Canada’s east coast by tall ship

Our ship Europa seems to be flying, balanced between the blue water of the Northumberland Strait and the blue sky. A steady wind swells her sails and someone shouts we’re doing nine knots. It’s my first experience travelling on a tall ship and I’m exhilarated. We’re sailing from Pugwash, N.S., to Summerside, P.E.I., on a weeklong journey that will also take us to Charlottetown, and Georgetown, P.E.I., and end in Pictou, N.S. A couple of minutes ago we passed under Confederation Bridge, which links Canada’s smallest province to the mainland.Traffic isn’t supposed to stop on the bridge, but it slowed noticeably as Europa approached, looking like a majestic ghost ship.It’s Labour Day, 2004, and our trip will end the Halifax-based Canadian Sailing Expeditions’ first season cruising around the Atlantic provinces. Strangely, I owe the privilege of sailing on Europa, a Dutch barque renowned in the small community of tall ships, to the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center. CSE chartered her when the refit of Caledonia, the company’s new, larger ship was delayed to install costly equipment in compliance with new international security regulaons. By July 2005, the 245-foot Caledonia, the largest such ship built in Canada in a century, will begin her cruising career.Enthusiasm for helping sail the ship varies among the 14 passengers, but the crew soon comes to look for added muscle power from Gary, a retired Via Rail engineer from Porters Lake, near Halifax, and Jim, retired from a stressful data management job in a medical centre in Seattle, Wash.Jim has longed to make the trip. “I intend to take advantage of every opportunity to get involved,” he confides. He’s first to sign up for mid-watch (midnight to 4 a.m.) and, in the morning, the ship’s bulletin board hails Jim, “the old sea dog.” Cheri, his wife, beams indulgently.I seem to be getting my sea legs as I hurry from deck to deck to help haul on lines. The ropes are rough and hard on hands and I’m glad I brought gloves. I haven’t felt seasick yet and I tell myself that since my grandfather had captained tall ships out of Nova Scotia, I will be immune to mal de mer. So far, it’s working.Ship-shape takes on new dimensionsThe sea occasionally licks up on the slanting deck where walking is already hazardous; portholes disappear underwater on the leeward side as the ship heels. When I open my cabin door later I discover how rough a passage it has been. I’d stowed most of my gear except a glass I’d forgotten to return to the ship’s galley, and it has smashed on the floor. It occurs to me that real sailors are tidy for a reason.It won’t be the only thing I learn this week.For part of the year, the Dutch-registered Europa serves as the training ship for an important nautical college in the Netherlands. The core of her 14-person crew is Dutch; a few are Canadian. Some are students “learning the ropes,” taking advantage of the ship’s status as a deep-sea sail training vessel.Yke, a petite Dutch woman, scurries around the ship, loosening one rope, hauling on another. She seems to have an uncanny awareness of which sail needs adjusting. No one, including Captain Klaas Gaastra, questions her judgment. En route to Summerside, she uses a blackboard to explain the rigging with its miles of ropes, but it’s hard to hear her in the wind, and I’m distracted by the water and the sight of the sails billowing above us. I love the solid feel of the ship underfoot as she reacts to the sea. “This is so much fun,” I can’t help exclaiming to one of the more sedate passengers. I’m only slightly surprised when she eagerly agrees. The weather, always a factor at sea, is perfect.The best of old and newThree masts tower above Europa‘s white, 185-foot steel hull, and 27 sails provide 11,000 square feet of canvas. In full sail, she is magnificent, and I envy the recreational sailors and professional fishers who see her full glory. Some chase alongside to have a close-up look. Built in 1911 as a lightship (a floating lighthouse), Europa emerged from a refit in 1994 as a classic barque. Her graceful lines draw throngs of admirers in every port. In spite of her antiquated appearance, however, she’s fitted with a full spectrum of navigational instrumentation, including radar, GPS and satellite communication – and a modern and well-stocked galley.Modern tall ships provide the best of contemporary and old-fashioned travel. In spite of its small area, the ship offers quiet places, such as the library in the stern, well stocked with nautical books. But it’s more fun to hoist sails or climb the rigging to the crow’s nest, and get to know other passengers or crew over a cocktail or each delectable meal.Fragrant aromas of cinnamon, intense chocolate or heavenly bread waft up from the galley. We feast on the freshest produce and regional fare such as salmon, lobster, and mussels.Shore leave delightsOur various ports of call took root at the shoreline, so it seems appropriate to see them first from a ship’s deck. There’s always something of interest within a stroll or bicycle ride of our dock, and usually a golf course is only a cab ride away. Most mornings, in fact, our intrepid golfers disappear early to get a game in before we sail. Christine and Bob of Sutton, Que., and Stuart, from Washington, D.C., don’t miss a golfing opportunity, enjoying a variety of courses at Pugwash, N.S., and at Summerside, Charlottetown and Brudenell in P.E.I.At Pugwash, some of the non-golfers go off to tour Jost Vineyards, but I shop the Seagull Pewter store. Unfortunately, a factory tour isn’t possible because it’s Labour Day. The sight of a dozen or more blue herons stalking through a sanctuary behind the factory eases my disappointment.In Summerside, the island’s second largest community, and Charlottetown, its capital, we dock next to attractive waterfront parks, starting points for walking tours of heritage areas.In Charlottetown, I wander alone through the interactive Confederation Museum and later visit Province House, where the Fathers of Confederation first met in 1864 and where the provincial assembly still holds legislative sessions. I ramble in and out of bookstores, visit antique and crafts stores and admire a fountain gushing in the middle of a closed-off street, delighting small children and dogs. Later, Christine, Bob and I attend a performance of “Anne of Green Gables” in the Confederation Centre, which also houses an impressive art gallery. We leave hastily for a nighttime sail to Georgetown.Casting offFrom where we’re docked at Georgetown, the far shore of Cardigan Bay looks a long way off. I’m determined to make my first attempt at kayaking, reassured that my instructor, CSE’s cruise director, David Evans, is a champion kayaker. The water is choppy, and I almost tip, but then paddling becomes rhythmical, and I pick up speed, making it across the bay and back, elated. The next day, the wind is stronger, the water rougher and I tire more quickly, but I’ve discovered a sport I want to master.Captain Klaas delays our final sail to Pictou until evening, knowing that the wind whipped up as Hurricane Frances brushes Canada, will switch in our favour. The crew is eager to go. For two days, they’ve been painting or doing the small jobs that always must be done on a ship like Europa, but the prospect of sailing has them energized and they laugh and joke as they make ready to cast off. Beyond the bay, the sea is the roughest so far, and wind will soon fill Europa‘s sails.Later, I fall asleep in my pitch-dark bunk, rocked by the swells, listening to water lapping on the other side of the hull.After breakfast, I reluctantly take leave of the Europa. Now I understand a sailor’s attachment to a ship. Europa has a personality, and a benign one at that. Gary has offered to drop me off at the airport but before we leave Pictou, we inspect a replica of the Hector, the tiny cargo ship that brought the first Scottish settlers (including some of my relatives) to Nova Scotia in 1773 after a nightmarish voyage. I’m amazed at the sophistication of its accompanying museum – the room is moving just like a ship! Then I look closer and realize the room is perfectly ordinary – and motionless.In fact, it took two more days before my body stopped feeling Europa‘s rolling decks. I’ve yet to get her out of my heart.