Editor’s Note: We thank Jason McNaught for his insight into this the Bytown Brigantine’s sailing programs in the Thousand Island on board the tall ships Fair Jeanne and Black Jack. Each year hundreds of young people step aboard these ships and learn skills that help them for life. The Bytown Brigantine program has been providing this experience for over twenty five years’ As they say, “No experience necessary! Just bring your sense of adventure”.
We rowed carefully into the bay at Georgina Island, one trainee looking expectantly into the water off the bow, waiting to spot the first boulder as we slipped into the shallows. All the docks were taken up by weekend boaters, tunes cranked with sterns and swim platforms covered in towels and colourful inflatable tubes. There were nearly two dozen of us packed into 27ft open boats, bright yellow dry bags shoved in between us, camping mattresses resting below our feet and sails shoved in any nook available. After setting out from Brockville, behind schedule and fighting the current in light winds under a cloudless sky, all of us were looking forward to dinner and a well-deserved rest.
When the call of, ‘Rock!’ first came, we were going slow enough to barely even notice the dull thud that signaled our arrival on shore. Petty Officers and a few trainees scrambled to untie their shoes and slip into the clear water lapping just over two feet under our rail. They had been instructed to tie the bow of each whaler to some sturdy looking trees, while our Coxswain (a small boat term for Captain) readied the anchor, chain and rode for setting off the stern. Our crew was restless, not because of their journey cooped up in the boat, but because they had been encouraged to drink copious amounts of water in the summer heat and now, within sight of the outhouse, their bladders were aching for relief.
Once securely tied up, each occupant within the boat rose up unsteadily and one-by-one, crawled forward to the bow with their dry bag in hand, to swing their legs over the rail and drop with a splash into the water. The Coxswain, still sitting in the stern after fiddling with the anchor rode, deftly leapt from thwart to thwart and exited the boat to the sight of more than 20 sailors- shoes, pfd’s, mess kits and water bottles flying all over the place- scrambling madly to get to the toilets.
The smell of outhouses in one’s nostrils was quickly replaced by the smell of pasta sauce heated up on a small propane stove. Tents slowly began to appear on flat, grassy spaces along with nylon hammocks now strung between any available trees. Petty Officers stood around looking quizzically at one another with poles in their hands, while others began trying to rustle up some volunteers to clean up the mess of gear strewn about the encampment. Everyone was in good spirits, and soon the lobbying began for a game of Manhunt after sunset. The Coxswain, used to this routine, baited eager trainees with remarks such as, ‘I don’t know…’ and ‘We’ll see…’, only to be met with increased and varied arguments all in explanation of the benefits of such games, ranging from the importance of exercise, to teambuilding, improved sleep and weight loss.
With spaghetti sauce smeared over a circle of faces illuminated by the firelight, it was a wonder, with all the pasta that was draped over knees, curled around rocks and smushed under shoes, if any of it actually made it into their mouths. Perhaps they were holding out for marshmallows, which undoubtedly would not end up spending a lonely night next to a rock, spared from roasting at the end of a sharpened stick. No, the marshmallows would not be so lucky, as eager hands tore open the yellow plastic bag, leaving barely a trace of their existence only minutes later.
Later that night, when the final sounds of laughter had been shushed out and sleep slowly came to our sugar-induced campers, I lay in my tent staring through the open mesh at the stars, peeking through the bows of pine directly overhead. The day before, these campers were setting sails on the tall ship, ‘Fair Jeanne’, waving to the scores of boaters navigating the narrow passages of the Thousand Islands. They rested their heads on a soft bunk as the ship slowly rocked herself at the dock, and now, after a long sail and countless spells of rowing in erratic winds, they happily slept on an island, after expending every last ounce of energy on a marathon 4-round game of Manhunt.
The joys and adventures of small boat sailing in the Thousand Islands have been known to many people for hundreds of years, and now, as the hulls of our whalers bob silently within the shelter of the bay, I can’t help but feel as though we have been unknowingly inserted into the pages of a Mark Twain novel. Here we lie between countries, on a grass-covered mountain top plunging deep beneath the river amongst castles in a labyrinth of islands…a world away from the chaos of highways and trucks, massive office towers and throngs of people busily rushing to from place to place.
Tomorrow, when the sun’s early rays invade the thin walls of our tents and pry us from sleep, we’ll plan our route to Gananoque while eating oatmeal over a spread of nautical charts. We’ll toss 16ft oars into the air as the Coxswain pushes us off our dock and row together (or at least try) as we make our way into the main channel. None of us know what adventures lie ahead tomorrow morning, but one thing is for sure- Huckleberry Finn would have loved to have traded in his raft on the Mississippi for a whaler in the Thousand Islands.
By Jason McNaught
A former Captain of the training ship, ‘Black Jack’, Jason McNaught is the Head of School of Bytown Brigantine Academy, an Independent secondary school approved by the Ontario Ministry of Education and operating on the Canadian brigantine, Fair Jeanne. Jason continues to work for the Ottawa based charity, Bytown Brigantine Inc. in the capacity of Principal and Program Director.