La voile est un rêve: Sailing the St. Lawrence

For Canadian Geographic assistant editor Abi Hayward, sailing the St. Lawrence was a dream — and a trip down memory lane.

  • Mar 25, 2022
  • 2,207 words
  • 9 minutes
The ship Ohana at sunset on the St. Lawrence at Montreal, Que. “Ohana” is the Hawaiian word for family. (Photo: © Véronique Garon)
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As sailcloth catches the wind, a boat cuts through water. It’s an image from my childhood — sailing with my Grandad in northern England, where I grew up. I’ve always romanticized sailing, but it’s been a long time since I climbed aboard a sailboat. So, a trip to Montreal to sail the waters around the island feels like a second chance — a “seagoing” homecoming of sorts and a chance to reconnect with my grandparents from across the sea.

My journey begins, not on the water, but at the steps of a small chapel on the shores of the St. Lawrence. From the outside, it could be any old church: a tall tower tipped with jade-green oxidized copper, stone steps up to a plain entrance. But step inside and your gaze is drawn upwards to the intricate wooden ships hanging from the vaulted ceiling. Some have sails billowing in a phantom wind; others bear candles flickering green as navigation lights for ships long-ago sailed. Prayers for departing fishermen. Thanksgiving for safe return. For this is the Fishermen’s Chapel, the Sailor’s Church, la chapelle Notre-Dame-de-Bon-Secours.

Steps away from the river, the chapel is a reminder of Montreal’s maritime history, its maritime present. Montreal is an island, after all. And I’m here to sail on the St. Lawrence River, as many have done before me. The Sailor’s Church seems as good a place as any to start my journey as I navigate my — and my family’s — relationship with sailing. As my Granny Carole says: “it’s a very well-entrenched past. It’s deep, like the ocean, deep there in the mind.”

A votive ship in the Sailor’s Church. (Photo: Abi Hayward/Can Geo)
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My grandfather is not a fisherman, but he is a sailor. Grandad Michael was born in April 1933 in Southampton, England, and grew up sailing on the River Itchen, which winds through Hampshire to meet the Southampton Water. “I taught myself to sail, reading Arthur Ransome, I suppose,” Grandad tells me on a recent visit home. He sits in his faded tan leather chair, and I sit on the floor with the dog next to the fireplace. “When I was young, I had been out in a sailboat with a friend at school — his father had bought him a nine-foot sailing boat and I think it cost — this was 1948 — but it cost £70 ($120). My father was aghast at the cost! Anyway, we went out in this boat and went about the river. Between turning it over and filling it up with water, we managed to learn to sail.”

A photograph of young Michael and Carole Hayward. (Photo: Abi Hayward/Can Geo)
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An early black-and-white picture of him and Granny Carole shows them embracing on a dock, a life ring encircling their shoulders like a bizarre marine necklace bonding them together. “He, of course, was the helmsman in charge,” says Granny, “and I was the mate, you know, the person who sits under the boom and gets whacked from time to time when it swings from side to side!” (The boom on a sailboat is a pole that extends horizontally from the mast, along the bottom of the mainsail — moving the boom is how the sail harnesses the wind.)

As newlyweds, they built a small sailboat, Amaryllis (named for the first English yacht to circumnavigate), together in the dining room of their semi-detached house. The hull was blue; the sails were red. “To us, it was a fairly normal thing to do — to build a boat in your dining room,” says Granny.

Even now, at 80-something, Grandad still has the Pacemaker, a two-person sailing boat — but he can no longer get it rigged and in the water alone. It’s a bit of a sore point. When we start our conversation, he’s rather tight-lipped — the classic British stoicism. “I haven’t even seen my boat for 18 months,” he says. “Lost interest. Completely. I’m not strong enough to do anything — just too old, unfortunately.” But, as we talk, it’s clear that the fire for the watery craft is still there.

Sailing was in his blood. And I think it’s in mine, despite deficiencies in knowledge, experience and skill. Grandad dreamed of getting someone in the family into sailing — but my childhood memories of sailing with Grandad were mainly of him shouting incomprehensible sailing terms at me and my sister as we were continually lapped in a community regatta on a local reservoir. His children have similar memories. When I told my aunt Beth I was writing a story, she messaged back: “Am slightly alarmed at the thought of a story about his sailing experiences, as my recollections of sailing with him mainly include frustrated shouting, blaming his crew for the speed of the boat, or grovelling around trying to duck under a flying boom!”

The Ohana is in her element, framed against a Montreal sunset cityscape. (Photo: Frédérique Savard)
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After one “dreadful expedition” to the sailing club in 1992, Beth even tapped out a poem on her electric typewriter:

You know I like my boat! he cries / That piece of wood means more than much / A child of his sea struck, sea dog heart.

I feel like I’m reading my own heart. Us Hayward women all sea struck, despite a crusty captain. “None of that destroyed my love of being on the water,” says Granny. “Your heart lifts and you sail away. It’s a wonderful thing.”

When I went to university, I told Grandad optimistically that I’d join a sailing club, and he pointedly bought me a book called How to Sail. I couldn’t afford the club fees at the time — or perhaps I was too focused on the student life — but it was a long while before I went aboard a sailboat once again.

The Ohana Sailing Agency and school launched in Montreal in 2019, and its website speaks to my soul. “La voile est un rêve,” reads the website. Sailing is a dream and “aussi un monde où il peut être difficile de s’y retrouver” (it is also a world where it can be difficult to navigate). I’m nodding as I read. The challenge for hopeful sailors is finding the answers to all their questions in one place. Ohana helps sailing dreamers like me to navigate the waves of learning to sail — and to discover Montreal from a different perspective. As Beth says: “Sailing may be in our blood, but having the right crew makes a huge difference!”

Ohana is a Hawaiian word meaning family. Here, the family is the crew, which is helmed by general manager Simon Duplantie and director of operations Véronique Garon. The sailing agency is Simon’s dream — a dream planted by his father, who taught him the art of navigation. As his fascination with the world of sailing grew, Duplantie bought his first 17-foot sailing dinghy at the age of 15. After spending several years sailing in the Caribbean, he began navigating how he could continue pursuing his passion upon his return to Quebec — and how he could share it with others. Ohana was his answer.

Ohana leaves the dock at the Réal-Bouvier Marina in Longueuil, Que. (Photo: © Frédérique Savard)
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At the Réal-Bouvier Marina at Longueuil, off-island across the river, about 10 kilometres from Montreal, I’m a bit nervous. I’m wearing a faded blue baseball cap, a bit stained from many years of wear. Embroidered on the back are the words “Made to Sail.” Garon greets our group of four would-be sailors with a bright smile and leads us down to the docks to meet Duplantie — and the boat, Ohana IV.

Simon is the captain, and we do what he says. Véronique is the first mate: if the captain falls in, she’s in charge. Somehow the contingency is that if they both fall in, I’m in charge. “Call your Grandad!” grins Simon. But we’re all reassured that the boat is basically impossible to capsize. “If it does flip over, it’s because you’re in a hurricane and you shouldn’t be there!” laughs Duplantie. Plus, there’s a raft “in case the boat catches on fire.” And there’s a foghorn, and a flare. So, we’re all good. 

Ohana IV is 37 feet long with two sails and a big ship’s wheel to steer. The boat isn’t too big, so it’s pretty easy to manage. But it can sleep nine if it needs to. There are bedrooms, a kitchen and a washroom below decks. There’s an engine to help manoeuvre in and out of the harbour — or if the wind isn’t playing ball. Which is helpful on a day like today where the breeze is barely three knots.

It’s always important to analyze the wind before leaving, so we look up to the little arrow at the top of the mast, which tells us where the wind is blowing, even if it’s not terribly strong today. We climb aboard, help to unwind the ropes from the docks, pull up the buoy fenders and cast off, motoring out into the river.

The sails remain furled until we get further into the St. Lawrence River. Then, Duplantie shows me how to take the cover off the mainsail. I’m tasked with hoisting the sail up the mast and I’m glad I’m wearing gloves to save me from rope burn. Up, up, up, it goes until the sail reaches the top and billows lightly in the breeze. From below, it looks rather magnificent. And, so far, no one has shouted at me (although everyone gets a bit nervous whenever my fellow traveller Chris Muther takes the wheel. Muther: “I feel like I’d be better after a drink.” Garon: “In your case, yes.”)

The author takes the wheel. (Photo: Abi Hayward/Can Geo)
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It’s smooth sailing as we glide down to the city’s historic Vieux-Port de Montréal — there’s not much wind to practice manoeuvres, although Garon shows me how to pull the sails in and out, and cleat them in place by wrapping the line around a winch.

To get into the main port, Duplantie has to perform a manoeuvre — “the crab” — which was taught to them by a local sailor when they moved to Montreal. Because of the fast-flowing current of that section of the St. Lawrence, the vessel has to turn back northwards, edging sideways with the current, like a crab, before peeling off into the Old Port.

I spot Notre-Dame-de-Bon-Secours, obvious from the chapel’s figurehead, Our Lady of Good Hope herself, who stretches out her hands benevolently over the harbour. The statue of Mary, Stella Maris, is known as “Star of the Sea” — a title for Mary that goes back to the fourth century. I learn later from Sister Patricia Simpson, a historian of the chapel, that Star of the Sea comes from Mary’s name in Hebrew, Miryam. “Yam” meant “sea” and the first syllable was supposed to have meant “star.”

Stella Maris watches over the Old Montreal Harbour. (Photo: Abi Hayward/Can Geo)
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Sister Patricia also relates a legend that the Montreal tour bus drivers tell about the statue. “It’s definitely not true,” she laughs, “but they used to claim that the statue was originally intended to look out toward the city, but that it turned around and looked out over the port.” The story goes that efforts were made to turn it back to look over the city, but the statue would always turn back around because the blessed virgin was  determined to look out to the sea and watch over the sailors.

I’m thankful for the statue’s watchful gaze. Perhaps she had a hand in our success that day — we sailed down the St. Lawrence to the main harbour and back with no mishaps, no capsizing, no silly questions and no arguments. As I disembark, Simon and Véronique tell me I can come back and sail with them anytime. I think I will.

Back on dry land, I’m still being drawn to the river. My feet find themselves walking on worn stone along the St. Lawrence into the Old Port of Montreal.

I see the familiar green towers of Notre-Dame-de-Bon-Secours and take a left up a cobbled side street. The Star of the Sea watches me pass. It’s a hot day, and “the sun pours down like honey / on our lady of the harbour” (as Leonard Cohen wrote). The air inside the church is stone-cooled, soft; footsteps are muffled and the silence is respectful as pilgrims shuffle into wooden pews. 

Like the sailors before me, I want to give thanks. The descendants of the original sailors who offered those votive ships hanging from the ceiling were still coming to the chapel every year, Sister Patricia tells me, even in the 21st century. I’m not particularly religious, but there’s a quiet power here. Maybe it’s the old stone, or perhaps it’s the oddity of the ships themselves, their lights shimmering against the ceiling.

As the ships hang like marine chandeliers from the Sailor’s Church, I think about the Pacemaker, my Grandad’s boat, wrapped up in tarpaulin the last several winters. Maybe one day I’ll sail it with him again. Until then, Beth’s poem says it nicely:

The dinghy is now moored at home / the winter storms will pass it by / Whereas to him, it sails in mind / a planing, gliding piece of joy.


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