Prince Rupert’s Judy Downie has served more than 30 years as a customs agent, a life defined by adventure not only in her home port, but ports around the world with her ship’s-captain husband.

A shipboard life

Judith Downie: a life of adventure aboard, and boarding, the world’s ships

In life there are inciting incidents, defining moments, we can point a finger at and say with absolute authority: this is where it all changed, this is where life began. For Judy Downie it was a moment of absent mindedness followed by a plunge into the Pacific Ocean. It would lead to a 30-year career in law enforcement as a customs agent, a marriage to a Scottish captain and a shipboard life that would see her around the world seven and a half times.

In 1977, Downie qualified for membership in the United Fishermen and Allied Workers’ Union after completing a four yearsapprenticeship as a net mender. Then one day, in Port Edward, she threw out a lead line and, failing to let go, was pulled into the water straight after it. Surfacing, she thought to herself, “I’ve got a university education, certainly I can do something more than this.”

Turning her back on a wage of $25 per hour, she hitched a ride to Prince Rupert with a seaplane pilot who knew that a spot had opened up with Canada Customs. Within two weeks “the next thing I know I’m standing there as a customs officer in Prince Rupert,” Downie said. “It’s not a career choice I would have made intentionally, because I came out of the hippy-dippy era, and with all that it entailed with law enforcement. But I’ve never regretted that decision. Never.”

Downie fell into a routine of boarding every foreign ship that sailed into Prince Rupert, every plane and every pleasure craft. Awakening each morning it satisfied her to think she would again meet people from around the world. It was the perfect antidote to the “small-town syndrome” that may otherwise have pulled her away from this port town many years ago.

It was challenging, being a woman in this role, but she was not alone.

Next her office was that of the US customs agent, permanently stationed in the port due to the Alaskan Ferry. Here too, the role was also filled by a woman. Downie described Dorothy Gomez as someone who looks likes anyone’s grandmother, but who was responsible for some of the biggest busts in the region.

“Nobody saw her as a threat. She taught me that’s the way to go: don’t be threatening and you’ll find more. That worked fantastically, especially when I got my white hair.”

There was Gomez, but also Maureen Macarenko, the ship’s agent. Boarding vessels together, the two would often have to explain the situation to a bewildered captain and crew.

“A lot of times they would get up and walk down the hall, looking for where the men were.”

A strong woman she was, but when it came to muscle and backup Downie relied on the longshoremen and fishermen. On the way to a ship or pleasure craft, she advised the men of her timetable. “The fishermen were hillarious. On their days off, well, maybe a little drunk but they still knew how to tell time. All it takes is a couple of fishermen showing up on a deck, yelling, ‘where’s that officer!”

Which is good, because with the large proportion of Americans there were guns. Lots of guns. “It’s not the criminals you have to worry about, it’s the crazies,” she said.

“A number of times we boarded a pleasure craft and the person was mentally ill. You never know which way they’re going to go. If I was alone, I would let my mouth get me out of the problem — ‘Gee, I forgot a form in my car, I’m so sorry, I’ll be right back.’ And then I’d bring in the police, because these guys were armed.”

Downie’s big moment didn’t unfold with this tactic, but from an astute observation when she came across invoice for a container, and noticed a peculiar claim.

“After 30 years you see a lot of invoices, and all you have to do is look at them sometimes and know they’re not right, but you don’t know why at first.”

In this case it was a container claimed to be full of paper. Seeing it was all destined for a beauty salon, Downie said, “What beauty salon needs a container full of paper?” An inspection revealed not paper, but marijuana.

Her other big discovery came not in the form of contraband, but a ship’s captain, a “wee Scotsman” and landed immigrant of Hong Kong who worked for communist China. They had their first date that weekend, and 18 months later on his next visit to Prince Rupert he proposed marriage.

Judy alternated six months of the year as a customs agent in Prince Rupert and six months aboard his ship as a captain’s wife. The life would take her around the world 7.5 times. The great circle route to Asia, the South Pacific, Suez Canal, Cape Horn: the grandest sea voyages the planet has to offer were a part of her yearly itinerary.

“If you think marriage is tough, try it aboard a ship where there’s no doors to slam, only curtains.”

Ships run on clocks. Every night after dinner the couple would retire to their cabin for a game of scrabble before bed. The use of Queen’s English versus Downie’s American English, as per the official Scrabble dictionary, was a recipe only for arguments. One night the argument grew especially heated and Judy gave up the game for some knitting alone in the corner. A Chinese purser then knocked on the door and asked hopefully, in stunted English, if the couple will be resuming their fight anytime soon. The crew, as it turned out, had been scheduling the arguments each night to learn conversational English.

Downie’s husband spent most of his career in Chinese waters. He spoke fluent Mandarin and Cantonese with a thick Scottish brogue. He had network of friends and contacts in all the ports, knowing the codes of conduct instinctually well. Being a seasoned customs agent gave Downie the confidence to handle her own in some of the tougher ports, but it also opened her up a habitual social faux pas. It was her habit of looking people up and down, noting their appearance and behaviours, linking idiosyncrasies and drawing conclusions of a person’s personality, or motive, in a few seconds.

“In many cultures women don’t go looking men up and down, and it got me in a lot of trouble. Especially if the guard was carrying a gun. I wanted to know what kind it was. I’ve dealt with a lot of guns and I was just curious.”

The two would eventually divorce, but Downie said, “He was a wonderful person to be with in those voyages; he helped me stay out of trouble.”

Of her many travels, one point of advice stands out above the rest, “never ask what you’re eating. If you’re unsure just eat it or you’ll regret you asked,” she said, recalling a dish of bull penis.

Today, Downie will see foreign crew people rummaging through the Cow Bay shops and grocery stores, picking up and scrutinizing strange items and foods. It reminds her fondly of her own experiences, but Prince Rupert will always be her home port.

“The air is clean. The water is clean. And people love to laugh,” she says. “I think people know this. People here pull together. I know it happens in other places, but Rupert is exceptional in that way. Whether it’s the weather that makes us care more, I don’t know. I hear it from other people too, those who move away: yes, they have friends where they are but not friends like the ones they have in Prince Rupert.”