100 years old and still going strong

  • May. 21, 2004 8:00 p.m.

by Mariah McCooey–“Words really can’t describe how sailing affects people,” said Kevin Smith, Captain and Engineer of the 92′ schooner Maple Leaf. “It’s beautiful.”
And it certainly is. Warm morning sunshine is coming through the skylight, illuminating the century-old teak interior finish. We’re sitting in the galley, drinking coffee. The Maple Leaf is anchored just off Queen Charlotte City, and the crew is lounging on a rare day off between charter trips. They’re waiting to go into town to re-provision for a trip to Gwaii Haanas, leaving tomorrow.
“It’s a slow morning,” said crew member Aaron, unnecessarily apologizing for the “mess.” It looks magnificent to me. It smells like coffee and wood-oil and salt. The bookshelves are full of classic nautical literature and the essential naturalist guides.
Captain Smith, who has a double-major in coastal resource management, is obviously passionate about his work. He bought the company in 2001, but the Maple Leaf has been cruising the Queen Charlottes and the central coast for over 15 years.
“By being here, and showing people what’s really going on, Maple Leaf is part of the solution (sustainability). People who have been here and seen the beauty of Haida Gwaii, will fight for this place,” he said. Kevin is an advocate for what he calls “real eco-tourism,” and is adamant about separating his operation from the “ugly” mass corporate tourism.
“Not a drop of oil goes into the ocean from the Maple Leaf,” he said, describing the state-of-the-art filter that was installed for the bilge. “And I am obviously opposed to oil and gas exploration in this area.”
The company has protocol agreements with several First Nations bands on the coast, and is currently seeking a mutual agreement with the CHN. He recognizes the significance of this approval. “We need the social license to be in these places,” he said, referring to historic sites such as Ninstints.
He also believes that an important part of eco-tourism is education. “There are world class naturalists on every trip,” he said, and the list is indeed impressive – Alexandra Morton, Briony Penn, and author Alison Watt, to name a few. “You have to be informing people about the place,” he said, “they have to understand the complete relationships, the shades of grey.”
Rewind 100 years, It’s 1904, when eco-tourism was ‘eco-what?’ and the Maple Leaf was being built in a Vancouver shipyard. It was commissioned by wealthy BC lumber baron Alexander McLaren, and at $12,000, was touted as the “most expensive yacht ever built.” With gorgeous teak finish, and one of the first yachts with electric lights, it must have been a magnificent sight when it was launched in Coal Harbour
It was used for high-society cruises in the Gulf Islands for about a decade, until the war started. With such a high demand for metal, the owner was obliged to sell the lead keel for the ‘war effort,’ and it was sold shortly thereafter as a fish boat. It fished the BC coast for 57 years, until it’s true value was realized and restoration began.
Now it has come full circle, and looks amazing. “It’s a labour of love,” said the captain, “to keep a classic wooden boat in good shape.” I’m sure that the builders, now long-dead, would be incredibly proud.
The Maple Leaf has over 3,400 square feet of sail, and apparently still sails amazingly. “We hit nine knots under sail last week,” said Aaron. “A hundred years old, and still going strong.”
Today, the crew is doing laundry, taking back the recycling, and relaxing. “This is one of the best parts of the world,” said crew member ‘Spence,’ and everyone agrees.
The nine-day Gwaii Haanas trips cost about $3,500. I think I’ll start saving my pennies. Or maybe I could squeeze in as a stowawayÂ…