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.