An interview with Mr. Christopher Wright, the author of “ARCTIC CARGO, A History of Marine Transportation in Canada's North”
It is very hard for the administrator of the “Maritime Group” to delete a post about the true passion of a real professional… but some things have to be done because if one exception is made albeit on good grounds, this good exception will be used by many others to justify less honourable intentions.
So, it was very hard for me to delete Mr. Wright post about his book “ARCTIC CARGO, A History of Marine Transportation in Canada's North”, but precisely because it was clear for me how much professionalism and passion is encapsulated in this book. In that moment when I pressed the delete button, I decided to offer Mr. Wright a platform for his voice on futureoftheocean.
Mr. Wright has proved to be a very approachable professional despite the fact he is still very busy… after 7 (seven years) from the day of his retirement in 2013. We managed to discuss a few items and have something to share with you.
Thank you very much Mr. Wright for sending me your complete CV. I felt myself in a very awkward position to review such an impressive CV, when, in other maybe more regular circumstances, you should, perhaps, have been reviewing mine. But I would like to thank you because it is a good base for our discussion. Let’s just start at the beginning and ask you how a chemical engineer was converted into a maritime logistic specialist?
Mr. Christopher Wright:
I chose Chemical engineering at Loughborough, it is now a University, but was a College of Advanced Technology in the early 1960’s, because I was at a loss as to what specialty to take, and this seemed like a good general course of study. Fortuitously, although it did not seem like that at the time my skills were not aligned with Chemical Engineering. I left in 1963 without a Diploma of Technology, but drawing on research reports I had written for some of the courses that needed a combination of skills in research, statistics, and economics, to obtain a position with the Westinform Service in London. I started in a junior assisting with bulk shipping reports, and found that I seemed to have a natural affinity for this kind of analytical work..
“The Westinform Service” was a reliable source of a wide variety of reports of interest for the industry in an era when the search on internet was not yet invented. A quick internet search still produces a significant number of results about “The Westinform Service” publications for the benefit of many industries including the maritime industry”
I was later promoted to the position of Head of Dry Cargo research, although that was a rather grand title for me an two others. On the other hand tankers was just one person.
It sounds as if your interest in research was being fulfilled at Westinform, why did you move to the General Council of British Shipping, at that time the Chamber of Shipping?
Mr. Christopher Wright:
The Chamber offered an increase in salary, which for a newly married young person, was quite attractive. I started in the documentary side with charter parties, but was able to move sideways to a position that interested me much more, which was working with British ship owner research, as secretary to different technical committees and as a ship owner representative on British Standards Institution (BSI) and International Standards Organization (ISO) committees, particularly containerization, which was just being introduced into international trades. I also had the great good fortune to be taken under the wing of the company Technical Directors, who made sure I had a thorough grounding in the technical and commercial issues they were facing. These years were a great time to be in such position because there were years full of innovations for the maritime industry (e.g. the implementation of the two-stroke low speed diesel engine on the large and higher powered vessels of that time).
You were in the middle of a very interesting period in the shipping industry, yet in 1970, you made a major leap, and joined Jones Bardelmeier and Company in the Bahamas, were you looking for a life in the sun, or something different?
Mr. Christopher Wright:
Sun and sea didn’t come into the equation, although it was an attraction. JBC as they were known were the preeminent bulk shipping consultants of the day, and it was an opportunity to get back into serious bulk shipping research on behalf of clients. I had done a little bulk shipping consulting privately while at the Chamber of Shipping, and realized how much I missed the work.
These years were also the pioneer years of digitisations and in addition to client work I was also responsible for the company’s computer related work, including the design of the IT and information systems The work was demanding, but satisfying, and in the spare time I had I became involved with local theatre groups, and had the opportunity to coordinate a wide range of volunteers to design and create a fully functional 300 seat semi-professional theatre. Bit of a departure from shipping, but it drew on my family background. My father was an architect, my uncles were architects and engineers, and my grandfather was a structural engineer. I guess design is in my genes.
Despite your apparent satisfaction with client work and a fulfilling side activities associated with the local theatre, you moved again, not back to England, but North to Canada in 1981. Did you see a unique opportunity, to leave what had been your home for 11 years?
Mr. Christopher Wright:
It was a combination of factors. Despite having become a partner in JBC, and having a considerable role in the company, I saw no opportunity for advancing beyond being a Director of the company. The political situation was also rather less than happy in the Bahamas at that time, so my wife and I decided we needed to move to a place where our children could thrive. By moving to Acres International Limited in 1981 as Marine Transportation Specialist and 3 (three) years after as Senior Shipping Consultant, I became involved with the fascinating world of Arctic shipping. I had a great opportunity at Acres to build the shipping side of the Economics and Planning Group, within which I worked, by putting together exceptional teams drawn from the different company offices across Canada. However, in 1989 a new company president decided on a different focus for the company, and Economics and Planning, although welcome to hang around would receive no support. With the writing on the wall, I established The Mariport Group in 1989, along with a colleague from the company and a couple of other partners. They soon decided to move on, but I ran the company until I retired in 2013.
Chimo Shipping, ran two small ships Arctic Viking and Lady Franklin in Eastern arctic service. Their main activity was providing re-supply support to the Nanisivik mine, but they also did some community re-supply. The ships were ex Baltic SS, and designed to take the ground in drying European ports.
Picture courtesy of Colin Crosbie.
While at Mariport, as with Acres, I had many opportunities to work on Arctic projects, one of the earliest being a logistics study for a new Arctic mine. Also in my early Arctic work I led teams that produced a major report for Transport Canada Marine Policy on Arctic shipping, development, socio-economic conditions and other issues (the Canadian Arctic Shipping Assessment). Since then I’ve been also involved in many other pan Arctic studies as well as the Mackenzie River for the public and private sector. I worked extensively with the Government of Nunavut, assisting with dry cargo re-supply, and other maritime areas. As a contractor for WorleyParsons Canada, among other studies, I made logistics and economic contributions to a design project for a dock at Iqaluit, a port facilities study for three Arctic communities and a strategic analysis of transportation and sealift issues in the Northwest Territories. I contributed also to a study for Transport Canada into potential traffic in the Northwest Passage. A private sector study I was involved in was developing a logistics plan for a proposed mine in Alaska.
The drums were used for petroleum products from the early days into the 1970’s
Picture courtesy of Courtesy Paul Kelly.
May I ask you what you find fascinating about Arctic? It’s about landscape, the wilderness, the overall white and cold…
Mr. Christopher Wright:
I am sorry to disappoint you, but nothing like that. I’m not exactly the explorer type person so I never really adventured into the wild or in the middle of Arctic ice and cold. I am quite a domestic person liking my comfort. What was really fascinating me was the possibility for improving and developing Arctic shipping and logistic and in this way to bring a better quality in the life of the people in remote corners of Arctic… more precisely the Canadian Arctic.
Just to round out the timeline of my career, on my retirement in 2013. WorleyParsons, with whom I had worked on a number of projects acquired Mariprt’s extensive Arctic archive, together with an agreement to work with them in a contract position “for a couple of years”. However, seven years later, I am still with them and enjoying the challenges of different arctic projects, including one recently to develop a marine system for Great Bear Lake in the Northwest Territories to assist in remediation of abandoned mine sites.
All these sum up as a very busy career. When have you had time for writing a book as comprehensive as “ARCTIC CARGO, A History of Marine Transportation in Canada's North”?
Mr. Christopher Wright:
It was intended as a retirement projects, although I started gathering material a couple of years earlier, I can’t remember the precise moment when I decided to write the book, but definitively it was after I received an email from a reputable company involved in Artic transport and logistics asking about the volume of cargo moved by them during a certain (significant) period of time. I don’t know why they need this information, but apparently it was easier for them to ask me rather than searching in their own archives… if any. I realised then that there was a definite need for the book, as there was no other single reference source about marine transportation in the Canadian arctic
However my experiences and memories covered only a portion of the region’s history, so it took me quite a lot of research in different archives and libraries to document the story from the very beginning, going back to the time even before the economics of the area was based on whaling, fur, until today when minerals and other resources are far more important. It was very intensive work but the fact that I already knew many of the places, contexts and, in a way, the people, helped me to put together the entire fascinating puzzle.
I am a great believer in understanding the past in order to see more clearly what the future might hold, and hope that the book helps others understand an important part of Canada’s history. Because there were inevitable gaps in the data for Arctic Cargo, I set up a web site where I could post additional information, as well as comments from readers with expansions, and corrections.
This is: www.arcticcargo.ca.
I also post papers about the arctic that I have written. A fascinating piece of fairly recent history that I was able to complete through the helps of a colleague who had read the book and recognised a gap in the record was Operation Frostbite, about the provision of fuel to Northern Quebec in the early 1960’s. This merits a single line in the book, but is several pages with photographs on the web site.
NTCL were the primary re-supply carrier for the Western Arctic until they went bankrupt in 2016 (see Arctic Cargo article in “In the News”). This was typically how both POL and dry cargo barges were handled at the beaches. The barges were all set up for POL in the hull and dry cargo on deck.
All Nunavut communities are now served from the East by conventional Type A tankers and dry cargo ships. MTS, which is a part of GNWT took over the assets of NTCL and offer a more limited, mainly social necessity service to those Mackenzie River and Western Arctic communities that can only be served by marine.
Goods were/are trucked or railed to Hay River on Great Slave Lake, then barged down the Mackenzie. Tuktoyaktuk is used as a transfer point to build up loads from the restrictions on the river (5’ at the best of times) to deeper draft operations for the ocean.
In the Eastern Arctic, ships carry small lighterage barges and tugs on deck then deploy them at each community to lighter cargo ashore. No communities have a suitable dock for deep sea ships. Iqaluit will have one as of this year.
The Arctic Cargo book sounds fascinating, but in exploring the site and I found that this is not the only book you have written, there is another:
Mr. Christopher Wright:
Indeed, it isn’t, I recently completed a book about Arctic Cruising called “Of Penguins and Polar Bears – A History of Cold Water Cruising” This book grew out of a realisation that I was the only person, so it seemed, documenting cruise activity in the Canadian arctic, and realising that when I started reading about polar cruising, there were a number of misconceptions and data inaccuracies.
As a result, with the support of The History Press in England, I decided to document the fascinating history of how polar cruising came to start, the companies and the characters. As not everybody could be a North Pole explorer, many people are happy to cruise as tourists in these cold waters at a safe distance to the penguins and especially the mighty polar bear. I would let you again to discover for yourself the span of the book so I won’t say more.
However, you could get a sense of what is in the book from the quarterly update that I plan to post on the Arctic Cargo website. The April 2020 edition is already on line
Arctic re-supply covers about 150 days each year during the ice-free season. Dry Cargo
ships carry small tugs and lighterage barges for deployment at each community as there are no deep sea docks. A dock should have been completed in Iqaluit in 2020, but may be delayed because of the pandemic. This photograph shows a NEAS ship. The other dry cargo re-supply company is NSSI, which is a partnership between Groupe Desgagnes and the Co-Op.
Futureoftheocean note: yes, we know that this picture is not about penguins and polar bear… because Mr. Wright focus is to bring a better quality in the life of the people in remote corners of Arctic
Should we understand that these books are your ultimate legacy?
Mr. Christopher Wright:
I see Arctic Cargo as a legacy document, although Penguins and Polar Bears could also be thought of in the same way. However, there were two prior activities that could also be considered as "legacies". I told you already about the first, the semi-professional theatre I designed and built, with the help of a great team of volunteers, in the Bahamas. One I did not mention, but of which I am very proud, is that I was largely responsible for bringing back overnight cruising to the Great Lakes. 1997 doesn't seem that long ago when I swallowed hard, and laid out $65,000 to charter the Columbus for the overnight trip from Port Colborne to Toledo. Mariport didn't make any money on the cruise, but it didn’t make a loss either, and I like to think it really got things rolling to bring overnight cruising back into the Lakes. Working with the support of regional port authorities, we went on to attract several international ships to the region. In 2020, there were plans for eight ships to cruise the regions. I still have the award from the Great Lakes Commission as Person of the Year in 1998, in recognition of the work I did
However, I quite understand that the main scope of this interview is not to promote my books or worse, myself, but to inspire communities and in particular young professionals into the shipping industry.
If you are looking for takeaways, team work has been an essential part of my working life, both as a lead and a member. Also, not getting into a silo and having wide-ranging interests. I have also tried to make myself available to talk about the Arctic, and have given many papers and presentations to different groups.
In many ways, I consider myself fortunate in having entered the shipping industry in the period that I did. I am not sure there would be similar broad opportunities to learn today.
One on top of the others, I hope that helps.
Petroleum products are typically handled by two companies, Petro-Nav, a division of Groupe Desgagnes and the Woodward Group from Labrador. The picture above shows a typical fuel transfer by 4”floater hose to shore manifold from a Petro-Nav ship.
Mr. Christopher Wright is the founder and former president of The Mariport Group Ltd.
He is member Chartered Institute of Logistics &Transport (UK), Interferry and Society of Naval Architects and Marine Engineers (SNAME).
He was the Chair of Toronto Region of the Chartered Institute of Logistics and Transport and he was elected for 1998/99 as the “Person of the year” by the Great Lakes Maritime Forum
“ARCTIC CARGO, A History of Marine Transportation in Canada's North”
“Off Penguins and Polar Bears – A history of cold water cruising”
and how could be achieved could be found on the site:
Hopefully additional interesting books will follow!
All pictures and the corresponding explanations and details have been provided by Mr. Christopher Wright.
The very top picture is of NSSI's mv Camilla Desgagnésbeing escorted into Kugaaruk by the Des Groselliers in 2015, Photograph by Nunatsiaq News
The community of Kugaaruk had to be served by air until 1994 when, as a result of suggestions in a Mariport report, the Government of the NWT and CCG came to an agreement that two of their ice breakers would be outfitted to carry re-supply materials and fuel. This arrangement continued to 2004, when the 1A Super ice class Woodward tanker Tuvaq, with icebreaker escort, and using the new AIRSS system carried fuel into the community
The last picture, photo courtesy of Captain Laurie Hatfield, is of Barges 8 & 9 being loaded from the Arctic Trader at the mouth of the Koksoak River in Nunavik in 1979.
All communities on the Hudson Strait suffer from extreme tides (in excess of 10m). Kuujjuaq (ex Fort Chimo) on the Koksoak River is even more difficult to access, and these little tugs and barges are still in use today.
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