Port de Grave harbour supervisor lands national award
Bill Ralph, the Port de Grave harbour supervisor, has a spectacular view from his office in the corner of the Harbour Authority building, on a hill in the port overlooking the harbour.
Through large windows on adjoining walls in his corner office of the building, he can see the harbour on his left-hand side and Conception Bay on his right.
And on a shelf across from his desk, he has a view of his National Harbour Authority achievement award, an award given by national governing body Small Craft Harbours, a national program operated by the federal Department of Fisheries and Oceans, to someone in each of five regions across Canada. The recognition program is in only its second year of existence.
And after next week, he’ll have a view of an even bigger award: the Prix d’Excellence, awarded to one of the five regional winners. Ralph is heading to Ottawa for an awards’ ceremony next week.
Ralph said he was pleased by the regional individual award and surprised by the Prix d’Excellence,
because a harbour supervisor from Newfoundland won the Prix d’Excellence last year and he didn’t think there’d be winners from the same region two years in a row.
“ No one ever thought that Newfoundland would take the second consecutive year with this particular award, nationally,” he said. “So it speaks good of the program and that for Newfoundland and Labrador.”
Ralph said he was one of seven nominees for the regional award, which was given out late last month at a ceremony in Gander, which is where he also learned that he was the winner of the national award.
Ralph said he was pleased by the award.
“ That’s one of the most important awards that anyone could get as far as I’m concerned at this particular position,” he said.
As the supervisor, Ralph is responsible for maintaining the Port de Grave Harbour, which entails everything from routine registrations to harbour emergencies. As such, he’s essentially on call 24 hours a day - his home phone number is on his business card, which makes sense, given that for his first two years on the job, he worked out of the laundry room in his home.
Ralph said his job requires a lot of working with the public, a skill he picked up working at a garage in St. John’s several years ago.
“ The way the harbour authority system is set up, is almost like a separate business in itself,” he said. “A lot of people think I’m a federal government employee, but I’m not. The harbour authority committee here is a seven-man volunteer committee. They get nothing out of it whatever, only the satisfaction of trying to get things done, and they hired me to represent them and do the work of harbour supervisor in Port de Grave.”
Everyone who uses the harbour - boat owners, companies coming in to do work - pays a fee, explains Ralph.
“ These fees, by the way, is what helps pay my salary,” he said. “If I don’t collect, I don’t get paid. But I’d be out of a job then anyway,” he adds, laughing. The more boats come in to do their offloading, he says, the more funding for the harbour.
Ralph has office hours, but he’s as likely to be outside as not - this past week he was working to shut down the fresh-water system in advance of the coming winter. “In the run of a day, you could be cleaning washrooms, answering the phone, talking to tourists, doing financial statements, or being in a meeting with Small Crafts Harbours,” he said. “It keeps me busy, there’s no doubt about that.”
Lucky for him, he enjoys it, he said - although he had to lay down some ground rules early on that phone calls in the middle of the night had better be for emergencies only.
“First when I started, I used to get calls two, three, four o’clock in the morning to get a boat moved,” he said. “Someone was coming in out there and wanted a boat moved, but I had to put an end to that right away because that wasn’t fair game to the people that as tied up. Wasn’t fair game to me.”
Now it’s only emergencies that he gets late-night or early-morning phone calls. At the harbour, an emergency could be a fire.
“ We’ve had three boat fires. Two sixty-five-footers and a thirty-footer that burned,” he said. “ That’s a bad scene, there’s no doubt about that. When you get boats tied up in the wintertime and you get one, two, three tied together, you have to take charge.”
Lessons learned from the first harbour fire he dealt with led to the creation of an emergency response plan.
“ We were the first harbour authority in Newfoundland and Labrador to create our own fire emergency plan as a result of that first fire,” he said, one that helps coordinate everyone needed to respond to a fire, including RCMP and firefighters, to whom Ralph can provide his expertise of the water and the harbour and its boats.
“ When you work in a situation, you get all of this, you’re the one with first-hand knowledge, day in and day out, and this provides more positive information and more cor- rect information to them to make decisions,” he said. “If you’ve got a boat burning, is it 10 gallons of fuel on it or 20,000 gallons? This kind of stuff.”
Ralph says when he’s away from the harbour, it usually takes him a little while to relax and get used to the idea that he’s not on call.
“It takes a while to unwind and get used to know the phone’s not going to ring,” he said. “It takes a few days to settle down. That’s one thing I find with this particular job: even if I’m home on a weekend or I’m home on vacation. There’s people who are so used to knowing where I live, if they don’t find me here at the office, they’ll come to the door anyway. The only vacation time you get is, you get in the car and you head out and you go to the west coast somewhere, or central Newfoundland or away from it.”
But there are other perks of the job, too. The beauty of the region and the view from the harbour authority building - with a deck that wraps around on the harbour side — draws visitors from around the world, he says.
“ We encourage people to come up around here and take pictures from the deck there or come in and have a chat and ask questions,” he said. “I’ve ended up talking to people from every province in Canada, all parts of the United States. The Middle East, Australia, Vietnam, Thailand... it’s surprising the people that show up here and where they’re from. That’s one of the biggest surprises.”
Ralph said he’s trying to get the province to recognize the building as a tourist information centre, which would provide for more information pamphlets as well as a summer student to help with the tourism aspect of the job.
“A lot of couples have come to Newfoundland for the first time, and I always ask their observations. Is it the way you expected it to be? I had one lady from Alberta and she started to blush and said, ‘I got to be honest with you. I’ve talked to a lot of Newfoundlanders, and I’ve heard Newfoundland referred to as ‘the Rock.’ I wasn’t expecting any vegetation or any trees or any grass or anything like that,’” he said. “ She said, ‘ That’s why I haven’t been here before.’” But now that she’s been here once, she’s going to be coming back, he said. “And that’s the most common comment that I get from people.”
As for the award itself, Ralph says he’s honoured to be receiving it. “I know there’s a lot of good harbour supervisors across this island that I’m dealing with on a regular basis type thing,” he said. “Knowing these people, I just feel pretty honoured and privileged to win both awards.”
Ralph will be presented with the Prix d’Excellence in Ottawa on Nov. 24.
Bill Ralph says he’s “privileged and honoured” to be awarded the Prix d’Excellence from Small Craft Harbours, which maintains a national system of harbours.