I am not sure why this appeared suddenly in my stream of connections. Wherever it came from, I think it caught me for a couple of reasons. When I was a kid, there was a small column in the local papers called, if i remember correctly, “Vessel sightings” that recording in a very simple code, the movement of major ships up the Detroit River. And there was the story my father and brother told me one day.
There is a mailboat on the Detroit River in the Detroit area that, people tell me, is the only way that sailors on commercial and other major vessels can get snailmail along the entire St. Lawrence Seaway and the Great Lakes.
Whatever other reference got me here, it immediately evoked memories, envious memories, of the story my father and little brother told me after they had had the opportunity one day to hitch a ride on the J. W Westcott as it made a delivery many years ago.
The freighters that make their way up the river are from all over the world. From my office, in a tower on the riverfront, I can watch them as if slow-moving buildings sliding past the city, some of them 3 or more city-blocks long and stories high.
The Westcott is a 45-foot tug-like boat that makes its deliveries in thrillingly dynamic action in the middle of the Detroit River. Heading out to meet one of these monsters, the Westcott has not only the river current, weather, and speed of the freighter to contend with (no, they don’t stop), but also the force of the wake that these massive ships toss out, both repelling anything that gets close, as well as sucking in anything that gets too close.
But this is the effective dynamic of the Westcott. Heading our into the river, its captain first gauges the speed of the freighter. Finding a target location on the side of its huge hull, the captain guns the engines of the Westcott on a broadside collision path with the big boat.
Once over the wake, the Westcott’s captain, now caught in its influence has to suddenly spin the boat onto a parallel path with the freighter. At this point, the smaller boat, almost uncontrollable, is sucked into the wake and slammed up against the steel side if this massive moving vessel.
Now riding in tandem, a sailor on the big boat drops a line to the deck of the Westcott. The captain ties on the mailbag and the sailor lifts the boat’s mail up onto deck.
To escape this threateningly intimate embrace, the captain now, again, throttles up to maximum speed and, with engines racing and a rapid spin of the wheel, pulls from the big boat and over its wake into the main stream.
I remember the thrill of my brother and father in the telling, and I cannot imagine a theme park ride more exciting.