Those who sign up for the September voyage aboard the Tall Ship Fair Jeanne, offered by Ottawa-based Bytown Brigantine, will find life onboard can be physically challenging, with steep stairs and a constantly moving deck. Provided you’re willing and able, you’ll be permitted to climb aloft in the rigging, take a turn at the helm, help in hoisting, trimming and lowering the sails, charting a course, keeping the ship’s log and other onboard activities. (Photo courtesy Bytown Brigantine)

Tall Ship sailing:
Training programs for adults turn landlubbers into sailors

News Archive BY GARY MAY
The wind is at your back, filling the sails of the square-rigged Tall Ship and pressing her ever onward, down the historic St. Lawrence River. There’s an air of exhilaration, the thrill of knowing you’re following the path of the ships that plied these waters during the armed skirmishes of the War of 1812 — the same waters once prowled by the notorious Yankee spy, “Pirate Bill” Johnston (see footnote).   Call it summer camp for retirees.  

Peter Dalton is co-ordinator for the September voyage of the Ottawa-based Bytown Brigantine’s Fair Jeanne, a 110-foot traditionally rigged training ship. While Bytown Brigantine was created to teach young people the facts and skills of sailing, Dalton, retired from the Canadian Coast Guard, is charged with organizing an annual training voyage that’s designed for a more mature clientele.  

Participants must be at least 19 and “fairly fit,” explains Dalton. While most are men aged 60-plus, he says one man was over 90. “He just loved to stand on the quarter deck and smiled the whole trip through.”  

Toronto Brigantine Inc. and St. Lawrence II Brigantine in Kingston, which also focus on youth-oriented programs, are two other Tall Ship experiences that provide an adult component to their sailing programs.  

Dalton advises those considering the Fair Jeanne trip to check out the details first. This is no luxury cruise. For the sign-up fee of $565 (plus tax), be prepared for five days of not only sailing, but participating fully in the operation of the vessel, although no previous experience is necessary.  

Provided you’re willing and able, you’ll be permitted to climb aloft in the rigging, take a turn at the helm, help in hoisting, trimming and lowering the sails, charting a course, keeping the ship’s log and other onboard activities. Life onboard can be physically challenging, with steep stairs and a constantly moving deck.  

As well, accommodation is spartan: upper and lower bunks and six to eight persons per room. There are three shared heads (toilets) for 30 people, and there’s definitely no smoking allowed.  

But in exchange you’ll experience an exhilarating educational adventure, Dalton tells You’ll learn the customs and the maritime lore, naval heritage and local history.  

This year’s voyage begins and ends in Kingston and runs Sept. 1-6.  

Checking off the bucket list

Dalton says a lot of participants “are checking off an item on their bucket list. Most are men, there’s a few couples, and a lot of people got it as a gift for a birthday or anniversary. It’s an opportunity to sail and participate in the handling of an authentic brigantine, and it’s close to home.”  

Dalton’s own background in the coast guard involved inspection in radio and navigational gear. “I’m a sailor at heart,” says the transplanted Nova Scotian who owns his own yacht down in Bluenose territory.  

There’s a cook onboard the Fair Jeanne, and the rest of the crew, including the captain, are graduates from the Brigantine’s youth programs. “I love the first day everyone comes aboard,” Dalton says. “They’re disoriented, of course. But at the end of five days they’ve bonded. It’s wonderful to see how they’ve changed. Sometimes they return. One guy from New York state has signed up for his fourth trip.”  

The voyage will depart from Kingston, which served as a Royal Navy base during the War of 1812, and head to the Bay of Quinte and the village of Picton. Then it’s eastward into the world-famous Thousand Islands and the St. Lawrence River. On the return to Kingston, the vessel will anchor overnight at a still-secret location and a formal naval mess dinner will be held, followed by an evening of entertainment.  

While the program’s 15 to 20 spots are filling up, Mary Acton-Bond, executive director of Bytown Brigantine Tours, said recently there was still space for another handful. And there’s always next year, she adds.  

If hard slogging isn’t your idea of boating, you can still enjoy a sail on a Tall Ship without all the work and training. Nautical Adventures in Toronto operates the 200-foot Tall Ship Empire Sandy, available for handling up to 275 passengers for weddings, corporate functions, dinner dances and other events. The public is invited aboard during special events each season, including this year’s events:  

• Canada Day cruise of Toronto Harbour (your choice of a two-hour afternoon cruise or evening dinner cruise);
• Three-hour Rockin’ Blues cruise on Aug. 5 featuring live entertainment and dinner;
• Toronto Air Show and cruise, on Sept. 3 and Sept. 5. Enjoy the Snowbirds and a buffet while cruising in Toronto Harbour for four hours, beginning at 12:30 p.m.  

For those hardy folk who prefer the thrill of the Fair Jeanne, Acton-Bond says the “feedback has been fantastic. Often it’s given as a retirement gift.” Some participants return to help out Bytown Brigantine as volunteers, helping to prepare the Fair Jeanne and her sister ship, Black Jack, for another season with repairs, scrubbing down and maintenance.  

Fair Jeanne was built by the late Thomas Fuller at Britannia Bay in Ottawa. The keel was laid in 1978 and the ship was launched two years later. She was sailed for many years by the family as their private yacht, then introduced to the Bytown Brigantine Foundation, which the Fullers founded, as a training vessel.  

Thomas Fuller had an illustrious career at sea during the Second World War and was once dubbed the “Pirate of the Adriatic” in recognition of his fearless efforts to wreak havoc with enemy formations in the Mediterranean and region. Later, he served as the commanding officer of Ottawa’s naval reserve division, HMCS Carleton.  

His son, Simon Fuller, now operates the family’s construction and contracting business and is the driving force behind a project that’s bound to transform downtown Brockville on the St. Lawrence. The residential component is a condominium/boutique hotel complex called Tall Ships Landing. Adjacent to it and due to open in 2012 will be the Maritime Discovery Centre, an interactive destination museum that will help interpret and explain Canada’s fresh-water heritage.  

The legend of ‘Pirate Bill’ Johnston  

Depending on your perspective, Pirate Bill was either a hero or a villain. A schooner captain of Loyalist stock from Bath, he was just as likely to carry contraband as he was legitimate cargo. He was a frequent smuggler and spied for the United States during the War of 1812, then sided with the rebels during Canada’s 1837-38 Rebellion.

One story has it that in 1814, Bill set up an ambush near Brighton, stole a military dispatch rider’s satchel, shot his mount and sent the man home on foot. When Bill returned home to Sackets Harbor, New York, it was discovered the satchel contained plans for a raid on the town. With the plans revealed, the British cancelled the operation. — June 2011