Doctor's Review: Medicine on the Move

October 20, 2021
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Wind in your sails

You'll be blown away on a tall ship cruise of the New Brunswick and Quebec coasts

A moon the colour of cheddar cheese sat low on the horizon and the stars seemed to hover just above the tip of the soaring main mast. Twenty-four sails strained like living things, taut with a wind driving the square-rigged barque through the Gulf of Saint Lawrence at eight knots. Lines whipped against canvas. The sea slapped the hull. A shiver ran down my spine — and not just from the chill wind. It was a night I would never forget.

My Irish grandfather ran away to sea in the 1870s, which might explain why I occasionally get an attack of sea fever. But I'd never been on a ship of the type he first sailed on, so the opportunity of a week sailing the New Brunswick and Quebec coasts aboard the classic Dutch barque Europa last August was something I couldn't possibly pass up.

The term "tall ship" is one that marine purists dislike. Some argue that a tall ship must have at least three masts and be square-rigged; others insist that any large sailing vessel is a tall ship. But when I first saw the Europa at dockside in Miramichi, New Brunswick, I knew that by any definition this was a tall ship in all her glory.

The steel-hulled Europa was launched in Hamburg, Germany in 1911 and for many years served humbly as a lightship at the mouth of the River Elbe. But in 1994, after eight years of careful rebuilding, she was transformed into one of the prettiest Class 'A' tall ships afloat.

Canadian Sailing Expeditions, a Halifax-based company, chartered Europa in 2004 for a season of cruises in Atlantic Canada. The ship was also one of the stars of last summer's Halifax Tall Ships Festival.

Tied up in Knots
Our voyage was to take us north along the New Brunswick coast to Gaspéin Quebec and then slowly back again, calling at local ports along the way. Having Giller Prize-winning author David Adams Richards aboard enhanced our trip. His readings brought alive the story of the Miramichi in which he had spent his childhood.

With three deafening blasts on the ship's siren, we eased our way into the main channel of the Miramichi River. As we sailed under Centennial Bridge a cacophony of horns greeted us. The estuary gradually widened and the last of the small boats in our wake turned away. The wind was not expected to be fair for sailing on that first day but, in mid afternoon, Captain Klaas Gaastra ordered the mizzen sails raised. Then the Dutch crew scurried up the shrouds and out along the cross yards to unfurl the huge square sails. On deck, crew and passengers hauled on lines to position the sails and the engine was cut. The now-silent Europa was transformed. This is what we had come for!

The calm sea gave a chance for some of the braver passengers to climb the rigging. Under the watchful eye of crew member Yke Reeder, our youngest passenger, eight-year-old Sophie, shamed everyone else by climbing to the top of the main mast while her parents watched nervously from below. Other less adventurous passengers learned to tie knots and splice ropes while munching on freshly baked butter tarts.

That night, after dining on scallop and shrimp appetizers followed by a choice of grilled salmon or roast caribou, we were lulled to sleep by the surprisingly gentle sound of water against the hull. It was like a tiny brook tinkling over stones. But some time around 4am I awoke with a start: the brook had given way to the throb of the ship's engine. The wind had died and been replaced by driving rain.

Later I went on deck in search of coffee. Only the crew were up but a tiny flycatcher was perched on an open window, hitching a ride with us, its feathers ruffled in the wind. Breakfast was the best eggs Florentine I have ever tasted and we marvelled at the cook's ability to produce such fine food from a tiny galley. After breakfast David Evans, one of Canadian Sailing Expeditions' principals and our trip leader, held the now-dead flycatcher in his palm. "It's strange how often I've seen this happen at sea," he said, as he dropped it overboard. "They must die of shock or exhaustion."



The lights of Percé glowed against the wet, grey morning with the famous rock silhouetted against a leaden sky. Some passengers transferred to a local cruise boat and got a close-up view of the gannet colony on Bonaventure Island. After all this, we strolled around the little town and toured the visitor centre to learn about the once-booming cod fishery.

Ashore in Acadia
On the one occasion when we were able to dock in port rather than anchor offshore, the town of Caraquet was ready for us. As we approached the harbour full of colourful fishing boats, people lined the sides of the dock to see us make our grand entrance. A fishing boat gently nudged our beam to bring us alongside, lines were tossed ashore and a few moments later Caraquet's mayor, Antoine Landry, jumped down on deck to welcome us.

A visit to the nearby Acadian village had been arranged. The village of relocated historical buildings gives an excellent depiction of Acadian life from the 18th century onward. Houses and businesses are alive with costumed interpreters ready to explain Acadian crafts and culture.

That evening people from the town came down to admire the graceful vessel, looking up at its 32-metre masts that were higher than anything else in the harbour. What is it about sailing ships that so captures the imagination? Nostalgia? A sense of adventure or longing? In this case, simply admiration for a grand old lady that had done it all — including tackling the Antarctic and rounding Cape Horn.

And make no mistake: from her well-endowed figurehead to the sweep of her curved stern this elegant vessel is certainly a lady. Mature and cultured, she still has an aura of mystery about her. With admirers in every port she visits, Europa is a gracious ambassador that speaks of the days of her youth.

Whatever the reason that people came to see us, they were back the next morning, along with the mayor, to watch us cast off. Once clear of port, the sails were quickly raised and we were on our way back to Miramichi. When we entered the river's estuary and grew close to port in late afternoon, one or two small boats came out to greet us. Soon we were accompanied by a flotilla of a dozen fishing and pleasure craft. As the dock came into view, the skirl of bagpipes came to us across the water. Cloaked against the rain, a lone piper was welcoming us with "Scotland the Brave."

A rope was tossed ashore and our voyage was over. Among our lasting memories will be those of the Dutch crew members, young men and women who for whatever reason had chosen a different way of life. As one tanned and smiling young man said to us: "Once you leave port your whole life is on the ship. The rest of the world doesn't exist — and that's the way I like it."

Someone once said that a great sailing vessel is the closest man has come to creating a living thing. On that starry night off the New Brunswick coast you would have had no argument from me. For a brief moment I felt very close to the grandfather that I had never met and began to understand why he ran away to sea. That alone was worth the trip.


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