It’s a dirty, thank­less job, but Iron Guppy can dig it

New tugboat keeps Toronto ports run­ning year-round, break­ing ice and dredg­ing pol­luted sed­i­ment


Capt. Keith Fansett has com­manded cruise ships in the Caribbean Sea, steered tug­boats through the Great Lakes and is cer­ti­fied to sail any ves­sel be­tween the North Pole and equa­tor.

But he has found his dream job not far off the shores of down­town Toronto, in the wheel­house of the Iron Guppy.

The Iron Guppy, which was named by el­e­men­tary school stu­dents in a con­test, dredges in the fall, breaks ice in the win- ter and keeps the ports run­ning ef­fi­ciently in the busy spring and sum­mer.

It made its maiden voy­age last sum­mer, re­plac­ing the Wil­liam Rest tugboat that was built just be­fore Fansett was born, in 1961.

“In your whole ca­reer you never get a brand new boat,” Fansett said, while deftly squeez­ing the tugboat be­tween two points of land at Tommy Thomp­son Park.

“This may be a once-in-a-life­time op­por­tu­nity.”

He started his ca­reer 35 years ago as a deck hand and worked in the St. Lawrence River and South At­lantic Ocean be­fore re­turn­ing home two decades ago.

At 65 feet long and 18 feet wide, the Iron Guppy is Port­sToronto’s largest tugboat, and is cus­tom­ized to be pow­er­ful, yet ma­noeu­ver­able.

“It had to fit in the Goldilocks zone,” Fansett said.

This fall, the Iron Guppy will re­move 20,000 to 40,000 cu­bic me­tres of sed­i­ment from the Don River’s Keat­ing Chan­nel.

That’s enough con­tam­i­nated mud, leaves, dirt and other or­ganic ma­te­ri­als to fill the en­tire six-storey Port­sToronto build­ing at 60 Har­bour St., Fansett said.

The sed­i­ment car­ried down the Don River ac­cu­mu­lates in the chan­nel, mak­ing it shal­low and pre­vent­ing wa­ter from flow­ing into Lake On­tario. If the chan­nel is not dredged ev­ery year, the river could flood and im­pact the Don Val­ley Park­way and Brick Works area.

With Google set to de­velop Quay­side, a 4.8-hectare “smart city,” and Wa­ter­front Toronto plan­ning a Vil- liers Is­land precinct, dredg­ing is more im­por­tant than ever, said An­gus Arm­strong, Port­sToronto’s har­bour master for the past 15 years.

“I’ve been on the wa­ter all my life and seen tremen­dous changes, and now those changes are go­ing to ac­cel­er­ate,” Arm­strong said, look­ing to­ward the Toronto sky­line from the up­per deck of the Iron Guppy.

“That puts a tremen­dous amount of pres­sure on the wa­ter­front.”

He noted that Toronto is see­ing more se­vere storms than ever be­fore, which in­creases the risk for ma­jor flood­ing.

In an­tic­i­pa­tion of the spring rains, Fansett and his two deck­hands spend four months trans­port­ing and dump­ing sed­i­ment scooped out of Keat­ing Chan­nel by an ex­ca­va­tor.

Last Thurs­day, on its se­cond trip of the day, the Iron Guppy pushed a barge hold­ing191cu­bic me­tres of sed­i­ment a few kilo­me­tres on Lake On­tario to a con­tain­ment cell in Tommy Thomp­son Park.

With the Iron Guppy in the cor­rect lo­ca­tion, deck­hands re­moved the barge pins. The bot­tom fell open and the sed­i­ment quickly slid into the grey wa­ter.

Over the next 20 years, the Iron Guppy will fill in the cell. Then, Toronto Re­gion Con­ser­va­tion will con­tain the sed­i­ment and build a wet­land on top, as it has done for two other ar­eas in the park.

The sed­i­ment is con­tam­i­nated with heavy met­als and other tox­ins and there­fore can’t be dumped in open wa­ter, said Rick Por­tiss, a se­nior man­ager at the con­ser­va­tion author­ity.

But since Toronto hit “rock bot­tom” in the 1970s, in terms of in­dus­trial pollution, sed­i­ment con­tam­i­na­tion lev­els have de­creased and are ex­pected to con­tinue to de­cline, Por­tiss said.

It’s just one of the many changes the Iron Guppy will bear wit­ness to over the course of the next half-cen­tury.

“The Iron Guppy will last at least 50 years. It will be here long after I’m gone,” Fansett said.


The Iron Guppy is used to tow a drop-bot­tom scow filled with ma­te­rial dredged from the bot­tom of the Don Val­ley River.

Capt. Keith Fansett guides Iron Guppy, which made its de­but on Toronto wa­ters in 2016.


An­gus Arm­strong, har­bour master at Port­sToronto, watches as the Iron Guppy makes its way to a con­tain­ment cell at Tommy Thomp­son Park where, over the next 20 years, the tugboat will fill the cell be­fore a wet­land is built.

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