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Don Metzger: a life on the water

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“They that go down to the sea in ships, that do business in great waters…”

— Psalm 107:23

There are some professions in which the living is physically written on the body, like the dirt under the fingernails of a farmer or the dust on a construction worker’s back.

Don Metzger, a St. Lawrence Seaway pilot, is 69 years old. He has worked in the maritime industry for 51 years. Next year, when he turns 70, he will have to retire.

To look at his face, where a small bandage covers the latest site of excised skin cancer, is to see inscribed a hundred other waters, climes, places and wonders.

He has great bushy steel-wool eyebrows shading his deep-set eyes and sideburns — Oh, what sideburns! — extending down from his gray-white temples to the sides of his mouth.

In the late 1960s, when Don was working on the U.S.-flagged vessels bringing supplies to American forces in Vietnam, he ran out of razors, and his sideburns have occupied the same position ever since.

“I’ve been all over the world, from the Arctic to the Antarctic and everywhere in between,” Don said.

His fondest memories: South Africa, the archipelago of the Azores, and working with the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute on the research vessel Knorr, the same ship that in 1985 discovered the wreck of the Titanic.

It was on the Knorr that he met his wife, Katy, a scuba diver with the Oceanographic Institute.

“It was very exciting work,” he said.

In 1977, Don and Katy were married. That same year, he took a job with the St. Lawrence Seaway Pilots Association, and he and Katy moved to the north country, first to Clayton and then to the town of Lyme, where they have lived ever since.

“We are basically, to make it real simple, we are a guide; we provide a guide to vessels in waters we are licensed for,” Don said. “We dock them, undock them, shift them in the harbors. ... We handle all kinds of vessels: old, new, large, small, tall ships, tankers, freighters, passenger freighters, passenger ships.

“It’s a lifestyle, is what it is, really,” Don said.

Originally from Utica, Don spent his childhood summers on the St. Lawrence and fell in love with the water.

Then it was four years at SUNY Maritime in the unlikely borough of the Bronx, where the East River meets Long Island Sound and then out to sea, where he worked his way up from third mate to second mate to chief mate to captain.

Looking back on it now, less than a year from retirement, Don said he has no regrets.

“No, I don’t think so,” he said. “Every job is different. I’ve never found myself bored. That doesn’t mean there weren’t times I wasn’t scared or concerned. There are all kinds of hazards when you’re sailing the deep sea — typhoons, pirates...”

But Don said the romanticism with which he viewed his profession in his early years has faded. In its place is a quiet admiration for the way that ships move goods around the world, the way some items originate there and end up here or start here and end up over there, wherever there is.

Shipping touches everything, according to Don.

“The asphalt on the highway, the coffee beans and sugar in my coffee here this morning, that coffee maker over there, newsprint. We once shipped for the supplier of newsprint for the New York Times,” Don said.

Not that he would go back, at least not now.

The profession has changed since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, according to Don.

Port calls are shorter, and ships are manned with minimal crews, which means a surplus of duties and busy and stressful days.

“It’s too businesslike now,” Don said. “Whatever romance was left in the profession, 9/11 killed it.”

Don has been working on the St. Lawrence River for 20 years now and spent 17 years on Lake Ontario before that, a total of 37 years.

“A lot of water has gone under the keel,” he said.

But after thousands of trips in the north country and around the world, it will soon be time to hang it up, an altogether different prospect.

“I have mixed feelings,” Don said. “It’s been a very interesting and exciting career in the maritime industry, but I will also enjoy getting up and going to bed at a normal time like everybody else. Having a normal night’s sleep ... Yeah.”

Daniel Flatley is a staff writer covering politics for the Watertown Daily Times. He writes a column once a week for the local section of the paper. He can be reached at dflatley@wdt.net.

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