Boat Life: The ups and downs of life as a mail boat captain

Boat Life: The ups and downs of life as a mail boat captain
May 17, 2019 Natasha Blakely

Most people have driven a car before. Chances are a lot of people have been on a boat or ferry as well.

But piloting a boat is whole different experience, particularly when it’s a boat like the J.W. Westcott mail boat.

Great Lakes Now talked to Sam Buchanan, senior boat captain and general manager of the J.W. Westcott, about what it’s like being a boat captain.

Here is an edited transcript of our conversation.

Great Lakes Now: How did you end up being a boat captain here?

Sam Buchanan: When I was a kid growing up, you would wander down to the park. In Detroit, it was a more tightly compacted area as I was growing up; there was a lot more homes here, a lot more people. One of the activities in the summer for a lot of city folk is they would come down to the river to get cool, and it was always interesting to watch the ships go by. It’s the kind of thing that gets in your blood—the ships, the whole lifestyle and all.

I rode my bike around or I’d walk down. I grew up only about five blocks away. So when I got old enough, I came in and asked (owner Jim Hogan) for a job and made sure I got on the waiting list because it’s kind of a coveted position. I had to wait a while, but I kept bugging him until he gave me a chance.

GLN: What does your day to day look like?

SB: I’m really never off shift. I keep my phone by my bedside in case there’s a problem through the night, so I end up being the point of contact if there’s any kind of an issue we may have, whether it be a breakdown or just a general question about things that somebody doesn’t feel comfortable pulling the trigger on.

But pretty much my day starts at 7 a.m., runs till 3 p.m. When I come in, we check the sheet to see what ships are going to be coming, get the rundown for the day, and then I’ll mold my day around what’s going to be happening.

This morning we didn’t have any ships coming, so I performed routine maintenance that might need to be done that day. I generally have to do a walkthrough of our entire fleet of vessels, just to see that everything is where it should be and operating the way it should be, if they need to be warmed up or warmed off, if they need any type of maintenance. Each of our boats has to have a routine that we go through. There are certain safety checks and engine checks and housekeeping checks.

And that’s what we do.

GLN: So your kids also work here?

SB: My son Shane is the captain on nights, and my son Joe is his dispatcher. My daughter does work here part time, but she’s off right now because she’s pregnant. She’s a teacher. Her name’s Jessica.

GLN: What’s it like working with your kids?

SB: It’s good and bad. When you’re working with your kids, you have to remember that you’re not at home anymore. You know how kids feel comfortable when they’re at home? Well, when they’re at work I tell them, I’m not dad at work, I’m boss at work, and you have to listen to me because it’s for your own good.

GLN: What’s the most challenging part of the job?

SB: Probably the different challenges that we face on the river itself, and most of those challenges center on the weather. If you have a really bad weather day, if you’re in an office somewhere, you’re probably going ‘Wow, it’s really windy outside, I better be careful going home.’ But for us, the wind and the waves can be kicked up pretty nasty in the fall and sometimes even with storms in the summertime. You can have a really nasty weather event day, and it just makes the job that much harder.

GLN: What’s it like being this small little mail boat driving among and up to big freighters?

SB: It can be pretty intimidating, but you get used to it. Once in a while, we’ll look out there and I think it’s probably like people that work on tall buildings. They probably every once in a while take a reality check and go ‘Hey, wow, we’re high up.’ And we do that sometimes too, where we’re on this 45-foot boat and we’re alongside this really large ship and we’re moving and you’re just hoping everything stays running and everything is as it should be.

GLN: Does anything stand out among the packages you’ve had to deal with?

SB: The only thing I really don’t like is bicycles. I don’t get along with bicycles. Handling bicycles is kind of hard because the wheels move and of the handlebar.

GLN: Do you get a lot of bicycles?

SB: Oh yeah, there’s one sitting out there right now. Yeah, I don’t like bicycles too much.  But I handle everything else, large packages, drums of products, small packages. I actually like handling heavy stuff better, because it’s usually lifted mechanically. I don’t have to pick it up.

GLN: What are some of the weirder things that you guys have handled?

SB: There was a captain that used to take his dog named Susie with him, a big old dog, and there was a cat named Nigel that used to go on a boat called the Columbia Star.

We got a nanny goat one time.  There were some passengers riding on a ship. They were up north, and they had a petting zoo or something, and they were bringing this nanny goat home. So I go alongside the ship, people are getting off and all of a sudden they hand me this (makes goat noises).



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