The Last of Her Kind
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I once asked Kathy whether she would like to live aboard a boat instead of buying a house but for some reason she did not seem to warm to this idea. The concept has always appealed, though, and when Bruce Macdonald got in touch to say to say he’d enjoyed my post on Jack Tar and closed with the comment:
‘We live aboard a very small full-rigged ship on Canada’s west coast called North Star of Herschel Island’
I just had to find out more – so I invited him to write a Guest Blog about the tall ship he has called home for seventeen years.
Over to Bruce:
‘I started before the mast on the 72-foot brigantine T S Playfair on the Great Lakes when I was 14 years old and worked my way up to executive officer aboard a sister ship, Pathfinder, by the time I was seventeen. During university I spent a couple of summers teaching keel boat sailing and the day I graduated I was again given command of Pathfinder which I ran for the next six years.
Having command of a sail-training square-rigger was a very rewarding experience. It was a job that I would have gladly carried on with for many years more but when my wife and I had our first daughter I recognised that I did not want to be an absentee father away at sea for six months a year.
We took over management of a nautical book and chart store and soon moved west to Victoria, British Columbia to open a franchise of that store and our second daughter was born there.
However, I got the urge to be back at sea and we began a search for a sailboat to live aboard. After a search up and down the coast we purchased North Star of Herschel Island and made her our home.
She’s a 1935 former Arctic fur trading ship built for two Canadian Inuit trappers to transport their fur to markets on the mainland and trade for supplies. The ship is 78’ LOA, with a 15 foot beam and draws six and a half feet. There were over one hundred of these vessels built for the western Arctic Inuit but North Star is the last one afloat.
Her previous owner had re-rigged her from being a cutter to the present rig as he was planning a solo or short-handed circumnavigation and wanted the sails small enough that he could handle them himself and the square rig was for his intended trade wind route.
Despite a positive survey we were a bit worried about buying such an old wooden boat but as another sailor-friend pointed out, North Star had been kept in the freezer most of her life. Her original stomping ground was the Beaufort Sea which was only clear of ice for about two months each year. This was when she did her trading and then she was hauled ashore over skids of freshly killed seals by the whole village of Sachs Harbour, Banks Island. Three times they were not fast enough and she was frozen solid into the ice over the winter with no damage to her.
The ship had been purpose built for operating in the ice by the Geo. W. Kneass company of San Francisco of 3 1/2 inch quarter sawn, edge grain Douglas Fir on oak ribs every twelve inches. The fir was then given a coating of Stockholm Tar, then a layer of Irish ship’s felt to keep the caulking in and then another layer of tar. Atop this was a second hull of one-inch ironbark that rose to a few feet above the waterline at the stem and then carried on aft to the mahogany transom. Capped in oak North Star is purposefully overbuilt. When the previous owner brought the ship south he added more tar, ship’s felt and tar and then completely clad her in copper sheathing to stop marine growth and invasive species such as the teredo worm.
Once we were settled aboard the real work began. We stripped the hull down to bare wood as some moisture had got between the finish and the hull. The ship had been preserved with a thick coat of white paint every year and in some places it was almost an inch thick. The steering hadn’t been used in many years and was seized. I spent days lying on deck with a hacksaw blade slowly working through four bolts trapping the rudder post until I could finally turn the large wooden helm. The steering is via worm gear and so the helm is set behind the helmsman which required a bit of getting used to.
We worked at refurbishing the hull all summer and finally took her out in the fall to a marine music festival up the coast. A neighbor who had lived aboard his old Mission ship for many years gave us some good advice – that no matter what, we had to get off the dock and sail the ship somewhere every season or we would soon forget why we had taken on such a project. We have held to his words every year, sometimes only being able to get away for a few weeks but usually sailing from May through October up and down the coast.
The second year we owned the ship we invited two foster children into our family and so with four kids we had a lot of energy aboard. We would find remote anchorages and swim off the ship and enjoyed exploring the different ports we visited.
We chose not to have television or video games aboard and so the children soon became avid readers and monkeys in the rigging.
One of the most interesting things about owning this piece of floating history is that we have met many of the former owner’s seventeen children. They have regaled us with stories of their lives aboard in the Arctic Ocean.
One memorable evening we anchored off of a First Nations’ Indian Reservation. There were no other vessels about and we saw no one ashore. Around midnight my wife Sheila called me up on deck. The sky was chock-a-block with stars and a full moon lit up the cove; the sound of drumming and chanting coming from the reservation permeated the night. Here we were on an old wooden fully-rigged ship listening to the First People’s ceremony ashore. The music sent a chill up my spine with the realisation that we were re-living a scene that the earliest European explorers must have encountered when they first arrived on this rugged coast.’