Tall ships deliver treasure chest of visitors, economic spinoffs

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As a city of a little over 20,000 residents, Brockville punches above its weight when it comes to staging summer festivals and special events that draw in the tourists. After being interrupted by the pandemic, many of these gatherings are back in some form this year, including the Thousand Islands Regatta, River Jams, Ribfest and Poutine Feast.

The regatta, which took place July 1 to 2 and featured big-name Canadian talent Sass Jordan and Chantal Kreviazuk, followed in the wake of the really big show: Tall Ships Weekend on June 24 to 26, the world-class pride of the St. Lawrence seaway sailing back after a lengthy absence. 

It’s the only festival sponsored by the city as opposed to private entrepreneurs and one that council was enthusiastic about rebooking with Tall Ships America. The tour is only offered every three years, with 2022 marking the fourth time Brockville has participated.

Based on past experience, councillors felt revenues this year would cover booking fees and other expenses and still leave a little in the kitty, said Rob Nolan, director of Brockville economic and development services.

While the number of visiting ships was down, organizers say this fourth Tall Ships gathering may have been the best ever in terms of attendance, revenues and enthusiasm. People busting out of their pandemic shackles had much to do with it, Nolan said, noting that, while all the numbers for 2022 haven’t been crunched yet, the 2019 edition made a profit of $100,000 to be applied towards future festivals.

The 2019 edition was calculated to have provided a boost of more than $10 million to the city and area economy, Nolan added. One sign the latest festival was a winner was the fact all city hotels were booked tight for the entire weekend, he observed, adding that some downtown bars reported their best revenues in recent years.

Anchored by resident two-masted brigantine Fair Jeanne, the focus of the festival was on schooners of yesteryear, or at least reasonable facsimiles, tied up at Blockhouse Island just below the downtown core. Visitors could clamber on board with passports of various categories and cost, all while capturing the experience in countless Instagrams. The festival stretched into Hardy Park west of downtown with a kids zone, bus shuttles from parking lots, live entertainment and craft vendors.boats

With rigging soaring up to 116 feet sporting hundreds of feet of canvas sails, the reproductions of bygone schooners recall the days of sailing the high seas and being overrun by pirates … with some pretend ones in evidence around the festival site.

Among the ships in port there was one odd man out: Theodore Tugboat which, even with the extra height provided by a baseball cap, could never pass as a tall ship. The 65-foot tug was on hand primarily to entertain the younger crowd.

There was another tug repurposed into Canada’s largest schooner, the Empire Sandy, which took guests out on evening shoreline tours. She was built in 1943 by the British government as a tugboat for war service. Another star of the show was the 100-foot, three-masted Nao Trinidad, a Spanish reproduction of the flagship of Ferdinand Magellan’s expedition that led to the first circumnavigation of the earth.

The Fair Jeanne was in her privileged berth at Tall Ships Landing Resort, home of Brockville’s Aquatarium, which features domestic denizens of the St. Lawrence. The building was erected by the Fuller family of Ottawa and Brockville, who also own the Fair Jeanne, which started out as a yacht named for Thomas Fuller’s wife, as well as the Black Jack, a second tall ship. 

While council reviews its decision concerning future Tall Ship involvement with every edition, the fact Brockville has successfully hosted the event several times puts it at the top of the list for future festivals, Nolan said, adding that it takes about 18 months to organize the extravaganza.

In thanking the provincial government for a financial contribution to the festival, Brockville Mayor Mike Kalivas said such events are key to bringing the community back together following the pandemic.