By Jacob Fehr
LAST summer, a local sailor embarked on an adventure half way around the world and back. Bill Sly of Port Dover travelled to Nantong, China, on behalf of McKeil Marine to help helm a ship acquired by the company, M/V Northern Venture, to Japan and eventually Canada.
Mr. Sly started his marine career in his early twenties but stopped because being away from his young children on sails was hard for the family. He did carpentry work but said he always loved and missed his past work.
“So, once the kids got older, I decided to go back to it,” he said. He’s been back at his preferred career for about 10 years, first at Lower Lakes Towing Limited in Port Dover and for the past three years at McKeil Marine.
“I love it—it’s not a job, it’s a lifestyle,” he said. He comes by his passion honestly: his father and grandfather were sailors. “It’s good money and healthy living for sure.”
Mr. Sly married in June 2023 and honeymooned shortly after. When he returned, McKeil Marine asked him about flying to Asia to sail a new vessel in their fleet, Northern Venture, to
Japan and then Canada. He left on the trip just three days later.
Before a renaming ceremony last summer, Northern Venture was M/V Da Shen. When McKeil Marine announced the acquisition of Da Shen in 2022, it described as a “unique shallow-draft, self-discharging vessel.”
Da Shen remained in China until 2023 to be “retrofitted with a new single-point loading system, together with the modifications and upgrades necessary for its intended service,” the release said. The vessel was built to carry cement clinker but was acquired and modified to “complement McKeil’s bulker fleet and further enhance the broad range of services which McKeil offers within its niche markets.”
The company tasked Mr. Sly and others with sailing the ship from China to Japan to pick up a load of slag, then from Japan through the Panama Canal to Canada. His job as a wheelsman was to keep a lookout for unusual vessels and weather, monitor the radio, check instruments, and steer the ship in restricted waterways, such as rivers.
He and two other wheelsmen took shifts doing the job. He said his role was functionally like a bosun, involving general maintenance, crane operation, mooring tasks, and teaching junior sailors.
The crew also had to prepare the vessel for use in Canada, which involved jobs like cleaning and replacing signs. “We were definitely kept busy,” he said.
His journey began with a 17-hour flight to Hong Kong, a 10-hour layover, then another flight to Shanghai. Next, they drove along the Yangtze River to Nantong, China, a city of nearly 8 million people in southeastern Jiangsu province where Northern Venture was docked.
He said he arrived in Nantong on July 17, 2023, and stayed at a downtown hotel for three weeks while waiting for the vessel to be ready to test and sail. While there, he took some time to explore the city, immersing himself in a new culture.
“Everybody was super nice,” he said. “You treat people with respect, and you get treated with it back.”
He said he experienced a large communication gap but technologies such as online translation tools made it fun and feasible to bridge that gap. While shopping for his family, he saw all kinds of noteworthy products at stores, which he said seemed to all have a bit of everything, even fresh food. He also saw technologies uncommon in Canada, such as face scanners.
“It was [a] culture shock for sure, but I really liked it,” he said. “The people treated us really well and there was great food.” He explained his distinctly foreign appearance made him stand out on Nantong’s streets as people routinely stopped him to take pictures.
Mr. Sly’s crew boarded the Northern Venture on August 6 and after a few days of testing, the crew left for Japan on August 8.
“Before I left, the captain in China called me and said no one had brought a good enough Canadian flag [to use on the ship], so I stopped at Stoney’s [Home Hardware] to pick one up,” he said. They raised the flag in China and sailed under it to Canada.
“It was a big thing to be able to fly the Canadian flag in another country the first time I’ve been there,” he said. “And it was from Dover, too.”
“My dad was a Navy sailor so it’s something he would have loved, seeing me fly a Canadian flag in another country like that,” he said. “And to get paid to do it is even better.”
Around August 16, the ship entered the Seto Inland Sea in Japan to pick up a load of slag in Kurashiki. “It was a little trying with a new ship none of us had ever been on,” he said.
While in Japan, he shopped for food for the ship’s crew. He said the mall he visited was “super clean” and likened it to a location from the movie Pleasantville. “Very scenic for sure,” he said.
One cultural difference he encountered there was a stigma against tattoos. As someone with many, he wore sleeves and otherwise covered himself to enter some places.
After loading the ship, they departed for the Panama Canal on August 22. He said they took “a great circle route” on the Pacific Ocean and often changed routes to avoid bad weather.
Their crew didn’t see land or other vessels again until September 20.
“I liked the solitude,” he said. “It didn’t really bother me at all.”
When Northern Venture arrived in Panama, fresh sailors relieved all crew members except him. He stayed on by choice to complete the sail across the globe, though he admitted to having mixed feelings when he saw the rest of the crew leaving. Port Dover locals Gil and Dawson Misner were part of the relieving crew who helped finish the ship’s sail to Canada.
On September 24, they crossed the Panama Canal in about 12 hours. They reached the Atlantic Ocean the next day.
His 92-day expedition ended when he disembarked in Montreal on October 8. He said his wife took a train to meet him, and they spent five days in the city before returning home. “I was ready to get off when we got to Montreal,” he joked.
He described his first sail on the “super unique and technical” Northern Venture as positive overall. He said there were many accommodation spaces, the crew’s quarters were spacious and pleasant, they had functioning Starlink internet, and their chef was superb. Even the weather was good to them, he said.
His 14,000 nautical mile voyage allowed him to check off several of his personal bucket list items, including sailing the Panama Canal, the Pacific Ocean, the Bermuda Triangle, and the Bay of Japan, crossing the international date line, and more. “That’s why I stayed on for as long as I did,” he said.
Now that he’s sailed the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans, he’s followed in his father and grandfather’s footsteps. He can also poke fun at his father’s old Navy friends, who used to tease him for only sailing the Great Lakes.
While sailing on the open ocean, he saw incredible sights like dolphins swimming in their ship’s wake and volcanoes. “You won’t get that on the Great Lakes,” he joked.
He enjoyed visiting China and Japan and wants to return in the future. “[I’m] definitely hopeful to have the opportunity to go back for sure,” he said. He stated being immersed in other cultures was his favourite part of the journey.
“Experiencing a different culture and being able to see a whole different way of life from what we’re used to here [in Canada]—it definitely opens your eyes.”
He has some more bucket list items he’d like to check off, too. “It was cool—and hopefully I can do it again.”
Mr. Sly took a month off for “Christmas with the family” and New Year’s celebrations but doesn’t think it will be long before he is “eager to be back out somewhere.” His job is on a five-week rotation, where he works for five weeks before having five weeks off.
“When I do come home, I don’t have to work, so it’s family time,” he said.
About Northern Venture
M/V Northern Venture was built as M/V Da Shen in 1998. After McKeil Marine bought it, the ship received what Mr. Sly called a “one-of-a-kind” single-point loading system and other modifications to fulfill its purposes as a “dry bulk self offloader.” McKeil Marine’s press release at the time of purchase said the vessel is 155 metres (508 ft) long by 22 metres (72 ft) wide with four cargo holds. Mr. Sly said a two-stroke diesel engine with 13 tonnes of marine diesel fuel powers the ship. With a crew of 15 men, it sails at 10–12 knots in “economode” and 16 knots at full speed.
Northern Venture operates on the Great Lakes, moving dry bulk cargo such as sand, gravel, stone, or salt on rivers and waterways too small for larger ships.
Originally Published January 10, 2024.