By Marianne Wood
Norm & Helen swing on their front lawn enjoying morning coffee on a hot summer day in July. The ferry is like part of their family…. every single car that boards and disembarks from the Chi-Cheemaun goes right by their front door. Dozens of honks and waves are exchanged in the 45 minutes I spent chatting with Helen & Norm. Two of their grandkids, Anderson and Evan, even join us for some small talk — heading into Grade 1 & Grade 5 is a big deal you know! When I asked them how exciting it was to see Papa driving the big boat, Norm replies “oh yes, it’s Papa’s boat to them”.
This July marked 50 years that Norm Addison has worked for the Owen Sound Transportation Company (OSTC), and 48 years of running the Tobermory to South Baymouth passage. Over the years a lot has changed but one thing has remained the same — Norm’s dedication to the job and love for what he does.
Born in 1947 in Evansville on the Manitoulin Island, to a family of eight children, Norm has worked his way up from a porter to a wheelsman and bosun (the middle man between the mates and deckhands), and now holds the senior position of AB (able bodied-seaman) aboard the MS Chi-Cheemaun, running out of Tobermory, Ontario.
In July of 1967, with limited job options available for working men on the Island, Norm decided to try his hand on the water and was hired on by the OSTC as a porter aboard the Normac. When he started on the Norisle in 1969, Norm held several positions including fireman, watchman, wheelsman and bosun.
In 1970, Norm had paid notice to a young lady he often spotted down on the dock visiting with her father who worked there. Initially he was a little concerned about the many children she usually had in tow – but they turned out to be her sister Nancy’s kids. They were set up on a blind date by co-worker Fred Hellyer and the rest is history. Norm and Helen (nee Smith) were married in December 1970. They settled in Tobermory and have been there ever since.
The biggest change in Norm’s career came with the arrival of the Chi-Cheemaun in 1974. The impressive vessel changed the face of the Tobermory-South Baymouth passage. “The biggest difference was just the size of the ship and how fast it could go” said Norm. Going from the Norisle, which could take 200 passengers and 40 cars to the Chi-Cheemaun, which carried 638 passengers and more than 140 vehicles was a big change. “We could make the trip in 1hr 45min instead of 3 hrs”.
When I asked if there were any test runs before they started carrying paying passengers? Nope, we just started to run. “Everyone was green” said Helen, “Captain, crew, deckhands, we were all learning everything for the first time” said Norm.
It was Norm who wheeled the Chi-Cheemaun out of Collingwood harbour on her maiden voyage. Captain Bob Morrison joined the sailing for the first few days since none of the crew had experience with a twin screw. Everyone had to get their certificate for a gravity launch lifeboat – the new way to launch.
Over the years Norm has worked with a variety of people, including his wife Helen, who worked aboard for over 10 years starting as a 2nd cook and then as a service aid. Most notable are his two brothers, Murray Addison, who has worked for the OSTC for 45 years and Rick (Coon) Addison who has worked for OSTC for 39 years.
Helen and Norm’s son Brian also worked briefly for OSTC as a dockman and aboard the Nindawayma – truly a family affair.
“You gotta like the water” says Norm, “and not get seasick” he laughed – something he has never had a
problem with. Norm and Helen reminisced about co-workers who had suffered from sea-sickness. “When the forecast called for rough seas, she would make a pot of beef stew and some ginger tea, and just sit staring out at the horizon for the duration of the trip” remembered Helen of one unfortunate cook.
The Addisons spoke of the many Captains Norm has worked with over the years. He started with Harry McNeil aboard the Normac. “In a thick fog, Captain Dick Tackaberry (on the Norisle), could open a window and smell if we were close to land” said Helen and Norm. Now that’s navigation on a whole new level.
It seems that Norm has genuinely enjoyed most of the people he has worked with. “When (Captain) Ewart Mackie was on the boat he was Captain, but when he got off the ship he was just a regular guy in a tee-shirt and hat, would come back and play horseshoes, cards and have a few drinks” said Norm, who had worked with Mackie previously on the Normac. I got the impression that Norm & Helen’s was the place to hang out after a shift, have a few drinks, play some cards. For a lot of these workers, home was a long way away and Helen and Norm’s was a welcoming place.
Norm tried shipping out once or twice in the early days, but with a young family at home it just didn’t sit right. So, back in those days to make ends meet you worked all summer long, 7 days a week, just to get by. “You would get in from a long day on the water and then you would have to load coal” remembers Norm. “Wouldn’t get home until early morning and be heading back out in a few hours”. I think he deserved the winters off.
I asked Norm if there was ever a time he thought “maybe we shouldn’t be out here”. “There was one time” recalls Norm, “I was on the Norisle and we left at 7am, seas were rough! We would normally arrive around 11am and didn’t make it until 1:30pm. We bent the aft spar and damaged cars”. “Normally we would run 10 miles an hour and were down to around 2 miles an hour”.
For right now, retirement is not on Norm’s mind. How many people can say they actually enjoy going to work every day? Norm can.