NYC’s Sea Scouts bring history to life
By Oliver Bertin and John King
“Huzzah! Huzzah! Huzzah!” yelled The National Yacht Club’s Sea Scouts at the end of their Georgian Bay voyage as they waved their hands in the air, beaming.
That old-fashioned cheer was the culmination of a trip that will be one of the happiest of their lives. In one short week, they camped for six days on Georgian Bay, sailed their whaler from Meaford to Thornbury, paddled a voyageur canoe 21 kilometres down the Nottawasaga River and took part in four epic War of 1812 re-enactment battles while experiencing 35-knot winds, near-record rainfall and miserable temperatures. It was the worst August weather since 1849, we were told, with surf so high on Wasaga Beach that the Nottawasaga River was flowing upstream. But the wind and rain didn’t stop the Scouts from having a wonderful time.
Who are The Sea Scouts?
The Sea Scouts, for those who haven’t met them, are a group of community-spirited boys and girls who have kept their whaler United at the NYC for the past two years. The Sea Scouts, aged 11 to 13, and Sea Venturer Scouts, aged 14 to 17, belong to the 65th Toronto Scout Group, which meets during the fall, winter and spring at Emmanuel-Howard Park United Church on Roncesvalles Avenue. Nautically oriented youngsters, they are members of Scouts Canada, part of the largest youth movement in the world.
They came knocking at the NYC’s door in the fall of 2012, hoping to find a place to keep their Montagu (correct, Montagu – no ‘e’) whaler, a 27-foot retired Royal Canadian Navy sea boat. They were kindly taken in by Vice-Commodore (Marine) Don Weston and General Manager Tal Wolf, given a mooring in the Outer Basin and a place to erect their work tent in the eastern end of the yard. In return, they have done their best to thank the club by waving the NYC burgee everywhere they go and by helping out at club regattas and at launch and haulout.
The Sea Scouts have worked hard to turn a surplus, 50-year-old, navy whaler once again into a fine, seaworthy vessel. The boat has been made to resemble a bateau longboat of the sort used by the Royal Navy during battles on the Great Lakes from 1812 through 1814, and the Scouts have participated in many historical re-enactment events during this bicentennial period.
The NYC Helps
With the help of many NYC members, the Sea Scouts and their adult leaders patched up a hole in the hull, attached new gunwales, fabricated and installed a 250-pound steel centreboard, built a new rudder and hooked up new tiller chains. They repaired and erected two wooden masts, a main and a mizzen, installed period hemp rigging, set up a clever bamboo spritsail rig and modified three donated sails to produce a boat that actually sails and rows very well. The crowning touch was the donation of six graphite oars that the late John Thomson acquired from his rowing club in Orangeville. Thank you, John. You are not forgotten.
A Historical Commemoration
Scout leader John King, an NYC member, has been preparing the boys and girls for the past three years for this year’s bicentennial Wasaga Under Siege, a historical commemoration held each year at Nancy Island in Wasaga Beach. The plan was to recreate the voyage of Lieut. Miller Worsley, an RN officer who sailed across Georgian Bay in 1814 in HMS Nancy and tried unsuccessfully to evade three pursuing U.S. warships by hiding his schooner in the Nottawasaga River.
The Scouts’ week-long adventure was to include a three-day, 50-kilometre cruise across the bay in United as part of a four-boat flotilla, a trip down the Nottawasaga River in a voyageur canoe, several battles on land and sea involving re-enactors in period dress, lots of rowing and sailing, and a history lesson that they would never forget.
Each year, Wasaga Under Siege celebrates the Battle of Nottawasaga in August 1814, when 500 U.S. troops with 24 cannons on the tall ships USS Niagara, Tigress and Scorpion managed to trap and burn the Nancy, a pesky British ship that was carrying supplies from the mouth of the Nottawasaga River to the isolated British outpost at Fort Mackinac, near the entrance to Lake Michigan. Without the Nancy, the Fort Mackinac garrison could have starved, and they almost did.
The crew of 22 Nancy seamen took off into the woods during the battle with nine voyageurs and 23 Ojibway allies. When the Americans left, they jumped into canoes and longboats and paddled, sailed and rowed the 600 kilometres to Fort Mackinac with the essential supplies. Along the way, they passed two of the U.S. ships that burned the Nancy, and the British later ambushed and captured both of them. Not a bad end to the battle.
For this year’s bicentennial celebration, 500 re-enactors camped out in Wasaga Beach dressed in 1814 costumes. They banged off cannons, fired muskets, paraded to the sound of fife and drums, danced hornpipes, slept in canvas tents and cooked meals over campfires using period pots and utensils. It was quite an event and a great learning experience.
The seven Scouts and Venturers from NYC who took part, along with six adult leaders, had two roles. They were to sail their whaler with a flotilla from Meaford to Thornbury on the first day, then around the shoals off the Blue Mountains to Collingwood, and finally to Wasaga Beach. Along the way, they would practise sailing, rowing, log-taking and navigation, plus have a lovely voyage in a beautiful part of the Great Lakes. At each stop, they would play to local townspeople, wearing their period-dress uniforms of white trousers, gingham shirt, red waistcoat and straw hat, just like real 1814 sailors.
A Cold Trip
The first leg of the trip was great fun. The Scouts showed the boat off to 250 admiring visitors in Meaford and set sail the next morning, arriving in Thornbury about two hours later. That’s when the trip started to go awry. First were the howling winds, with gusts of 35 knots for the next two days, six-foot waves and a mass of breakers all along the Wasaga Beach. More than 15 millimetres of rain sent the Scouts scurrying into a local hotel foyer to stay dry while temperatures fell to 11 C, just above the 20-year record low for that day. It may have been miserable, but the Scouts were definitely impressed with the weather and they certainly enjoyed the drama.
Given the weather, the Scout leaders decided that safety was more important than adventure, so they loaded the whaler onto its trailer and trucked the boat to Wasaga Beach for the second half of their scheduled activities.
Wasaga Beach, Then and Now
Wasaga Beach is famous now for tacky swimsuit shops and pizza joints, but back in 1814 it was a waypoint on the main route from Toronto to the upper Great Lakes. Voyageurs paddled canoes up the Humber River, through Holland Marsh and into Lake Simcoe before undertaking the arduous Nine-Mile Portage from present-day Barrie to Fort Willow, near where Willow Creek enters the Nottawasaga River and flows into Georgian Bay. There was a blockhouse at the mouth of the Nottawasaga River, a supply warehouse and a trans-shipment point where voyageurs would transfer bales of beaver pelts heading east and supplies going west between canoes and bigger ships.
The blockhouse has gone, but over the past 200 years an island formed around the bones of HMS Nancy. There is still an old Georgian Bay lighthouse there and a fine museum that houses the burned-out remains of the ship. It’s definitely worth a visit, if only to see the one-piece, 80-foot-long oak keel. They had fine trees in those days!
The Sea Scouts were given a campsite close to the museum, where they stayed in 1814-style military tents, right beside a big red bell buoy on which they learned to ring naval watchkeeping bells every 30 minutes for 16 hours every day. That was their favourite activity. They cooked baked beans, sausages, bannock and hardtack bread on their campfire, augmenting a somewhat nutritious diet of marshmallows, instant porridge and Korean noodle soups. When they weren’t eating or sleeping, the Scouts cruised the local museum, the many period craft merchants and sutlers, the town library and the hot spots of Wasaga Beach.
Sea Scouts Role in Re-enactment
Fun aside, the Scouts had a key role to play in the re-enactment. They were to man their whaler for demonstration naval battles in the sheltered water at the mouth of the river. So twice a day, they shipped oars, raised sails, loaded their one-inch-bore swivel gun with blank charges and headed out into the river. It was very exciting. The six participating longboats rowed two and fro, firing cannons at each other, fought off marauding Ojibway armed with rubber hatchets and generally had a lot of fun.
But all too soon, the battles ended and the weekend came to an end. So the Scouts packed up, loaded their whaler onto its trailer and headed back to the NYC, a very happy and sleepy bunch of kids.