Adventure on the high seas!

Summer 2001 CSANews Issue 39  |  Posted date : Mar 09, 2007.Back to list

Have you ever had a desire to do something . . . a desire that was so strong you knew that if you ever achieved it, it would touch you for the rest of your life? I have. I've always wanted to visit the late medieval ages and live aboard a merchant vessel . . . and recently, my dream came true!

In 1497, John Cabot obtained a Royal license from King Henry VII to explore and claim lands across the Dark Sea (Atlantic). He sailed his vessel, the Matthew, from Bristol, England in that same year and discovered a New Found Land many sea miles to the west.

To honour the 500th anniversary of his voyage, a replica of Cabot's vessel was sailed from Bristol to Bonavista, Newfoundland in the summer of 1997, where Queen Elizabeth and Prince Phillip met her. The Matthew then circumnavigated Newfoundland and toured the Maritimes and the St. Lawrence Seaway . . . ending up in Lake Ontario's Port Credit for the winter.

Now most readers know me through my travels on Interstate-75, but few are aware of a second passion of mine. Since 1983, I've been Canada's only presenter for the Mary Rose Society of Portsmouth, England. As many know, the "Mary Rose" was Henry VIII's formidable warship. Sunk in a sea battle in 1545, she lay in the cold waters off southern England until 1982 when she was raised from the seabed with the help of Prince Charles, who actually dived and worked on the wreck recovery project.

Through the "Mary Rose" and my own love of sailing and historical research, I've become very fond of this early period in maritime history and, over the years, have learned about the ropes, rigging and ship's parts with their peculiar names.

Imagine my surprise then, when the Matthew sailed into my home port of Port Credit, to winter in our tiny ice-free harbour (thanks to the warm outflow waters of the nearby Ontario Hydro plant). My dream was about to be granted.

I visited the Matthew's master, David Alan-Williams, and offered to apprentice myself to the ship's company as an assistant rigger. He accepted after I demonstrated some very arcane knot-tying skills. I signed my apprenticeship parchment with a quill pen, which he then sealed with a candle, red wax and the impression of his signet ring. My pay? A silver penny from the reign of King Henry VII.

My first task was, just like any medieval sailor, to make the clothes in which I would live (and sometimes sleep) for the next 120 days.

Living and working aboard the Matthew was a joy for a "ham" such as me. When we had guests on board (we "opened" ship every weekend), we would use what is known as "first person interpretation" which means that we lived the parts and did not recognize anything that was later than the 15th century. This was particular fun if somebody handed us a camera and asked us to take a photo . . . because, of course, cameras did not exist in our time.

"Wot's this," I would ask. On being told that the glass "eye" could be pointed towards somebody and a button pushed to capture the image, we would all fall to our knees, cross ourselves and remonstrate. Witchcraft was the last thing we needed aboard the Matthew.

I have some wonderful memories of my life in medieval days. One starry evening, I sat on the aft castle deck (the open "rear" deck) wrapped in my boat cloak. No one else was aboard, since the ship slept. With the ship's only illumination being the stern castle lantern casting its guttering shadows across the deck's planking, it was difficult to imagine I was in any age other than the year 1497. It was uncanny. This feeling also crept over me when I lay in my bunk and looked up at the authentic wooden deck beams overhead. For this was a sight which would have been very familiar to those medieval sailors 500 years ago. I felt very privileged to experience it.

I also learned things about myself. The first time I had to climb the rigging to the crow's nest 75 feet above the wooden deck . . . I froze after the first six feet. James, the 26-year-old master rigger was with me.

"Dave," he said, "if you feel you cannot do it, don't try. Nobody will think the worse of you if you turn back. We've all been at this point and had to face our fears." But I decided to hang there and take deep breaths for a minute or so . . . and then continue all the way up to the top.

Several weeks later, I was actually standing in the upper rigging 80 feet above deck when one of the ratlines (the part of rigging which forms the rope "step") snapped under my foot and all of a sudden I was dangling by one hand. As I struggled to regain my foothold, I thought that I'd certainly come a long way in the past few weeks. I decided to spend the next few days replacing all the ratlines with new rope to ensure this didn't happen to anybody else!

In my last week aboard the Matthew, I had a particular thrill . . . our master gunner (the ship had four cannons) had to fly home to England on family business and, since I was the only one on board with "black (gun) powder" experience, I was made "master gunner pro tem." So as the Matthew made its final sail out of the waters of Toronto harbour, I was the bandannad sailor who ran among the four guns, swabbing, loading and lowering the smouldering linstock to the black-powdered touch hole . . . and creating the 16 satisfying, echoing crashes that rattled around the harbour signalling our departure and the start of the Matthew's journey back to England.

Scattered throughout this article are pictures of my shipboard experience. I hope you enjoy them as much as I enjoyed living the part of a medieval sailor.