Last Saturday marked 50 years since Winfield Longe arrived in Montreal seeking higher education and a comfortable lifestyle.
Little did he know that he would achieve both and more by becoming Canada’s first Black sea captain.
“It’s funny but I didn’t set out to be a trailblazer by becoming the first in anything,” said Longe, who retired eight years ago. “All I wanted was higher education and a job. Things just happened to fall in place for me and I am thankful for everything from working with wonderful people to getting the opportunity to travel throughout Canada and the United States.”
The son of a shipwright, Longe was a sailor in his native Guyana before migrating in 1964 to join his sister, Marcelle Longe, who passed away last January. She arrived in Canada in 1963 under the West Indian Domestic Scheme program that allowed 100 Caribbean women to enter the country annually at the time.
A graduate of Montreal’s Marine & Electronics Navigational School, Longe was an able-bodied seaman with Canadian Steamship Lines – former Canadian Prime Minister Paul Martin co-owned the company – for three months and a third officer with the defunct Hall Corporation for six months before joining Upper Lakes Shipping, which maintained a convoy of freighters on the North American Great Lakes for eight decades before selling its fleet to Algoma Central three years ago.
Starting as a fourth officer, Longe was appointed captain in 1975, fleet captain six years later and commodore in 1998.
Nearly 18 months after becoming a shipmaster, he captained the largest dry bulk carrier in Canada at the time. Measuring 800 feet long and 116 feet wide, the vessel transported oil and dry cargo almost 200 nautical miles between Sorel-Tracy and Havre-Saint-Pierre in Quebec.
“This was an extremely huge ship with no bow thruster which plays a vital part in manoeuvring and navigating vessels,” said Longe. “I was able to moor the ship for the three months I spent on it without the bow thruster which provides assistance in berthing a ship without taking up too much time.”
When the vessel was caught in a fierce storm whipping 90 miles an hour wind and waves reaching almost 30 feet, Longe and his crew summoned their expertise to guide the ship to safety.
“That was one of the few bad experiences I had at sea,” he recounted. “The vessel was very difficult to manoeuvre and we almost lost some hatches.”
Longe, who moved to Toronto in 1970 after completing radar observer courses at George Brown College three years earlier, also captained the Canadian Pioneer, which had a left-handed propeller.
“Most ships have right-handed propellers that turn clockwise,” he said. “The propeller on the Canadian Pioneer rotated anti-clockwise which most captains didn’t like because you were taken out of your comfort zone.”
In 1985, Longe was selected from among 35 candidates to co-ordinate the mooring of ships to concrete platforms of drilling rigs in the North Sea. He also taught a shipmaster business course at Georgian College and was consulted on the preparation of the Atmospheric Environmental Program Alternative Service Delivery study.
The former Shipmasters’ Association of Niagara president credits the time he spent at the Guyana Technical Institute with preparing him for the challenge of breaking into Canada’s maritime sector and making history.
“This is a tough industry to crack, particularly for visible minorities in Canada,” said Longe. “The marine course that I did there was really helpful in allowing me to make an almost seamless transition here. There were challenges along the way, but I had the grounding in the field that served me well. The other thing that helped is that I came here with no preconceived notions. I was willing to learn and put in the hard work to get to where I want.”