For the first ship in Toronto harbor, it's old hat

TORONTO (Reuters) - An old top hat, made of silk and beaver fur, was pulled out of storage on Friday to mark one of the oldest and most arcane rites of spring on the Great Lakes.

Every year the hat is awarded, albeit briefly, to the captain of the first ocean-going ship to enter Toronto’s harbor on Lake Ontario after the break-up of the ice in the Great Lakes system.

Other Great Lakes ports have similar ceremonies to mark the start of the shipping season.

“The hat is handled with gloves -- we just hover it over the (captain’s) head because we don’t want to get oils on it,” Michael Riehl, Toronto’s deputy harbor master, said in an interview.

The hat -- brought to Canada from England in 1828 -- was first used in the ceremony in 1861, and the captain wore it for a whole day as a badge of honor. But after the hat met with various mishaps over the years, its use has been kept to a bare minimum.

It was once found full of beer in a waterfront pub and, on another occasion, on the head of a drunken captain at a police station.

This year, the hat was bestowed on Deepak Mehra, the captain of the M.V. Federal Rhine, whose Barbados-flagged “saltie” made the trip down the St. Lawrence River and into Lake Ontario carrying a cargo of sugar from Brazil.

The captain also received a commemorative briefcase and a check for C$100 ($97.80) -- an amount that has not increased for 80 years.

Toronto’s port, which handles 2.3 million tons (2.1 million metric tons) of goods a year, closes for 60 to 90 days over the winter.

Reporting by Julie Mollins; editing by Peter Galloway