has given Great Lakes mariners, even more, to adjust to. (For example, until this summer, shore leave was restricted to limit the spread of COVID-19.)  

TVO.org speaks with Saunders about life on the Great Lakes — and how sailors have weathered the pandemic as the essential shipping industry steams ahead. 

TVO.org: I’ve heard it was difficult to work when shore leave was banned earlier in the pandemic. Were you working on a ship when those rules were in place? 

Kevin Saunders: Yes, and the shore-leave thing, yeah, I mean, I don’t know how else to say it other than it just kind of sucked. As a sailor, getting off and going for a walk or whatever — grabbing some supplies from a store — that’s your own time. It’s one of the few times that you’re away on a ship where you feel like you could get off a ship, put some dirt under your boots, that kind of thing — and they restricted that. We all understand why, but it sure makes it a lot harder. It makes a month away seem like two months away. I sometimes would have family come and visit me in Goderich when we would go to Goderich, and it really helps break up the time away. But when you can’t do that, all you can think about is what you wish you were doing instead of what you can do. That was really tough.  

TVO.org: How long is shore leave typically? 

Saunders: A lot of it depends on the ship that you’re on and how long you’re going to be wherever you are. I’ve sailed on a few like the Algoway and the Algoma Innovator, and they are very busy ships. They load quickly, they unload quickly, there isn’t really a lot of time to have any shore leave. And some of the tankers that I’ve been on, like the asphalt ships, they can be in port for three days loading and unloading. In that case, you have a lot more time. Now, as far as shore leave itself, you can do whatever you want, as long as you’re back and fit for duty for your shift.  

TVO.org: When you weren’t allowed to take shore leave, what did you do to pass the time? 

Saunders: Honestly, I’m not even sure. I guess you just read another book, or you watch a couple more TV shows, or you wear out the battery on your phone a little bit more. I guess there isn’t really a good answer for that, just make it work — try not to go out of your mind. 

TVO.org: Are there any amenities on these ships? 

Saunders: I’ve only been on about five or six different ships — so I can’t speak for everyone — but every one I’ve sailed on: they always have a gym, they always have a common room that would have a TV and a table big enough for playing cards or just talking and whatever. Of course, I’m sure the older fellows would say that we got it pretty easy nowadays because of course we have WiFi internet, we have telephones where we can FaceTime our kids and whatnot — 10, 20, 30 years ago you had to write home, or maybe get a call if you could find a cell phone or pay phone. But as far as the general amenities on it, they do their best to make it as comfortable as they can, otherwise nobody would want to do it. The food’s amazing. There’s one thing a lot of people don’t maybe realize — you eat like a king when you’re on a ship. I’ve yet to run into a cook who’s a bad cook. They cook good food, they make sure that you’re fed. There’s nothing worse than a hungry crew.  

TVO.org: Without shore leave, did crew members get cagey, was there any more conflict than during pre-pandemic times? 

Saunders: I can only really speak for me. I’m pretty easy to get along with, at least I think so. I try not to get too fired up about stuff, especially when you’re in a situation like that. If you lose your cool, you might say or do things that you’re going to regret for the next month while you’re working with that fellow or whatever. So, again, no. Most ships everyone’s pretty good. I’ve yet to be on one where there’s really anyone problematic or stirring the pot. You get guys where you disagree how you should do it or what colour you should paint it, but I would say as far as general getting along, everyone gets along pretty good.  

TVO.org: What’s the hardest part of your job? Is it being away from family and friends? 

Saunders: Absolutely. 100 per cent. If I didn’t have a family or anything, sailing, it’s got to be the best job a guy could ask for because the money’s great, the experience you can’t get anywhere else, and the job itself — you’re running a giant ship. You’re bringing cargo from one port to another. It’s just a neat job. It’s kind of cool when you sit back and look at what we’re actually doing here, you think, Man, yeah, that’s pretty cool: the power, the numbers alone. 

TVO.org: Any numbers come to mind off the top of your head? 

Saunders: So for the Innovator, just off the top of my head: the length is [195 meters]; it carries about 24,000 tonnes of salt; the engine, I believe, is about 10,800 horsepower — and this is what kills a lot of people — it only turns about 100 [revolutions per minute] at full speed. I don’t know if you’re an engine guy or anything, but your car tachometer wouldn’t even register 100 RPMs, that’s how slow it turns. And I think it burns about 25 tonnes of fuel a day, when you’re full speed. That’s a lot of fuel. 

Kevin Saunders in the engine room of the Mia Desgagnes before the pandemic. (Courtesy of Kevin Saunders)

TVO.org: What’s your most memorable work experience? 

Saunders: I’ve had a lot of really, really crazy times — a lot of really good times. I’d say one of the most maybe not scary but eerie times I ever had, I was on the Algoway in 2017. And we were heading back from Two Harbours, Minnesota, and we were heading to I believe it was Hamilton and we had a load of iron-ore and we were going by — we were on Lake Superior — we were going by the site of Edmund Fitzgerald, to the day that the Edmund Fitzgerald sank. We were going with the waves, the waves were crashing up on the deck, it was a snowstorm, it was like the same conditions that the Figzerald sank in. And when we were going by, the captain has his satellite radio in the wheelhouse, and the Gordon Lightfoot song of the Edmund Fitzgerald came on while we were going by the Edmund Fitzgerald in the same conditions. Anyway, that night I slept with my survival suit beside my bed because it had me spooked. 

TVO.org: You mentioned before how “the money’s great” when you’re working on a Great Lakes cargo ship. It must vary from position to position, but what’s the pay range like? 

Saunders: It depends on what ship you’re on, what company you work for, what your position is — there’s a lot of variables. I’d say (and this is just very loose) if you worked as much as you could, you could probably start out anywhere — $80,000 a year. I know some guys making $150,000, like some of the chief engineers are making real good money. I challenge you to find anywhere on land where you can make that kind of dough. Now, there is something to be said about going home to your kid every night, sleeping in the same bed with your wife or something. But not everybody has that, so for the guys who don’t have that, I can’t think of a better way to make money. 

TVO.org: Earlier in the pandemic, when you’re seeing all these news reports of lockdowns and outbreaks on land while you’re out in the middle of the Great Lakes — was that experience a bit surreal? Did you feel removed from the pandemic at all? 

Saunders: Yeah, actually, a little bit, because of course you’re out on a boat and the only thing we have is the news to tell you what’s going on. So, you’re just watching the news, and, yeah, you can’t help but think the world’s burning down and you’re out in the lake and you’re okay. Part of that, though, makes it seem like it’s hard to get on board with how serious it is. When you’re off on a ship with the same 20 people you forget that you have to wear a mask when you go into a store, you forget social distancing and all that stuff, so, yeah, it is a little bit different. It’s like being out in space and looking at the world. Not much you can do, just follow the rules I guess, when you do get home. Or follow their rules, like no shore leave. 

TVO.org: Has there ever been any concern about an outbreak on a ship when you were last sailing? It’s a big ship, but I imagine there are some tight corridors and close quarters and things like that. 

Saunders: Yeah, actually. When I was on the Innovator, we had one captain, he was a younger guy, kind of my age or maybe younger than me. He trusted us to make our own judgment calls and stuff here and there and everything was fine. We never had any issues. And then we had another captain who came and… he was a lot more, I wouldn’t say over the top, but he was making sure nothing was going to happen on his watch. 

TVO.org: We’ve seen vaccine hesitancy result in some layoffs of hospital staff, we’ve seen transit workers who don’t want to comply with vaccine mandates in municipalities — has this been an issue at all that you’ve experienced or heard of? 

Saunders: There’s definitely been some people reluctant to do it, or some haven’t even done it at all. There is a mandate: you do have to be double vaccinated to sail. There’s just no getting around that. It’s affected us. It’s hard to find people and, especially now, people who can travel.  

TVO.org: Has the pandemic affected your day-to-day work? 

Saunders: I would say with the day-to-day work, no. Again, it does boil down to who’s up in the wheelhouse, in charge. But as far as working on deck and working with a partner or whatever, it’s kind of business as usual. Since everyone out there is vaccinated, everyone’s — chances are — gone through a test to get there, whether they flew there or whatever. By the time they actually set foot on a ship, you can be pretty sure that the guys getting on are OK. They’re not just getting there off the street and were at a party last night. For me it was no big deal. If I was working beside a guy, it was like working any other time. Now, in the galley, where the kitchen is, like I said, with the one captain, everyone had to wear a mask in the kitchen and stuff if you’re there less than two weeks. Same rules that apply like a restaurant, you’ve got to wear it until you actually sit down. Being on the ship, that’d be about the only real change. That and socialization I’ve noticed has gone down. Where before it used to be no thing for the six guys who were off for the afternoon to get together and go do something, I find that doesn’t happen at all, anymore. Nobody’s getting together, nobody’s going out on a tour, so that seems to be a lot less, and a lot less socializing on board. Where in between shifts you might get guys playing cards and watching movies, that just doesn’t seem to happen anymore. Everyone’s just in their room, doing whatever: watching TV, playing on the internet. 

TVO.org: I imagine that’s affected morale to some extent. 

Saunders: Absolutely it does. People like me, I thrive off getting stuff done, and seeing stuff, and talking to people. So, for me to kind of be forced to just sit there and wait until you can get off — it takes a little bit of the joy out of it. 

TVO.org: Is that because of some policy or is that just the way it’s gone? 

Saunders: I think it’s just the way it’s gone. There’s no rule saying that you can’t talk to Joe when you’re not working, or whatever. Everyone seems to be on the internet more. The internet sucks on ships, too, by the way. That’s one thing, if anyone wants to know: the internet is absolutely garbage on a ship. 

TVO.org: I guess that’s why you pick up books — no lag. 

Saunders: Yup. Books, or I usually bring my laptop and I’ve got the Simpsons and all that, so I can watch. But a lot of ships nowadays, they come with a TV. It’s decent. The only time it ever sucks is if you’re sharing a room with a guy, but that doesn’t seem to happen a whole lot — at least for the positions I’ve been in. 

TVO.org: What are you doing now, and do you have any plans to head back out onto a freighter in the New Year? 

Saunders: I do mostly small boat repairs. My business is called Dockside Marine Repairs, and I do mobile boat repairs, more or less. So I travel to the docks or to the people wherever and fix their boats. It’s pretty successful in my first year really doing it — I can hardly keep up with the demand. As of right now, I’m kind of waiting in between. They kind of want me to go on one of the ships after the New Year. I’m not sure which one, because they don’t know which one’s going to stay running all winter, so I might get back in on that come the New Year. For how long, I don’t really know, it just depends how long they need a guy, I guess. 

TVO.org: Since your last stint, the highly contagious Omicron variant has emerged. Would Omicron impact your decision to return? 

Saunders: No. Not at all, actually. You almost feel safer out there. I mean, don’t get me wrong. Things do happen. There have been some cases of outbreaks on ships. We did have a Canadian sailor die last year from COVID. The guy died here in Sarnia. So, I mean, I don’t want to say that’s it not something that you need to be prepared for, but I wouldn’t worry too much about it. Sure things can happen; we could get hit by a car, too. 

This interview has been condensed and edited for length and clarity. 

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