An old charmer

He talked like a really tough, old-school skipper. But when we met Capt. Don Keith in 1970 his mask slipped a bit revealing an old rascal with a sense of humour and a capacity for mischief. He’s been gone for many years now but I still remember him fondly though I didn’t know him well.

In the early spring that year Capt. Keith brought in the CSL freighter Georgian Bay as the first ship docking at Midland that year. Being a marine buff, as news editor of the Free Press Herald and reporter of town council affairs, I accompanied officials aboard the ship to view the traditional presentation of a top hat to the skipper, which they did.

After the ceremony it was customery for the captain to open his beverage locker and offer the visitors a libation or two, which Capt. Keith did.

It was then time for photos of the presentation to be staged, as setting up the picture was really the only way to get everyone smiling and in the desired position. And this, I did.

Right after the official photo had been taken, the captain whipped off the top hat and put on his own, then ducked behind Reeve Harvey Ellison, who was representing the town, and placed the topper on his head. We were glad the reeve had good sized ears otherwise we might have lost his entire head inside that hat. The photo shows everyone in good form — Harvey smiling from under the hat brim, Deputy Reeve T.M. McCullough with an approving look, and the captain with a saucy grin.

Afterwards I lingered awhile to chat with the skipper about himself, his crew and his ship. As I was leaving he invited me to bring my wife Daphne to join him for dinner aboard the Georgian Bay that evening.

Neither I nor Daphne are good with heights, but I had managed earlier in the day to go up and down the ship’s side on the shaky aluminum ladder used for the purpose, so I knew what to expect. How to make it easier for a tiny woman, nearly five months pregnant, who was pretty much terrified at the prospect?

Send her up first, I decided. But I would be right below her, offering encouragement and blocking the view somewhat if she made the mistake of looking down. Yes, as we got about halfway up of course the ladder shook more, but my gutsy Newfoundlander kept going, and at the top was helped aboard by the skipper himself.

Daphne loved older men who could turn on the charm, and Don Keith did that in spades. We had dinner with the crew in the aft end of the ship, then he showed us around the forward superstructure, particularly the wheelhouse where he proudly maintained control of his ship, under all circumstances, he assured us, pointing to a small lever under the forward windows. He did not elaborate and we didn’t ask.

Our descent down the ladder was easier because it was dark by then. The Georgian Bay would be departing right after unloading her cargo of grain so we would not see Capt. Keith again for some time.

On a future visit to Midland he came over to our apartment for dinner, and brought a toddler’s sailor suit for our recently born son who, by the way, as an adult of 50 is also allergic to heights.

Capt. Keith was a native of Collingwood, which coincidentally is where the Georgian Bay was built in 1953. He retired from Canada Steamship Lines in 1975 and passed away in 1981 before we could see him again, though we did exchange Christmas cards. The ship was also retired around 1982 and was scrapped in Turkey in 1989.

Below: SS Georgian Bay, a painting by Capt. C. (Bud) Robinson of Tobermory, once a third mate on another ship under Capt. Keith, and later also a skipper of the Georgian Bay.

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