When I Was a Sailor

Photo: Sarah Wollner Schleihauf

Me and the gang. Photo: Sarah Wollner Schleihauf

When I was a teenager, I sailed on a tall ship every summer. Toronto Brigantine is a sail-training organization for youth and operates two vessels: T.S. Playfair and S.T.V. Pathfinder.  During the summer, the ships sail the Great Lakes with its seamen and crew, often sailing continuously through the night and arriving at port only to refuel and for brief shore leave.  During the winter the crew members ‘earn their stripes’ on weekends – maintaining the sails, rigging, woodwork and mechanics, and learning the principles of traditional sailing and navigation.

I was a crew member of “brigs” through all my high school years. I sailed on both ships in the first year or two but my heart really belonged to Playfair; Officers are generally inducted into one wardroom.  I joined the organization as a lowly Seaman at 14, was promoted to Petty Officer the following year, then Bo’s’n the year after, then finally leaving at 17 with the rank of Watch Officer. During that time we sailed all 5 Great Lakes and trained hundreds of young seamen, grateful to escape the heat of the city but not so grateful to be scrubbing decks at 6am.  Like me, many learned to love it.

I came of age during my time at brigs – had the most loyal friendships I would ever have, and faced down my fears and insecurities one night watch at a time.


Photo: Toronto Brigantine

Photo of Playfair: Toronto Brigantine

Photo: Toronto Brigantine

My best friend and me, hanging out back aft. Photo: Toronto Brigantine

We were a ragtag crew of youth from all walks of life, coming together with a passion for sailing, adventure and friendship. We got up to quite a bit of mischief, but thankfully we had two sets of influences keeping us more or less in line: military time-keeping, discipline and rigour; and 2 take-no-shit Captains who authoritatively ushered us into adulthood.


Playfair officers, 1987 Photo: Toronto Brigantine


David Perry (back row, moustache) was our Captain on Playfair. He was just a few years older than us but his role on the ship (and in our lives) made him somewhat elusive and unknowable. It wasn’t until we all eventually left the program that this leader and mentor became a friend. I loved him – still do – in the way that one loves someone who was deeply influential during those rocky teenage years. He died about 15 years ago of a devastating cancer. I was honoured to deliver the eulogy at his funeral on behalf of our sailing community – and still carry a great regret that I didn’t visit him as he was rapidly dying. “Hopefully in the fall”, I said into the phone. He died before I got up the nerve to see him.

Photo: Toronto Brigantine

Bruce Macdonald. Photo: Toronto Brigantine

R Bruce Macdonald, was our Captain on Pathfinder. I didn’t sail with Bruce a lot but almost didn’t need to – his reputation was legendary. Fair, measured, stern yet good-humoured, he was a skilled and respected seaman. Captain Macdonald was the man we all sought to impress. I didn’t develop a personal connection with him after our sailing years in the same way I did with David, but through facebook we’ve kept in touch and I’ve been so happy to catch glimpses of his remarkable life.

While I’m still connected with some friends from back then, Bruce represents a different sort of bridge to the past. So when Carsten and I went to Vancouver recently, I was keen to see him again.

Bruce and his wife now live aboard the North Star of Herschel Island.  They bought and restored the ship to its former glory many years ago and have since raised their own children, fostered others, and homeschooled the whole gang while living aboard and logging many miles at sea.

Photo: North Star of Herschel Island/R. Bruce Macdonald

Photo: North Star of Herschel Island/R. Bruce Macdonald

From their website:

North Star of Herschel Island is the last of the sailing Arctic cargo ships. She is the only fully rigged ship in Canada, meaning that she crosses squares on each of her three masts. Sails can be handled from on deck and it is possible for the ship to be sailed single-handedly.North Star was built in 1935 in San Francisco at the Geo. W. Kneass shipyard and shipped to the Arctic aboard the 600 ton trading ship Patterson. She had originally been built for two Inuit fox trappers. She was used from 1936 to 1961 for transport of the winter’s catch of fur to market in early August and for transportation of supplies from Aklavik and Tuktoyaktuk to Sachs Harbour on Banks Island in late August and early September when ice conditions permitted sea navigation. Except for three winters frozen in the ice, each fall North Star was hauled onto the beach and launched the following spring using three purchase tackle and hand winched by the whole village over skids of freshly killed seals.North Star was left on the beach in 1961 when cargo flights took over the transportation and remained on the beach until 1968. She was purchased by her second owner in 1967 and refit for navigation in the Beaufort Sea. From 1968 until 1973 she was used for scientific investigations in the Arctic Ocean. Subsequent voyages included surveying the British Columbia Alaska boundary, ecological adventures, sail training and searching for mermaids.

North Star is the home of her present owners and is no longer a commercial ship but is now a private vessel. She is not available for charter. She is available as a way of educating people about Arctic history such as for school group tours and historical societies. There is no charge for this. She sometimes participates in classic and wooden boat shows. The ship is rigged, ready and capable of sailing anywhere in the world.


Amazing, right?  As a former (lapsed?) sailor, I loved the smell of oil and hemp, the sway of the decks beneath my feet, the rugged homeyness of the living quarters that can only be achieved through years at sea. And talking to Bruce again was. . . affecting. My heart was full as we boarded the water taxi back to mainland.

Hope you enjoy these pictures of my visit aboard the North Star. Please do check out the ship’s website and appreciate the Macdonald family’s preservation of an important part of Canadian history.

These photos are taken by Carsten and me, and reproduced here with permission from the Macdonalds.













  1. Excellent story! Came across this from a repost on Fb. I knew Dave Perry in 1989 while working together at a Newspaper in Durham, Ont. Both sailors, we connected well and he shared a lot of wonderful stories with me. After I left the paper, I never had contact again. But, inspired by his work on the ships, I sent my daughter years later on the Playfair and the adventure was just as rewarding for her as I’ve read in your words. Cheers :)

    • Thanks for your comment Scott! Yes, David’s love for sailing was evident wherever he went. So grateful to have sailed with him. And glad your daughter had a good time of it! It’s not for everyone :)

  2. Darn you.

    I read your blog to get pissed off at bio-ethics people or commenters who say unsmart things. Then you go write a touching, wonderful post with great memories.

    Now I gotta go somewhere else to get riled up. Thanks a lot, Jennifer.

  3. So many wonderful memories flooded back J.Jo. This was very touching. Especially loved the pic of Bo Jo and CPo and I have to say the lumberjacket in one of the latter pics of your visit with Bruce stopped me in my tracks – weird eh? Ya, I still have trouble referring to him as Bruce LOL. I really enjoy your writing :) Fair winds!

  4. Hey there jenjo. Having just joined facebook and immediately sucked into the brigs page (via lurch of course) and reconnecting with folks ive completely lost touch with, ive been strolling down the STV Pathfinder memory lane lately. This blog just adds to it. Whew. The pic of you and Morph is so great, two people I totally looked up to. Strong, interesting, competent women.
    Cap’t R Bruce is one of the few people who scared the bejeezus out of me until I got up the guts to tell him so. What an amazing man and sailor. So great to see that he is still the incredible person that I admired so much as a screwed up teen.
    Hope things are good Jen.

  5. Thanks Kelly and Jen, for chiming in here!

    We were on vacation in July, rented a cottage near Parry Sound. Decided to have our last lunch in town… when which ship should we see in the harbour?! My son says, “hey mom look, a tall ship, like the kind you sailed on!” It was Pathfinder! So lovely to see her in action.

    Great to be in touch with you both. Wonderful memories.

  6. Great article Jen, I’m sure all of us who had that experience have similar wonderful memories of that time.

  7. That was a fantastic article, thank you so much for that. I too sailed abourd Playfair the years that you did. Your story brought back a lot of memories and for that I thank you.

      • Yes we did, I’m all of the sudden remembering all kinds of stuff thanks to you that I haven’t thought of in years. We were petty officers together. I was a seaman for a year then petty officer for two years until I left to make my way in life. I’ve even found some old pics . The Brigantines instilled my work ethics and code of honour and respect for those around me.

        • I’m sure I’d remember if I saw you again – names are a bit fuzzy after all this time…

          And yes, work ethic! I credit Brigs with my ability to wake up instantly and start working :)

          • I remember your face and your name as well as a lot of others. Which surprised me as I was incredibly socially awkward back then , just a kid from Burlington who wanted to change that. I did in the end. I’m planning on becoming a member this year to help them out wherever I can. Maybe we will see each other once again. Cheers!

  8. Hi Jen,
    Great story. What a surprise to see that old picture of us all.
    Really brings back some great memories.
    Hope you are well.


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