Friday 5 August 2016


My dad was a big fan of Skip Gillham.  Whenever we visited Port Colborne he'd show me the latest Skip Gillham book that he would have recently purchased or had been given to him and then I'd spend the longest time checking them out, looking at the photos and reading about each of the ship's history. Soon after my dad died almost 25 years ago, my mom gave me his Skip Gillham books and whether it was one of his smaller black and one colour booklets like "SHIPS along the seaway" or a full colour glossy cover one like "Canadian Fleets Along the Seaway", I couldn't simply set them down. Even these last few day after hearing of Skip's recent death, the enjoyment returns when looking through one of his books. Whether talking about a canaller, a barge or a "then" new self unloader, each ship got there 15 minutes of fame thanks to Skip. Like I try to do in my blogpost, each article was accurate and thorough, but most of all, fun to read. What I liked the most then and now are the photos.  While many photos were taken by Skip Gillham and co-author Alfred Sagon-King, many of the others that were featured 30 or 40 years ago, were boat watchers that I still see contributing today on and the many Facebook boat watching groups that I belong to like: Ren√© Beachamp, Marc Dease, Terry Doyon and my good friend, Ron Beaupre of Mariatown. Unlike today's colourful Facebook posts, each photo inside of Skip's book were taken in beautiful "Black & White". You saw no rust, but you saw wear. You felt the glory in those photos of straightdeckers pushing water but then sadness for those doomed relics beached at Ramey's Bend. I guess you could say the beauty and the imagination were both in the eyes of the beholder when it came to Skip's books.

It was one of those lazy, hazy, (and to complete the Nat King Cole classic), crazy days in the summer of 1974 and I was honing in on the Upper Lakes bulk carrier FRANK A. SHERMAN tied off across the harbour near the Rochester & Pittsburgh coal dock in Port Colborne with my wife-to-be's Fujica ST 801 camera.  In those days there were only two vehicle/pedestrian crossing bridges in Port (what the locals called Port Colborne then and still today), and if Bridge 21, located downtown was up, you either tried your luck by booting it down to Humberstone and hope to cross over at the jackknife bridge (#19) located at the north end of Lock 8, OR you simply shut off the car, got out and took a picture of the oncoming boat.
On this day, the approaching downbound was the 730' bulk NORTHERN VENTURE and as mentioned in Skip Gillham's first "SHIPS along the seaway", she was "an example of a bulk carrier that had been converted from an ocean tanker". Skip goes on to mention that her name was VERENDRYE when built in 1944 in Portland, Oregon, that she was operated by the United States Maritime Commission to provide fuel for naval vessels and bases in the Pacific during World War Two. Then he notes that in 1947 she was sold to Edenfield Tankers of Great Britain and renamed EDENFIELD, that she sailed with British Registry until 1960 when she was sold to Leitch Transports and taken to Schlieker-Werst shipyards in Hamburg, Germany where "her original length of 523 feet 6 inches was altered with the insertion of a new mid-body and bow". After all work was completed, her new measurements were 730'x75'x39' 6" and soon after being renamed NORTHERN VENTURE, "she sailed the Atlantic under her own power, arriving at Port Weller Dry dock on July 4, 1961. Extra hull strengthening devices were removed and on July 16, she began her maiden voyage for Island Shipping, a subsidiary of Upper Lakes Steamships."
In another of his books, "TEN MORE Tales of the Great Lakes", Skip Gillham offered a detailed overview of how after 20 years of service hauling grain and ore to ports throughout the Great Lakes and Seaway system, the NORTHERN VENTURE's cabins were removed, and stern section cut off in 1983, then attached to the stern section of the former package freighter, CABOT, to become a new Upper Lakes bulk carrier named CANADIAN EXPLORER. Skip Gillham was a wonderful Great Lakes shipping story teller and he will so be missed.  

While subsidiary fleetmate NORTHERN VENTURE cleared Bridge 21 and continued to make her way beneath the currently removed railway bridge (#20) before carrying on to Lock 8, the 681' FRANK A. SHERMAN let go her lines and got underway passing a cluster of moored Lake Erie fishing tugs, the long term lay-up sandsucker, CHARLES DICK, ( and tied off behind her unknown scrap tow sat the 98' tug boat SALVAGE MONARCH. (
Time was of the essence for the elder Upper Lakes bulk carrier and if she didn't keep moving, she too could become a scrap tow. Though experienced in her trades, her size technically made her obsolete just a year after being built at the company owned Port Weller Dry Docks because when the St. Lawrence Seaway opened in 1959, maximum ship lengths then were set at 730'. Forty-nine feet shorter than the then current norm meant she simply could not carry as much cargo as her Seaway-max fleetmates let alone the competition.

Getting her load of ore which is what the SHERMAN was probably carrying to an upper lake steel mill, apparently was going to have to wait a bit longer as her journey during my photo op with my wife-to-be's camera, ended not that far from where it started, at the Shell Fuel Dock up on the west wall. There, she would top up her tanks and possibly take on a few extra supplies from the local ship chandler, Bell Marine. It may also have been the last chance to be fairly upfront and personal with a loved one or two for several weeks after the SHERMAN got underway.
However, as we all know, nothing lasts forever. After just 28 years of service, FRANK A. SHERMAN did become a scrap tow all the way to Kaohsiung, Taiwan along with fleetmate, the 730' RED WING which like the NORTHERN VENTURE, had been converted from a World War II tanker.
In 2007 Shell Oil closed their supply operation in Port Colborne which meant ships would have to fuel up at Sarnia, or rendezvous with the Hamilton based bunkering tanker, (the HAMILTON ENERGY ( back then at Port Weller or during anchorage near the Lake Ontario entrance of the Welland Canal.
And then last week we lost Skip Gillham. I never meet the man, but from what I've read these last few days about him, he was quite the individual. He was a good father and husband, and a wonderful mentor while doing guidance counselling and physical education instruction during his 33 years as a high school teacher in Beamsville, Ontario. His faith was strong and he served in various capacities in his church, and on the Board of the Welland Canal Mission, an organization that offers spiritual and practical help for sailors and their families. You could tell that his experiences as a sailor on a Great Lakes tanker while working his way through university during one summer, made his stories about the Welland Canal and the ships that plied the Great Lakes in his numerous articles and books, that much more believable. At a time when there was no MarineTraffic or Facebook boat watching groups to view a ship photo or read about its background and achievements, Skip brought their stories and photos to us in print, over and over again, in beautiful "Black & White". He will so be missed.


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