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It’s a sailor’s life

Captaining the harbour ferry lets Peter Greathead enjoy life on the water without leaving home

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Photo: Suzanne Rent

Photo: Suzanne Rent

It’s 6 p.m. on a Monday and Peter Greathead is at the helm of the Viola Desmond, the newest ferry in Halifax Transit’s fleet. Greathead is working the night shift and will be in command here until 11:45 p.m. There are eight different shifts crew can work. Each member rotates through those shifts over an eight-week period.

Greathead’s mate, Steve McNeil, is here, too. The ride from the Halifax terminal to Alderney Landing on the Dartmouth side takes eight minutes.

The night is warm and clear and rush hour is over. Some of the passengers look up at the wheelhouse and wave at Greathead. This ferry ride is more than transit. It’s the oldest continuous saltwater passenger ferry in North America.

“It’s the ideal job for sailing,” Greathead says. “It’s on the water, which I love, and I am home every day.”

Greathead’s career on the sea started with racing yachts at the yacht club in Coburg, Ontario where he grew up. He lived in Europe for a while working on two different ships there.

He passed through Lunenburg in the fall of 1996 while working on a yacht heading south to the Chesapeake Bay. At the time, the Picton Castle, a three-masted tall ship that offers training programs, was under construction there. He joined its crew as a deckhand, and sailed on its first circumnavigation.

He eventually got an unrestricted watch-keeping mate’s licence at Georgian College in Owen Sound, Ont. and worked as second and third mate on freighters in the Great Lakes.

While he says the money was great, the job was hard: weather, storms, and being away from home months at a time. He remembers once the ship he was working on became stuck in ice on Lake Huron. Two icebreakers got stuck during the rescue. A third icebreaker finally broke them all free. “It’s a difficult way to make a living,” Greathead says.

He landed in Halifax after leaving another job in St. John’s, Nfld. He started talking with a Bedford woman, Judy, on Facebook while still living in Newfoundland. They first met in person when she picked him up at the airport. It was love at first sight, he says. He proposed a few months later, and they married in March 2010. He’s been here ever since.

He first applied for a job at Halifax Transit in early 2009, but wasn’t hired. He applied again after another posting came up, and was successful. He spent four years as mate, and moved up to the role of master in August 2014. His license allows him to work as master on any vessel up to 150 gross tonnage. He can also captain any size vessel up to 500 gross tonnage in sheltered waters, which in his case, is Halifax Harbour.

The Viola Desmond is a big improvement on the older harbour ferries. The bridge on the Viola Desmond is about six times the size of the bridges on the older ships. Wraparound windows provide a 360-degree view. Joysticks are used to control these ships; it’s not unlike playing a video game. The older boats were controlled by two steering wheels, one for each propeller, and a lever to control thrust. “This boat is digital,” Greathead says. “The older models are analogue.”

Besides the captain, the crew consists of a first mate, deckhand, and an engineer who is in the hull. Greathead is responsible for everything and everyone on board, including passengers, crew, the vessel, and the environment—in that order.

“Passenger safety is paramount, which is why I tell people to stop doing things…like standing on seats or leaning over the rails,” Greathead says.

This gig doesn’t carry the stress he had when working on freighters in the Great Lakes.

“We used to say in college, being a mariner is 98 per cent boring and two per cent sheer terror,” he says.

Sheer terror is rarer in this job but sometimes happens. For example, when two ships are too close to each other when the harbour is cloaked in fog. New radar systems on the Viola Desmond make navigating around other vessels much easier. An automatic identification system or AIS shows the particulars, including name and type of vessel, rate of turn, and closest point of approach, of each vessel in the harbour, and includes contact information in case a close call seems apparent.

But most unusual incidents are passenger-related. From his seat in the wheelhouse, Greathead has the best view of what’s happening on deck. “People can get pretty frisky in eight minutes,” he says. Occasionally, passengers will urinate over the side or into a trashcan. Drinking, he says, is pretty common. More recently, he says, one colleague saw a parent placed her child on the railing, stepping back to take a photo. He says he sees passengers hold their children over the water.

Dan Moreland first met Greathead when they worked together on the Picton Castle. Moreland has been its captain since Greathead was a deckhand. Greathead helped with the rigging for her first voyage. He remembers Greathead as keen, hardworking, and joyful. He also threw himself into his work.

“He was probably more passionate than your average deckhand,” Moreland says. “I think he also had a clear concept of why this is so wonderful. Some people get off the ship at the end of the voyage and realize how amazing it was. He really understood that at the time. He’s very present. He would enjoy the sunset. He wouldn’t think two days later, ‘Oh, that was a nice sunset.’ That is a very good quality for a captain.”

Greathead says he doesn’t see himself leaving the job. For him, it’s the best way to work on the water while still having a family life. He says there was a day in the spring when he realized this.

“We were approaching the Halifax terminal,” he says. “The sun was setting, there was music playing in the background and I remember looking around and thinking, ‘Damn, this is a sweet gig.’”


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