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:

Fully rigged, and before the wind

Fully rigged, and before the wind

‘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.

North Star in the ice floes

North Star in the ice floes

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.’

R Bruce Macdonald’s book, North Star of Herschel Island (purchased via his website), recounts the colourful and fascinating history of this ship including her involvement in the whaling industry and the fur trade, use by the Canadian government to assert Canadian Arctic sovereignty during the Cold War and her role in surveying the controversial B.C./Alaska boundary. All proceeds of the sale of the book go to the ship’s maintenance fund

The North Star of Herschel website

15 Comments on “The Last of Her Kind”

  1. Julian:
    I took this photo in Tuktoyuktuk in 1983 while on a militrary recruiting tour of the north. Photoshop sharpened the name for me , she is “Our Lady of Lourdes” and is probably kin to “North Star”, there are some similarities. Wonder if she still sails?
    Ian Urquhart.

    • Yes, Ian, they are indeed sister ships- both built by the Geo. W. Kneass boatbuilders in San Francisco. Our Lady was built for the Anglican church primarily to support the priests in getting to their flocks and to supply them with their food and equipment, etc.. they were also used for transporting Inuit children to the residential schools. Our Lady was hauled out and placed on a cement pad in Tuktoyaktuk years ago. She was unfortunately in rough shape and will never put to sea again though is a wonderful landmark. She and North Star used to sail together and there are many stories about her in my book including a time when she sailed into and then atop an ice berg and landed in a freshwater pool inside it where she as stranded for some time.

      • This was as you say, a calm day, and the opportunity to bend on a brand new suit of square sails. No fore’n’afters, just a chance to set things up. For other photos of the ship under sail please visit the ship’s website or her facebook page.

  2. OMG! Ain’t this the dream of us all !? Of course, I’d first have to take lessons and get my papers. But, probably wouldn’t have any trouble finding crew enough to go with me.

  3. A fascinating read to start a frosty day in Florida. Will certainly put it on my short-list of books to read – when I’ve got through writing my one (only six more to go in the series based on Commodore David Porter’s life). I do hope the training ship program run by Canada is not allowed to lapse. Thanks for bringing your guest aboard ! BTW, did find an interesting link to look up, FYI:

    • Ahoy Jack in Florida!
      thank you for your kind words. I am happy to report that the ‘tall ship adventures’ program operated by Toronto Brigantine Inc. is still going strong, in fact, last November of 2012 I was invited aboard STV Pathfinder for a former captains and mates sail to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the laying of her keel.
      It was a nice day to take the two ships out and with the decks full of old shipmates an opportunity to catch up. I did feel for the current captain and crew who no doubt felt that their shiphandling skills were being discussed by us old salts – and of course they were. Nice to see that the ships are being kept up and that the training standards remain high. Suspect that Thomas Kydd would approve.

  4. Thanks for a very interesting and informative history. As I sit in my chair drinking my first cup of coffee at latitude 31N longitude 82W, I am fascinated by such an adventuresome life style. EJH

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