“A Friendly Invasion from the Sea” The Challenge Labatt Canada 1984

It seems like not so very long ago but already the newspaper clippings have yellowed and begun to fade. Not so the light in the eyes of those who participated in what was, at the time, an amazing event. They reminisce about the month of days and nights afloat in one of the biggest sailing events in the history of Northumberland Strait – the Challenge Labatt Canada of 1984.

The event was astoundingly audacious. Take ten of the most modern tracing yachts being built in North America, give them to ten crews representing each of the provinces and race from Toronto, down the Saint Lawrence, through the Gulf and Northumberland Strait to a finish line in Charlottetown. Ostensibly the event was to celebrate the 350th anniversary of Jacques Cartier’s voyage but in reality to was just one helluva great excuse for a race.

Such an event could only have been dreamed up by a brewery – in this case Labatts. This at a time when “Labatt 50” was one of the best-selling beers in the country. The sailing partner was C&C Yachts who furnished 10 new fully equipped one-design 35-foot boats as sailing billboards for Labatts.  The month-long race which began on 23 June 1984 consisted of six legs – Toronto to Kingston, Quebec City to Rimouski, Rimouski to Riviere au Renard (on the north shore of the Gaspe), Riviere au Renard to Gaspe (Ile Bonaventure Race), Gaspe to Shediac, Shediac to Charlottetown. The longest leg was the 350 mile Gaspe to Shediac section. The Shediac-Charlottetown leg followed the traditional night-race route down the Strait and was one of the shortest legs. The series was scheduled to end in Charlottetown on 21 July 1984 .

While some crews were the same for the entire race the P.E.I. contingent rotated through the race with seven to nine members joining for specific legs.  The fact that the individuals had not always sailed together as a team was offset by there being fresh crew to combat the fatigue experienced over the long race.  The P.E.I. crew was almost all from the Charlottetown Yacht Club and drew from a pool of experienced racers who had participated in local, regional and national competitions in boats of all sizes. Many were veterans of the Round the Island Races. They included Gordie Beck, David Stewart, Terry McKenna, Peter Mellish, David Mosher, Hugh Paton, Bob Pinkham, John Rankin, Donald Scott, Percy Simmonds, Robert Midgley, Ron Stewart and Peter Williams.

The P.E.I. crew made a tactical error in the first leg and had an eighth place finish in the first leg but in the next two legs managed fourth and fifth placements. They finished eighth in the Ile Bonaventure leg.  They had a great race in the Gaspe-Shediac leg and grabbed a second place finish as over 200 spectators turned out 2 a.m. to watch the boats cross. For the final leg coming home to Charlottetown skipper Peter Williams had the following crew: Dave Mosher, Dave Stewart, Ron Stewart, Bob Pinkham, Hugh Paton, Percy Simmonds, and Peter Mellish.

Charlottetown Patriot 21 July 1984 p.1

Boats rafted up after the race. Charlottetown Patriot 21 July 1984 p.1

Because the event built on a number of local races many legs had additional yachts participating. The last leg incorporated the Shediac to Charlottetown race, then in its 20th year.  In addition to the 10 Labatt boats, an astonishing one hundred and four local and regional yachts participated in the final leg!

The start from Shediac was at 6 in the evening and the record for the passage was about 12 hours. Spectators were told they could expect the first boats at sunrise in Charlottetown. However brisk south-west winds and a clear night saw the speedy C&C yachts smash the record and begin arriving a full three hours ahead of time. The Quebec boat was first to finish and was followed closely by Nova Scotia. The first six boats finished within minutes of each other.  The Island boat was only four minutes back of the leader but was the fifth boat to finish. For the series overall the Islanders were awarded fourth place behind Nova Scotia, British Columbia, and Quebec. They had been tied in points with Ontario but were given the win as they had beaten Ontario in the last leg of the series. Through the day the rest of the one hundred plus boat fleet sailed through the harbour narrows and finished off the Charlottetown Yacht Club .

The land side of the event was an important one for the Charlottetown Yacht Club. It was estimated that the event brought upwards of 1000 sailors to Charlottetown along with many more families, friends and spectators. The waterfront was thick with masts, outnumbering even the busiest 19th century days of wood, wind and water. Gordie Miller was chair of the hosting committee which included liaison with the Canadian Coast Guard, City, Province and the Charlottetown Yacht Club. The Club had re-built the west wharf and put in facilities including building 70 floats to accommodate the more than 100 boats that arrived as part of the race. The awards were presented at a special event a the Confederation Centre of the Arts by federal Minister Charles LaPointe representing the Governor General, PEI premier Jim Lea and Lt. Governor J.D. Doiron.

It was the biggest and most prestigious sailing event ever to take place in Charlottetown and there has been nothing like it since. Those who participated will never forget it.

I was fortunate to be entrusted with a file of news clippings preserved by one member of the Island crew.  Thanks to the efforts of Chris Brittan and others there was lots of local press coverage and the reporting was also carried elsewhere.  The file of clippings with lots more details can be accessed by clicking on Labatt001. This is a large file in pdf format and will take time to load. You will also need a pdf reader such as Adobie.

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