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Lake Saint-Pierre

Video interview

Capitaine Michel Fortin, president of the Corporation des Pilotes du Saint-Laurent Central

For more information: Corporation des Pilotes du Saint-Laurent Central

Video transcript: View

(9 minutes, 32 seconds)


Hi, I'm Michel Fortin. I'm a ship pilot, and I operate between Trois-Rivières and Montreal. I'm also president of the Corporation des pilotes du Saint-Laurent central. I represent pilots between Quebec City and Montreal.

We are a group of 110 pilots. Our goal is to ensure safe, efficient navigation between Quebec City and Montreal. To become a pilot, you have to have experience at sea. You need a certificate, we call it a certificate of competency, and you need a Master's Certificate of Competency. Once you have been selected, you start a two-year pilot apprenticeship. An apprentice pilot will make trips with a pilot, and he'll receive specific training for the sector he is working in. At the end of the two years, he will be assessed by an examination board. It is a very rigorous process. Once the apprentice pilot has passed the exam, he can obtain his initial pilot licence and start his career as a pilot. When you obtain your initial pilot licence, you can't necessarily pilot all types of ship. The initial pilot licence is a Class C licence, and it allows you to pilot vessels up to 165 metres. After five years, you can obtain a Class A pilot licence. The entire process takes seven years.

Our job is to help with navigation, and make sure ships travel safely along the Seaway. We also safeguard the public interest. We cannot allow marine incidents to occur on the St. Lawrence. The St. Lawrence is one of the most difficult rivers in the world to navigate. It has its challenges. We have four seasons here. We navigate during the winter. So that's our most important goal: ensuring safe navigation.

Local knowledge is very important. This local knowledge often can't be found on a nautical chart. Pilots use church belltowers as navigation aids. Sometimes we use houses along the St. Lawrence that we have identified. We use all kinds of things. For example, over the past 15 or 20 years, a lot of cell phone towers have gone up. We use them as navigation aids. You won't find them on a nautical chart. We use these navigation aids when we are piloting a ship; we also use our instruments. We have naval radar. For about the past ten years, electronic navigation has been in widespread use. Each pilot boards the ship with an electronic chart. The electronic chart provides the pilot with specific, real-time information to help him make better decisions. What that means is that today we can allow more and bigger ships to transit. So advances in technology mean we can do more, while maintaining the same level of safety on the St. Lawrence.

Lake Saint-Pierre has a special characteristic. If you look at the lake from bird's eye view, it's a wide expanse of water. But the lake is very shallow. People often say there's a lot of space for navigation, for commercial shipping, but it's not at all true. In Lake Saint-Pierre, back in the 1800s, they started dredging the lake and expanding the ship channel to allow larger ships to pass through. It was a major challenge, and they had to determine the best route. Because it's one thing to dredge a channel, but then you have to maintain it. They wanted to do as little maintenance as possible. The channel silting up was an issue they had to consider, because there is a lot of silt in Lake Saint-Pierre. So they carried out extensive research in the 1800s and designed a route through Lake Saint-Pierre. The route is not a straight line from Sainte-Anne-de-Sorel to Trois-Rivières. If you look on a map, you can see that the route they traced and designed does not run in a straight line. Today, the Coast Guard guarantees a minimum water level of 11.3 metres in the ship channel. This is according to the reference level used as the chart datum. So if you look at the navigation chart, all you really see is a channel 245 metres wide, which is maintained at a depth of 11.3 metres. The rest of the lake is a wide expanse of very shallow water. So we can't use that area for commercial shipping on the St. Lawrence. Many ships sail upstream of the bridge in Quebec City, we're talking about 5,000 to 6,000 ships each year. So you can see that it's a major commercial activity. The St. Lawrence is a very important shipping route.

Lake Saint-Pierre has its own particular challenges. For example, the lake freezes over in the winter. The challenge we face is maintaining an ice-free channel to allow ships to easily pass along it in the winter. Many elements are used to manage the Lake Saint-Pierre. Many years ago, when the Port of Montreal first started to be open year-round, the Coast Guard put a lot of effort into figuring out how to keep the channel ice-free during the winter. They built a variety of ice control structures in Lake Saint-Pierre, including artificial islands. These islands make it easier to maintain ice flats in the winter. What we do, as pilots on the St. Lawrence, is we reduce the speed of the ships that pass through the channel. Why? Because we want to promote ice coverage. We want the ice to thicken as quickly as possible, and become stable. When the ice cover is stable, the current runs a little faster in the channel, and that helps keep it free of ice.

Over the years, other ice control tools have been developed. There is a structure called an ice boom on the north side of lower Lake Saint-Pierre. It helps maintain and stabilize the ice flats on the north side of the channel. In the winter, the ice and ice flats on the lake are closely monitored. The Coast Guard has various tools; for example, they have three cameras installed on Lake Saint-Pierre. They can keep an eye on what's happening on Lake Saint-Pierre, 24 hours a day.

In the spring, the ice melts. The Coast Guard uses an air cushion vehicle, and around March 1 they start icebreaking in lower Lake Saint-Pierre.

Navigating in summer is very different from navigating in winter. In summer, on Lake Saint-Pierre there are many pleasure boaters. There are a lot of sport fishing activities. There's some commercial fishing. It's important for people boating and fishing to be aware of our limited manoeuvrability. We have done a lot of work over the past few years to prevent accidents. We are aware that the channel is not only used for commercial traffic. There are specific traffic rules. We want to share the channel, in a safe and secure manner.

In the archipelago, shoreline erosion has been a concern since the early 2000s. Shoreline erosion can be caused by a variety of factors. In the early 2000s, voluntary speed limits were adopted in certain sectors of the St. Lawrence, such as the sector between Île aux Raisins and the wharf in Sainte-Anne-de-Sorel. So when we pilot our ships through those sectors, we make sure to keep our speed below 12 knots. This helps protect shorelines and reduce shoreline erosion. Sometimes, if we go through there when the water level is higher than normal, we slow down even more to prevent shoreline erosion.

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