A Q&A with a Harbour Master

Have you ever wondered who keeps the bustling Hamilton Harbour running smoothly?

Today, we meet Vicki Gruber, the Harbour Master who oversees the day-to-day operations of this vital waterway. Vicki's journey to this unique role is anything but ordinary, and in this Q&A, she'll share her background, the thrilling diversity of her work, and the unexpected perks that come with being the boss of the harbour.

Let's dive in!

Q: Can you please tell us a bit about yourself?
I am a local girl! I grew up in Stoney Creek, which is now part of the City of Hamilton. After graduating from high school, I pursued my education at Sheridan College, where I completed the Law and Security program.

In 2006, I began my journey at the Port as a Harbour Masters Office/Port Patrol Officer. Over the years, I have had the privilege of growing within the organization, eventually assuming the role of Harbour Master in 2014.

Continuing my commitment to learning and professional development, I graduated with honours from the Algonquin College of Applied Arts and Technology Emergency Management program in 2021.

Outside of work, my husband and I share a passion for collecting antiques, a hobby that has brought us joy for many years.
Q: What does the day-in-the-life of a Harbour Master usually look like?
One of the most exciting aspects of my job is the absence of a typical day. It can commence with routine tasks like answering emails and swiftly escalate to urgent matters such as emergency docking requests or responding to navigational incidents.

Operations within the harbour are equally diverse. At times, we manage a constant flow of vessel traffic, particularly during peak seasons such as spring for fertilizer shipments and fall for grain exports. Conversely, there are periods of minimal vessel activity, notably during the approximately two and a half months of harbour closure due to the shutdown of the Burlington Lift Bridge and the St. Lawrence Seaway/Welland Canal.
Q: The role of Harbour Master sounds interesting but also unique. How did you even discover this career path?
In 2006, I stumbled upon a job posting in the local newspaper (yes, I am dating myself) for a Port Patrol Officer position tasked with providing security for the Port of Hamilton. Little did I know that this opportunity would shape my career in unforeseen ways.

On my first day of work, I was pleasantly surprised to learn that I was also part of the Harbour Master's Office team. The role was described to me as being an air traffic controller, but for ships instead of planes. From that moment on, I was captivated by the unique challenges and responsibilities of the job, and the rest, as they say, is history!
Q: What kind of education and training does it take to become a Harbour Master? Are there specific programs or certifications?

In my case, I spent 8 years working out of the Harbour Masters Office before being appointed as Harbour Master. During this period, I gained invaluable experience in navigation and traffic control, honing my skills through various courses and training opportunities. I've been fortunate to have a strong support network, including fellow Harbour Masters from across Canada. Their insights and guidance have been instrumental in my growth and development in this role. It's truly remarkable that even after a decade in this position, I continue to encounter new challenges, which only adds to the richness of the experience.

Q: We know you mentioned security experience, but is there a maritime background that is typically expected? What were some relevant experiences on your journey?
Vicki alongside her amazing team.
All of my staff have followed a similar path to mine, beginning their careers with backgrounds in Law and Security or Police Foundations. Recognizing the importance of equipping them with the necessary skills and knowledge, I have always prioritized extensive training to ensure they are confident in their roles as marine traffic controllers and vital members of the Harbour Masters Office team.
Q: What is the coolest or most unexpected part of your job? Do you get to interact with interesting people or see unique things in the harbour?
Throughout my 18-year tenure at the port, several experiences have left a lasting impression on me. I particularly enjoy fostering partnerships with our stakeholders, agencies, and Emergency Service partners. One of the most rewarding opportunities in the past 5 years has been collaborating with the Canadian Armed Forces – Logistics Training Centre. I've had the privilege of meeting and providing security detail for various dignitaries, including Ministers, the Lieutenant Governor of Ontario, and delegates such as Prince Charles and Duchess Camilla during their visit to Hamilton in 2009.Additionally, I've facilitated Tall Ships events, welcomed various HMCS Navy vessels, and coordinated water events for the Pan Am Game celebrations.

I am lucky to work with an outstanding Health & Safety Coordinator, however, what I consider to be my greatest fortune over the past 10 years is leading an exceptional and dedicated Harbour Masters Office/Port Patrol team!
Q: We noticed you are involved in community organizations. How does that connect to your work as Harbour Master?

2024 Top Hat Ceremony in Hamilton
Since 2018, I have had the privilege of serving on the Board of Directors for the Mission to Seafarers Southern Ontario (MTSSO). Prior to my appointment, as a member of the Harbour Masters Office, I regularly interacted with MTSSO, recognizing their essential role in supporting seafarers visiting the Ports of Hamilton and Oshawa.

MTSSO plays a crucial role in providing support to seafarers from across the world. The COVID-19 pandemic brought heightened appreciation and awareness for seafarers, as many realized the vital role they play in transporting goods, especially during challenging times.
As Harbour Master, it is my priority to ensure that our seafarers feel valued and appreciated for their invaluable contributions to our communities and economies.
Q: What advice would you give to someone who is interested in this career path? Are there any skills or qualities you think are essential for success?
If you had approached me 20 years ago, I never would have imagined myself in the marine industry. It wasn't something I had envisioned, and my knowledge of it was limited. However, fast forward to today, and I couldn't imagine pursuing any other career path. I've discovered that the marine industry is incredibly rewarding and filled with challenges. Being part of Canada's supply chain network is both humbling and fulfilling. It's remarkable to think that over 90% of global trade travels by vessel, underscoring the vital role that the maritime sector plays in our interconnected world.
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