One might imagine the Harbour Master at Hamilton harbour would work from an office with big windows overlooking the water, and radar screens tracking inbound and outbound ships.
That’s not the nest where Port of Hamilton Harbour Master Vicki Gruber works. The first woman Harbour Master in the port’s 109 year history has just as much land to look after as water.
Gruber became Harbour Master in 2014, after starting at the port in 2006 working in security on the Port Patrol team.
She is one of just two female Harbour Masters at the 17 Canada Port Authorities, the other is in St. John’s Newfoundland.
Is there a typical day for a Harbour Master at the Hamilton-Oshawa Port Authority? Not really says Gruber and that’s why she loves the job. Her work is split half and half between shipping matters and security. It’s a good blend for someone with a background in law and security.
Monitoring a secure port
Before the attacks on 911, it was pretty easy to drive on port roads, get close to freighters being loaded, and observe other port activities. Since then gates, and checkpoints greet anyone trying to sightsee. The changes came with the new Marine Transportation Security Requirements in 2002. Now designated a secure port, Gruber manages security for the 630 acres, under the Hamilton-Oshawa Port Authority (HOPA) domain.
Those on official business and with a Port Security Access Card can pass through the checkpoints. But the mysterious Spine Road, Hobson Road, Pier 24 gateway that pop up on Google Maps as one drives along Industrial Drive are off limits.
For a port that sees up to 700 vessels arriving during the shipping season, it is noticeably free of drama. As Gruber defines it, she is in charge of “order in the port.” The time it gets tricky is in the fall, when ships are pressed to deliver cargo before the season closes for the winter. The harbour becomes crowded.
Directing traffic in Hamilton Harbour
“Later in the season, we have five, six vessels in the anchorage area, so part of our responsibility is to make sure vessels are aware of what traffic is currently active in the port.” Ships may be going in and out of the ship canal, or waiting for tugs to guide them from dock to dock. If the maneuvering room gets too tight, ships will have to anchor our in the lake Gruber says.
Just like the train spotters, there are ship spotters, curious about what vessels are in the harbour. For that info, Gruber says the HOPA website’s (https://www.hopaports.ca/) vessel tracking page identifies ships by name, if they are in transit at anchor and other information.
Last year the shipping season was just about to start when Covid struck. As Gruber says a lot of lessons were learned quickly about keeping crew safe. An overseas ship, because of the length of the trip, has already been in a sort of quarantine for over 14 days. Still, other precautions are in play.
“We are seeing a lot of carriers that are really encouraging crew members not to disembark the vessel. That keeps the marine community on the vessel safe,” Gruber says.
Issues of stress management are on Gruber’s radar. She works with Mission to Seafarers on mental health awareness, focusing on the stress associated with long voyages, extreme weather and accidents.
A rare woman in the male world of marine careers
She’s also encouraging women to investigate careers in the marine sector. Female ship captains are still rare, and so are Harbour Masters.
“Because I’m a woman, I still run into individuals who test me a bit more, I would say yes, that still happens.”
But the job for the Stoney Creek native remains a passion.
“One of my favourite things as a kid was watching ships transit the canal, I loved it and I still love it.”
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