The race usually begins up the St. Lawrence River.
By the time the ships reach Les Escoumins, about 25 kilometres east of the mouth of the Saguenay River where the river pilots come aboard, the contestants are known.
Each year mariners vie for the honour of being the first ship in the New Year to enter the Port of Montreal. The finish line crosses the broad St. Lawrence near Sorel, Quebec, some 40 kilometres east of Montreal.
When the tradition reportedly began in 1840, they gave the captain of the first ocean-going ship to arrive a polished beaver skin top hat.
Sometime around 1880, the sought-after trophy became a 14-karat gold knobbed, 80-centimetre-long walking cane reflecting the ‘fashions of the day.’
Today the Canadian coat of arms tops the cane, as it’s reputedly worth $3,500.
This past New Year’s Eve the MS Barmbeck a 169-metre-long container ship with its distinctive 10-storey high bridge at the stern of the vessel faced off against the MV Valentina a 178.6-metre long container ship.
The largest ocean-going container ships are now over twice as long. But both these ships still carried impressive loads. The MS Barbeck can carry 1,660 (six by 2.6 by 2.6 metre) containers when fully loaded and the MV Valentina 1,875.
This is the equivalent load of four 100-car, double-stacked freight trains.
Capable of more than 20 knots or nearly 40 kilometres an hour, both sailed upstream against a river current of six knots or more.
“I was really thinking it would be the Barmbeck” stated Captain Volker Hube of the MV Valentina in a Montreal Gazette interview, “but I am not the kind of person to give up.”
Over the ship’s radio Captain Hube heard the Barmbeck’s skipper asking the Marine Communications and Traffic Services Centre at Les Escoumins whether his vessel could pull ahead.
But when they replied, “The speed limit is not only for Valentina, it is also for Barmbeck,” Hube knew his ship had a chance.
By the time they reached Quebec City his chief mate asked if the MS Barmbeck would overtake them. “Over or under, but not on the side,” Hube replied.
In the end, the MV Valentina and its 20-member crew beat its competition by just over an hour.
Eight days out of Antwerp, Belgium, they passed Sorel and enter the Port of Montreal 21 minutes after midnight on New Year’s Day to win the 2008 gold cane.
They then had to prepare for docking the big ship.
It can take up to eight kilometres with the propellers in full reverse to stop a ship the size of the MV Valentina.
Turning the Marshall Islands-flagged vessel is no trivial matter either. It needs about a kilometer to turn around.
“The United States is a big ship,” lamented the US House of Representative’s Majority Leader Steny Hoyer in a Christian Science Monitor interview last November, “and it is hard to turn a big ship.”
Whether it is Romney or McCain, Obama or Clinton the winner of November’s presidential race in the United States is going to have an extraordinarily tough time attempting to turn their ship of state from its current disastrous course.
A national debt of over $9 trillion, which is growing at $1.44 billion per day, a war in Iraq that has reach the half-trillion-dollar mark, added to annual military expenses of about the same sum all threaten to beggar the country.
Throw in decaying urban infrastructure, a population without adequate health care, unrivaled greenhouse gas emissions and a host of other pressing problems and you should have US presidential candidates offering serious reflection not just campaign rhetoric and name calling.
When the Super Tuesday primaries are over next week, maybe we will hear something that can give us all hope.
If the US can turn their ship of state around maybe we can all dare to imagine the prize, another possible world.