[All photos courtesy of A. M. de Quesada, Coast Guard Historian]
As my wife and I settled into the Captain’s cabin for the night, the Canadian Coast Guard Cutter, Alexander Henry was eerily still. Since the ship was docked, there was no motion and no rolling or rising with the swells, but there was also the quiet. Ships are seldom silent. Even in port, there is the hum of equipment and generators always present. Footsteps and muffled voices of the deck watches can be heard frequently, as well as a hundred peculiar bumps and rattles, you can never quite place, but the Alexander Henry seemed to be holding its breath. There was no deck watch and no crew. They were not needed because the Alexander Henry had been “retired from service”, and the icebreaker/buoy tender was serving as a bed and Breakfast, as part of the Marine Museum of the Great Lakes in Kingston, Ontario. The Captain’s cabin, our room for the night, was sparse, but comfortable.
The Henry was commissioned in 1959 and served the Great Lakes until decommissioned in 1984 and made a Museum/Bed and Breakfast. The vessel had been easy to find, tied to the Museum Pier with its bright red hull and gleaming white superstructure. It looked well-maintained and ready to cast off and depart on a mission, although that would never happen again. As we explored the ship, signs of its former life remained. The doors to the weather decks were fitted with locking levers (called dogs) to seal them against the sea in heavy weather. Lifeboats hung from davits, waiting for the call to action that would never be repeated. A status board used to record the date and ship’s course, was blank. Compartments were empty, save for a few placards, explaining what had once gone on in them. No cooking smells emerged from the surprisingly small galley and the radio room was deserted and still. In the engine room, the twin 10-cylinder diesels were cold, waiting for a call from the bridge that would never come.
There is a certain nobility in a ship, regardless of how ill-used it might become through age or obsolescence. This steel shell, now populated only by a handful of tourists and curiosity seekers this night, once fought winter storms on the Great Lakes, crashing into mountainous waves, breaking over its decks. This genteel accommodation, once used the brute force of its now-quiet engines and hull to break massive ice packs to keep shipping lanes open, a constant fight against nature. The Alexander Henry had performed more mundane duties as well. As a buoy tender, the ship and its crew worked in all kinds of weather and sea conditions, to maintain the aid to navigation system that makes the vital commerce of the Great Lakes possible. This floating hotel had even rescued shipwrecked mariners from the clutch of the lakes.
We stood on the bridge looking forward over the darkened foredeck, imagining the ship underway in rough weather, with the vibration of the engines felt through the steel deck, as the bow rose and fell into the endless waves stretching to the horizon. We could almost feel the ship shudder, as it hit each wave and vibrated slightly, as it shook off the weight of the water and rose up to meet the next one. In the darkness, we could easily imagine the foaming whiteness of a broken wave, streaming off the deck.
On the bridge, the round eye of the radar screen was lifeless now, but once shone with a rotating pale green glow, to warn of what else was out there, lurking unseen in the darkness. On some nights, the waves were tall enough to show up on that radar screen. The compass was also still, frozen forever on the last course. The motionless wheel would not be adjusting the heading this night. As we fell asleep, we could see a few stars, through the portholes, waiting to help guide the ship on a journey it would no longer make.
The next morning, we made our way below to the mess deck, for breakfast. If the bridge is the brain of a ship, the mess deck is surely the warm and welcoming heart, especially in cold weather. Here crewman once huddled over steaming mugs of hot coffee, coming off watch, or waiting to go on watch. Here they talked and laughed, played cards, watched the occasional movie, and thought of home.
This morning, however, sitting on the gray metal chairs, at gray metal tables bolted to the deck, were others who had spent the night as we had, including people from as far away as the UK. They were all enthusiastic about the experience and several had seagoing backgrounds and stories of their own. We compared notes about the ship and the life it must have led. Ships have their own personalities, and the Alexander Henry, seemed both proud of her past and sad for her future. The overnight visitors on the mess deck were sympathetic, but they were not a real crew. That time had passed, and the Alexander Henry almost seemed to sense it.
Soon, it was time to make our way to the gangway to leave. The Henry was about to open for the day, to more casual museum visitors. We walked over green tiled decks and past grey-painted bulkheads, then dogged the last door shut behind us, as so many had done before. At the bottom of the gangway, we took a parting glance at the Henry and saw a hardworking ship that had outlived its usefulness, but not its dignity.
That was the end of our visit to a piece of maritime history. We will not be able to make another one; neither will anyone else. The empty compartments have become even more empty.
Recently, the museum lost its lease and the Alexander Henry was towed to a commercial wharf upriver near Picton, where it still awaits its fate, empty and alone. There is talk of sinking the ship, to create an artificial reef as a refuge for marine life, but this involves extensive alterations to the ship for environmental reasons, another indignity to be endured. And if the clean-up proves to be impractical, or too expensive, the Alexander Henry could be sold and cut-up for scrap. There is talk of moving the ship to Thunder Bay, Ontario, where it was built, but so far nothing has materialized and time is passing.
So after all the Alexander Henry’s years battling the elements, it appears that the Lakes will win in the end, as the ship either sinks to its final resting place, or is dismembered. After so many years of service, in so many roles, the Alexander Henry will live only in memory. Pieces may be recycled into other ships, but the Alexander Henry will ply the Lakes no more. Over her life, she successfully battled storms, ice flows, winds, and sub-zero weather, but time was an obstacle the Alexander Henry could not overcome.
By John Reisinger
John Reisinger is an author living on Maryland’s Eastern Shore but he and his wife Barbara come to the Thousand Islands for vacations. John writes about real-life people, places and events. Two of his books have won Gold Medals in the Global eBook Awards! Check out Flanagan and the Crown of Mexico, Death and the Blind Tiger and visit his webpage to see his complete list of fiction and non-fiction works. In the September, 2016 issue of TI Life he wrote Buried Treasure in the Thousand Islands.