Lovely, home-built and all-aluminum the Thousand Islander queens it over Gananoque’s seaway.
Alcan News, No. 6, 1972
What could possibly go wrong?
Standing on crutches, his right leg broken from a recent work related accident, master boat builder Rene Longtin watched his creation creep slowly out through the huge doors of the main building shop. To his right and left, hundreds of people stood and watched the Gananoque Boat Line Company’s newest 500 passenger all aluminum leviathan appear for the first time in daylight. Owners Robert Beckstead, Hal McCarney and Harry Clark stood and watched this newest addition to their fleet finally emerge from the drawing room table. Gleaming white after several coats of paint, she already dwarfed the other two recently built passenger boats already in service and daily filled to capacity. This upcoming tourist season of 1975 promised to be even better. The huge crowd hushed as the big ship continued out.
The man on crutches wearing the white hard hat didn’t see them. Longtin had eyes only for his boat. He created her, supervising every carefully cut piece of aluminum that was placed exactly to specification on the plan. He knew every inch or millimeter of the vessel from paper to product. Before his own accident, Longtin was everywhere at once, day by day, measuring the frames, the distance between frames and the aluminum plates before they were welded to the frames. He supervised her plumbing, the placement of her three Caterpillar propulsion engines and two electrical generators and wiring. Everything was where it should be. And now today, she would become a ship, floating in her element, doing what she was designed to do.
Earlier that morning, as best he could, Rene Longtin measured again the distance from the wheelhouse top to the building’s doors and sides. Some frames of the building’s roof had already been removed; this new boat was that huge. All was ready. Longtin took his place just outside the marine railway, by the open ‘ground to rooftop’ doors. Let the show begin. He had seen it before, with the launching of the other two boats. With a well practised eye, he watched the amount of clearance around her topsides, hull and keel, riding on the precarious railcar. She was the biggest and heaviest boat he had ever built. In fact, she was the first boat he had ever built on his own. Guided downward by gravity toward the waiting St. Lawrence River, Longtin grimaced as he heard the small wheels screech in protest under the bright red hull. The railway itself seemed to bend and sink under the tremendous weight, when it happened.
“And things usually happen in three’s,” Rene Longtin remembers over 37 years later. Today, Longtin can recall every agonizing moment of that day in June, 1975. The day he and his shipyard crew launched the Gananoque Boat Line’s Thousand Islander III.
“First, my leg was broken,” he said. “I couldn’t be everywhere I wanted to be so I had to let my eyes do the walking. Next, one of the wheels under the rail car broke, shifting the ship, stopping everything. She didn’t hit the building but just settled slightly. We jacked her up and fixed the wheel. Then, she wouldn’t continue down the rail, so a small tug was hooked on. When that didn’t do it, owner Bob Beckstead brought the Thousand Islander, our first boat, around and hooked on. Then she broke the rail under the wheel and a piece of steel punctured the new hull.”
An ordinary man might have given up. Rene laughs. “We jacked her up again, fixed the hole, fixed the rail and pulled her in. She floated. By then the sun had gone down.”
Rene Longtin, the man who built the sleek, streamlined Thousand Islanders, all five of them, as well as many others, was born in Embrum Ontario on a farm, in 1932. Today at 80, dressed in dirty coveralls and carrying assorted tools in his toolbelt, including his ever present tape measure, he proudly watches ‘his’ 40 year old original Thousand Islander pass the village of Rockport, Ontario. Here, at the village’s main dock, he is busy doing maintenance work on one of Rockport Boat Line’s cruisers. One of the very few he didn’t actually build. “No, this one is all steel,” he says. “I worked with aluminum. I built Rockport’s Ida M II, the same year we built the Thousand Islander II, in 1972, in Gananoque.”
In a boat building career that has spanned almost 50 years, Rene Longtin looks back on a life with no regrets. “We lived on the farm near Embrum until sometime in the late 1940’s. Then we moved to Oshawa,” he said. “When I was a kid, I loved being around a boat. In 1963 I got a job at the local marina. I had already been working in construction, so I helped with boat repairs and stuff, mostly in the wintertime. This was working with wood. There was a fellow from Hungary. He was a master craftsman so I watched him. He took his time and boy, did he do great work. I was apprenticed to this man, Bill, I think his name was. We did repairs for boats from Oshawa to the marinas in Toronto. I did painting, scraping and helped shape the frames for the boats. This was where I actually started.”
One day in early 1971, a man from Gananoque, Ted Larski, stopped in at the marina. Larski was also a boat builder. “He was doing some repair work across the way on an aluminum boat and came in for supplies,” Rene remembers. “Well, I got to know him and helped him a little with that project. He ran a boat yard in Gananoque called Marlin Yachts and offered me a job. There was a special project on the books and he said he could use my help. Had I ever worked with aluminum? Well, I answered him truthfully. No, I said. I hadn’t. He hired me anyway and Estelle and I moved our family to Gananoque.”
The dream was the brainchild of three Gananoque men: Hal McCarney, 44; Bob Beckstead, 33 and lawyer Harry Clarke, 30. The idea was to build a triple deck island cruiser capable of carrying over 300 people per trip. She would be powered by three 550 Caterpillar engines and would be fast. “I wasn’t a welder,” continues Longtin. “I was just a guy with a dream also. I watched and learned.” The successful launching of the Thousand Islander in 1972 was followed by the building and launching of Thousand Islander II and Ida M II. “By then I had quit Larski about 4 times,” Rene laughed. “But I came back. With a raise, too.” Rene became Ted Larski’s foreman and shop supervisor. Then one day, Ted Larski moved on. The Gananoque Boat Line owners approached foreman Rene Longtin with a new idea. Could he, himself build another prototype ‘Thousand Islander’? This one would be longer, bigger, faster than the other two. It would carry 500 passengers. The passenger market was there. Could he do it?
“I lost three nights of sleep,” Longtin remembers. “So we met again. I said you give me welder Segie Lopez and I’ll try. I didn’t say I can, I said I’ll try.”
With his crew back again, including master aluminum welder Lopez, the building shop became Algan Shipyard and Longtin built the Thousand Islander III. Acquiring the Company in 1978, Longtin and crew were on a roll. Other ships followed in succession, the Concordia for Montreal and the huge trimaran Cuan Law, christened by Canada’s then Governor-General Ed Schreyer for an owner in the Caribbean. Designed by owner Duncan Muirhead, the Cuan Law was a multi-hulled, twin masted sailing ship consisting of a main hull and two smaller outrigger hulls. At 105 ft. long by 44 ft. wide she was bigger than the Thousand Islander III. She operates today as a successful dive charter boat in the Caribbean. Two more boats followed: Bob Beckstead’s own Bits & Pieces and finally, Kingstonian Robert Clark’s Canadian Empress, built and launched in 1981.
For the Cuan Law, telephone poles, trees and wires had to be moved, as well as a wall from the building shop. Governor General Schreyer cut his hand on the champagne bottle after he swung and broke it on the bow. “I still have a copy of the doctor’s bill here in the front desk for his stitches,” Longtin laughs. “The Canadian Empress, now she is just a beautiful ship,” he says, looking at a picture from his collection. “She was classy all the way. Still is.”
Rene Longtin doesn’t build boats anymore. Instead, he designs and builds small furniture for he and Estelle’s many grandchildren here in Gananoque. Married in 1954, the couple are always thrilled when Michel, Guy, Pierre, Lynn and Carol drop by with their families. For the past several years he keeps busy working as engineer, mate and consultant on the many boats he has helped design and build. Retire? Not a chance. Not yet, anyway.
“I have to re-new my license this year,” he added. “That’ll be good for another five years I guess.” As he looked at a few more pictures of ‘his’ boats, Longtin pauses for a minute. “Building a boat, well, it’s like a jig-saw puzzle,” he said. “As long as you have two hands to put the puzzle together, well, you’re gonn’a finish it. Simple as that.”
By Captain Brian Johnson
Brian Paul Johnson is one of five captains of the Wolfe Island car ferry Wolfe Islander III. He has worked for the Ontario Ministry of Transportation for more than 30 years, recently celebrating 20+ years as captain. We often see him pass through the islands as captain of the Canadian Empress. Today, Brian combines his marine career with writing. Fascinated by stories and legends of the 1000 Islands area he has written for the Kingston Whig Standard, Telescope magazine and the Great Lakes Boatnerd Website:Seaway News. Brian co-edited Growing up on Wolfe Island, a compilation of interviews and stories with Sarah Sorensen. He is also a past president of the Wolfe Island Historical Society and former president of the Wolfe Island Scene of the Crime mystery writer’s festival held on the island every August.