For young sailors, Toronto Brigantine's annual Thanksgiving sail from Toronto to Niagara Falls is a rite of passage.
The tall ships that dot Toronto’s shoreline add an element of history to our waterfront. Each serves a purpose. Some, such as the Kajama, are used as tourist attractions, giving passengers a taste of the pirate life. Others, like the Pathfinder and its sister ship the Playfair, are used as training vessels. These training ships are part of a unique youth development program designed to help shape the next generation of young leaders. Teenagers aged 13 to 18 spend the summers working together to learn the ins and outs of sailing. The training culminates annually in a Thanksgiving sail that takes them from Toronto to Niagara Falls and back.
The Thanksgiving Sail has become a rite of passage for young sailors looking to take the next steps in their sailing careers. It represents the last sail of the season as they wind down to begin preparing for winter training, where experienced crew members will teach the young trainees the more detailed inner workings of life on Lake Ontario.
Half the sailors will depart from Toronto under the direction of Colin Burt, the 29-year-old captain of the Pathfinder. The others will sail on the Playfair, the only Canadian ship to be named and christened by Queen Elizabeth II.
“For the last decade or two, we’ve sailed across to Niagara on the Lake, and we tie up at the yacht club and have a Thanksgiving dinner on the Saturday night,” Burt said. “All the kids bring stuff from home for the dinner. Senior officers deal with dinner, and junior officers deal with dessert. Then we hang out for the night and sail back to Toronto on the Sunday, but we generally carry on through the Monday. We may stop at the Islands Sunday night and move in Monday morning.”
It’s a tradition that dates back to the program’s launch in the early 1960s, after J. Garfield Lorriman and his wife Mary watched a documentary on the Norwegian sail training ship Christian Radich. They wondered if a similar program existed in Ontario, and they soon discovered that there was one. It used the St. Lawrence II, a brigantine that operated out of Kingston. They wanted to introduce a similar program in Toronto, and so they commissioned the St. Lawrence II’s designer, Francis A. Maclachlan, to design and build a unique vessel specifically for training purposes. They named it Pathfinder. Later, they commissioned him again to create a second vessel, which ended up being the Playfair. Toronto Brigantine Inc. launched as an incorporated charity in May 1962.
“The rig is traditional,” Burt said. “It’s a miniaturized version of the type of rigs that were common in the last age of the sail, in the late 19th, early 20th century.”
The ships are built tough and relatively foolproof, to allow room for error.
“I don’t think I’ve ever encountered another youth program where kids are given this degree of real responsibility,” said Burt. “Their decisions actually matter, and they’re responsible for keeping the ship going. If they didn’t, we wouldn’t go anywhere. We depend on them. It’s not just for them—it’s also dependent on them. That’s built into the very structure of the whole program.”
Burt started in the program in 1999, in Kingston. Like all sailors who eventually hope to become captain of one of these ships, he had to climb the ranks, earning more responsibility with each passing year. As trainees advance, they take over roles in maintenance, navigation, and night watch. Senior officers are responsible for small teams. Essentially, the program operates like a summer camp, in one to two-week sessions. 28 sailors per ship travel all across the lake all summer, from Toronto to Port Perry, to Collingwood and beyond.
To date, thousands of people have participated in the program. Gender representation is generally pretty equal, though Burt says slightly more males than females tend rise to senior roles on the ships.
For Burt, the decision to become captain was a natural one.
“I’ve sailed on a lot of different ships, and these are the most fun to sail because you can do a lot with them,” he said. “They can handle heavy weather, but they also don’t take much wind to move, so you can sail when there’s no wind and handle it when there’s a lot.”
As captain, he’s the oldest on the ship. Occasionally, mates—the highest-ranking crew members—will be older than 18, but otherwise the crew skews very young.
“I don’t mind the company of teenagers,” Burt said. “You just have to appreciate a variety of humour.”