poems, photographs, prose
by matthew

january 16, 2007 · tags: newfoundland prose

eighteen hundred hours

At Port aux Basques we are caught in bureaucracy. A man in an orange vest and matching moustache isn't sure he can let us board the ferry because one of our passengers doesn't have a reservation. He mumbles something about a waiting list. The parking lot is vast and vacant, and this seems ridiculous. Looking at the massive ferry looming in the windshield and thinking, waiting list. There is no one here and it must hold a thousand. The man in the safety vest goes to make a call and we watch the half-dozen vehicles ahead of us disappear into the gullet of the ship, incredulous. The next crossing is not for twelve hours.

Later I find out: The Transportation of Dangerous Goods Act stipulates the number of passengers that may be carried on restricted sailings based up on the type and quantity of the commodity to be transported on the vessel. Paint, turpentine, batteries, propane, toilet bowl cleaner, adhesives, fire extinguishers, oxygen for hospitals. "They're only taking fifty-nine passengers today." But they wave us on anyway.

MV Joseph and Clara Smallwood, along with her sister ship MV Caribou, is the largest icebreaking ferry in the world. Her capacity includes 1200 passengers and 370 automobiles or 77 tractor trailers. The vehicle deck is packed with eighteen-wheelers, but the passenger decks are empty. My travelling companions are napping and I have an entire section of empty seats to myself. On my right there are two model ships encased in plexiglass, on my left two vending machines. I have a notebook and a novel, Michael Crummey's The Wreckage.

This ship is a museum in many ways. Though commissioned in 1990 her decor is haunted by various decades, none of them later than the eighties. Overly-ornate carpets, a garish cafeteria, dimly-lit hallways lined with faded photos, outdated advertising. A black and white photo of Joey Smallwood lends a kind of saintly eccentricity to the man; a halo of smokestack hair, glasses as thick as ferry windows, spine leaning into sky. A small chalkboard near the steward's office announces our estimated time of arrival at North Sydney: 18:00. Eighteen hundred hours.

Travel is riddled with small delays, limbos, loopholes. The half-hour in the parking lot. Another half-hour or so after they let us board but before the ferry goes anywhere. And then there is the half-hour the ferry finds herself perpetually lost in, somewhere between Newfoundland and Atlantic Standard Time. She borrowed a half-hour when I crossed before Christmas and now on my way home to Halifax she is reluctant to give it back.

As I am writing the boat has started moving, so gradually I hadn't noticed, but rapidly now - I look up to find houses, streetlamps, long fences drifting past the windows, distorted eerily in the doubled glass. A few smaller outbuildings, a wiry guardrail, modestly mossy hills giving way to balding rock, then eventually a muted white which is just as much nothing as it is a sky. Cotton batting.

On the outside deck I watch the sun set behind clouds, as if from a window with the curtains closed. After dark the ferry's wide trail of wake slips quickly into oblivion, a darkness deeper than the Gulf of Saint Lawrence. I want to photograph the ferry at night, the glow of light on the smokestacks. I haven't brought a tripod but laying my camera on a guardrail works almost as well. Somewhere below me in the gut of the ship I can feel a constant shaking, as if every nut and bolt is nervous. I can see my breath. I shiver, and step back inside.

mv joseph and clara smallwood, the gulf of saint lawrence.


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