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Year of the Wooden Boat (Tall Ships) and the Rose


The Fortress and the Rose: A Tall Ship Returns to Louisbourg by B.A. Balcom

In the mid-18th century, thousands sailed before the masts of large sailing ships. Today the exhilarating experience is limited to a fortunate few.

I felt lucky therefore when I had the opportunity in June 1993 to sail on the tall ship Rose. The cruise would be only for two days but it linked two historic Nova Scotia ports - Lunenburg and Louisbourg.

Sailing on a replica of a mid-18th century British frigate was particularly meaningful as I work at the Fortress of Louisbourg National Historic Site. The Fortress is a major reconstuction of one-quarter of a French colonial seaport and is itself interpreted to the mid-18th century.

I joined the Rose at Lunenburg, a picturesque and historic fishing port on Nova Scotia's South Shore. The port is home to the province's famous Grand Banks schooner, Bluenose.

Lunenburgers are justly proud of their maritime traditions and have long maintained skills lost elsewhere. A number of replica wooden sailing ships have been built here including the Bluenose, Bounty and Rose.

The modern Rose was built in Lunenburg in 1970 based on the original 1757 plans. Intended to celebrate the forthcoming bicentennial of the American Revolution, financial difficulties plagued the project from the start. The Rose spent much of its early life at dockside in Newport, Rhode Island.

In 1985 Mr. Kaye Williams bought the much-deteriorated Rose and moved it to Bridgeport, Connecticutt. A pivate non-profit "HMS" Rose Foundation was created to administer the vessel. In September 1991, after extensive restoration, the U.S. Coast Guard certified the Rose as America's first Class-A size Sailing School Vessel.

When I joined the Rose, it was undergoing a minor refit. It would then sail the length of Nova Scotia's Atlantic coast en route to the Great Lakes. The course enabled a stop at Louisbourg on Cape Breton Island.

As I was not placed in a watch until the following morning, I spent my first day familiarizing myself with the vessel. The myriad of lines and their positions on the pinrails received particular attention. I quickly realized it would take more than my two allotted days to decipher the pinrail.

The crew were well accustomed to such deficiencies among their temporary shipmates and were quite satisfied if one could hold, haul, pay out or coil any line that was specifically pointed out. Coiling was an art much in demand and it was staggering the number of times lines were coiled in the course of a day or even a watch.

The differences in our physical surroundings were mirrored in our new companions as well. Coming from a rather sedate work environment, I particularly noted the wanderlust shown by many of the crew. This was highlighted as we toasted our departure in a local pub. One of my new crewmates chanced to meet a young woman from England that he had originally met while backpacking in Turkey.

Our departure next morning was made in very pleasant weather. It continued fine as we sailed up the coast. For several hours, even the generators were off and we experienced the joys of silent running in a tall ship.

The pleasure necessitated a close acquaintanceship with the manual bilge pump. Like all wooden vessels the Rose takes in a modest amount of water. With the generator off, crew members took turns pumping. The task required not only stamina but a certain delicacy of touch to maintain the proper suction.

Delicacy of touch was also required in steering the Rose. Novices easily slipped into repeated overcompensations when a steady hand was required.

One night, I was alone at the wheel under the watchful gaze of the first mate. Observing my not entirely successful efforts at maintaining a steady course, he cautioned the watch officer of a liner overtaking us of our situation. He responded that as long as I avoided making right angle turns, he would avoid us. I made no such turns but couldn't help feeling that a snake would be hard put to follow our wake.

Steering formed only a part of each four-hour watch. Other duties included bow watch, boat check abnd idler. Bow watch alerted the helm to any hazards (primarily fishing gear and other vessels). Boat check necessitated making a round of the vessel to ensure everything was alright, while being "idle" actually meant you were available for the myriad of tasks that continually crop up on a large sailing vessel.

The crew was separated into three watches. Mine was known as "hell watch" as our duty cycles were from 12:00 to 4:00 morning and afternoon. We also stood a four-hour general work watch in the afternoon. With allowance for meals, sleep bacame a precious commodity. I also have never felt so cold in Nova Scotia in June as during those late night hours on watch.

Newcomers were paired on watch with old hands. The practice not only provided continual individual instruction but minimzed the chance of dangerous errors. An experienced eye was invaluable to a novice bow watch estimating distances with only the horizon as a guide.

Given the daily watch rotation, the Rose did not sleep at sea. While the ship did not, individual watches did and shipboard etiquette required the sack time of off-duty watches be respected. Equally important, watches had to make their scheduled relief on time. You appreciated the requirement as your own watch neared its end.

Our two-day cruise northeastwards along the Nova Scotian was most enjoyable. We sailed the first day in pleasant sunshine and a following breeze. That evening, we ran into some rain and the wind veered to the northeast. Given a scheduled arrival at Louisbourg for Friday morning, we forsook our sails and the "iron jib" came into play. Shipboard life continues even under diesel power, and I kept busy even without sails.

Sunny skies and a gentle northeast breeze greeted the Rose on its entry into Louisbourg harbour on Cape Breton's rugged east coast. The arrival replicated a similar one by the vessel's namesake 220 years earlier. This time, not only the vessel but also the historic town had been rebuilt to 18th-century appearance. Truly an occasion to savour the past.

The original HMS Rose was a British navy 24 gun frigate built in 1757. The vessel played its role in the Seven Years War. In 1758, it escorted From Britain to New York a convoy of men and material destined for the siege of Louisbourg.

After a seven-week siege, the town surrendered 26 July, 1758. It was the second largest British combined arms operation of the Seven Years War, only narrowly exceeded by the attack on Havana four years later. HMS Rose was not part of Admiral Boscawen's squadron that blockaded Louisbourg during the spring and summer of 1758.

In 1768 as tensions mounted between Britain and its American colonies, HMS Rose returned to North American waters. On one of its patrols in 1773, frigate visited Louisbourg.

Unlike its modern namesake, HMS Rose approached the harbour in fog, rain and lightning. Just after noon on 18 June 1773, HMS Rose came to off the harbour entrance in 14 1/2 fathoms of water. It was just to the southeast of Lighthouse Point - site of Canada's earliest lighthouse and the second earliest in North America.

The wind, gradually swinging from the southwest round to the northwest, hindered her entrance. Her sailing master, Savage Gardiner, noted that, "if you have not a leading wind in you must warp as it is too narrow for ships to work in".

HMS Rose followed the sage advice and warped into the harbour's northeast arm, erroneously recorded in the log as the "SE Arm". It moored close to the traditional watering spot at Gerratt Brook, part to the future modern town of Louisbourg. The captain wasted little time in having spars sent ashore and a tent for brewing spruce beer erected.

Throughout the week, the crew prepared the vessel to continue its cruise. Ashore, the carpenters worked on a new mizzen topmast and sailors brewed spruce beer. Flavoured by boiling spruce branches and using molasses to enable fermentation, the beer was a mildly alcoholic concoction. The ship's log was perhaps understandably silent on the crew's reaction to this epicurean delight of the northwestern Atlantic.

On 25 June 1773, the crew struck the mizzen topmast and the following day brought on board the new one and rigged it. Two days later, HMS Rose warped out of the northeast arm and left Louisbourg heading southwest towards mainland Nova Scotia.

The following year (1774), HMS Rose proceeded to Narragansett Bay in Rhode Island cramp smuggling efforts there. Rhode Island enjoyed a liberal charter that included the right to appoint its own custom officials. This advantage among others encouraged lucrative smuggling deals and helped make Newport the fourth wealthiest city in North America.

HMS Rose and its crew so effectively checked smuggling operations that four-fifths of Newport's population left. Rhode Island's merchants petitioned the colony's legislature to create a navy to deal with HMS Rose. The legislature responded by commissioning the sloop of war Providence which later became John Paul Jones' first command.

HMS Rose went on to take part in other operations during the American Revolution including the British capture of New York. Finally in 1779, the British deliberately sank HMS Rose to block the channel leading to Savannah. It sacrifice prevented the French fleet from approaching within range of Savannah and the British held the city to the war's end.

Throughout HMS Rose's 1773 stay in Louisbourg harbour, it moored to the northeast by east of the historic town. The town's historic signifigance had already been commemorated a scant six years before when a British engineer raised a monument of cut stones from the ruined fortifications.

Founded in 1713 following colonial realignments included in the Treaty of Utrecht, Louisbourg enjoyed three decades of growth and prosperity. A centre for the French cod fishery, Louisbourg was the fourth busiest harbour in North Amwerica. Then in 1745, the town fell after a seven-weeks siege to an army from New England suooorted by a British naval squadron.

Returned to the French in 1749, Louisbourg fell nine years later to British regulars once again supported by the navy. As in 1745, the French garrison and civilians were deported but this time there would be no return. In 1760, the British seriously diminished Louisbourg's desirability by destroying its extensive fortifications.

Almost two hundred years later, the Canadian government approved reconstruction of part of historic Louisbourg. In time, close to one quarter of the town was reconstructed including substantial sections of its fortications and a variety of public and private buildings. The largest one, the King's Bastion barracks is 360 feet long and houses not only the soldiers' barracks but also the governor's apartments, officer's accommodations and a chapel (which also served the townspeople).

Unlike our historic predecessor, we had the advantage of the required "leading wind in" and entered the harbour under sail. The Rose was a stunning sight against the impressive backdrop of the fortress.

More than just a personal homecoming, our entry into Louisbourg was the highlight of my sailing adventure. I took the opportunity to go aloft. I had planned to keep near the mast but caught up in the moment, I headed out along the yard. Feet braced against the footrope, I followed ship's practice and secured myself to the yard.

My perch provided a unique perspective on the historic site where I work. Rooflines stood in sharp relief with the black slate of royal buildings contrasting to weathered wood of civilian ones. The the King's Bastion Barracks' tower stood out proudly against the sky. At the Dauphin demi-bastion, cannons poked through the embrasures in our direction. For a few heady moments, I relived Louisbourg's days of sail.

As we turned upwind towards the modern town, uniformed drummers from the Fortress and a local bagpiper provided a musical welcome. The dockside crowd most impressed the crew by showing enough seawise savvy to give us space to heave our lines ashore. As we edged to the wharf, nostalgia over leaving the Rose tempered my joy of homecoming.

Two days later, the Rose left in the calm of a summer's eve. As cannon salutes from ship and fortress broke the still air, the Rose provided a dramatic sight against the fortress .

Two years later, the Rose returned to Louisbourg in 1995. The year marked the 275th anniversary of the town's official founding and the 250th of its first siege. A grand encampment of 1000 living history re-enactors filled the town while almost a score of tall ships filled the harbour.

The Rose proudly entered the harbour in a "Parade of Sail". But encampment duties kept me landlocked and I could only watch wistfully, as Rose tacked before the Fortress on its way to the modern town.