The St. Lawrence Seaway was officially opened in 1959 by Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip, the Duke of Edinburgh. They came to Canada and proceeded up the new waterway system to the Great Lakes aboard the royal yacht Britannia. Doing so, they demonstrated the purpose of the Seaway in opening the centre of the continent to much larger ships from salt water.
After the formalities, the Britannia carried the royal couple on a tour of the lower and upper Great Lakes, including Georgian Bay. My English father Kenneth With, a retired Royal Canadian Navy officer, and I, a 23-year-old ex-Royal Canadian Sea Cadet with an almost gushing enthusiasm for pomp and ceremony (now greatly diminished, I admit), decided that nothing would stop us from seeing the royal flotilla up close when it came our way.
Here are excerpts from my description of that very memorable moment of 62 years ago:
On July 4, 1959, Her Majesty’s Yacht Britannia, escorted by the frigate HMS Ulster (a World War 2 veteran), and Canadian destroyer escorts HMCS Kootenay and Gatineau (both just commissioned earlier that year), would appear on the horizon west of the Giant’s Tomb Island bound for the old military town of Penetanguishene. From there the Queen and Prince would drive and take a special train to Parry Sound to meet the yacht and escorts again and steam on to Chicago.
It was Queen’s weather (what’s the origin of that old adage?): brilliant sunshine, temperature around 80 F, and just a touch of breeze to ripple the water.
We decided to make for the west shore of the Giant’s Tomb aboard the venerable Blackduck, which had been scrubbed, polished and painted in honour of the occasion. From there we would watch the western horizon for the flotilla.
This shore of the Tomb is very rugged. It is almost completely covered with granite boulders, some as big as a cabin. We anchored over one of these boulder beds and settled down to wait. The sun was too hot and the clear water too inviting however, so some of the crew, plus Guinness the dog, jumped overboard and made for the shore.
It was a beachcomber’s paradise. Huge logs cast adrift from passing rafts many years before, were jammed between the boulders. A section of smashed planking from a green skiff was cast high on the rocks. Wooden fishermen’s floats with fragments of netting were wound around small shrubs. If only we had time to explore further.
But from the lookout perched atop a high boulder came the cry: “Here they come!” We hit the water, dog and all, and clambered back aboard the Blackduck and other boats that had joined us, started engines, weighed anchors, and roared off across the open Bay to the west.
From over the hazy horizon to the north of Hope Island loomed four huge and unfamiliar shapes. Instead of the tugs, barges, passenger ships, and grimy hardworking freighters we were used to seeing, here came four immaculate and graceful ships that, collectively, had been all over the world. Leading them was HMY Britannia, a vessel known the world over.
As we sped towards them, their shapes became recognizable. The unmistakable royal yacht first, then spread out in formation astern were her escorts. Directly behind the yacht was the dark shape of an RCMP patrol boat, presumably responsible for keeping us clear of the flotilla. It would be busy.
About four miles west of the Tomb we, and it seemed every power boat in the area from small outboards to large cruisers, had joined in transforming the flat calm surface of the Bay into a seething mass of waves rolling every-which-way and, on ours at least, giving some faces a noticeably green palour.
In the Blackduck we got to nearly a stone’s throw from Britannia. Almost dream-like we suddenly had a close-up view of this famous ship: Her deep blue shiny sides glistening with reflections of the water surging past the graceful hull, her upper works spotlessly white, her buff funnel towering above us.
We could even see the bobbing white caps of officers on her bridge as they kept watchful eyes on the swarming small craft below. She flew flags that were unfamiliar to non-navy people. At the bow was the Union Jack; on the foremast was the Admiralty flag; on the mainmast flew the famed Royal Standard (showing royalty is aboard); on the mizzenmast was Canada’s Dominion Ensign (predecessor to our maple leaf flag); and at the stern the White Ensign of the Royal Navy, which crews the royal yacht.
We and countless other boats had been rolling along beside the yacht for about two miles when the the escort ships suddenly changed from three abreast to a single line astern. We had been on Britannia‘s port side, just ahead of one of the RCN escorts when it suddenly turned to form into line behind the yacht. The manoeuvre was done with grace and precision, and was repeated by the other two escorts.
The Blackduck had been rolling along in the terrific waves created by ships and small craft alike, and we in her hanging on for dear life as the old girl went surging through the chop with her engine going full out. It was in this situation that someone noticed a figure emerge from a cabin on the upper deck used exclusively by the royal family. It could only be Prince Philip himself. Despite the rolling of our boat, cameras began trying to get the figure in focus and then clicking furiously. He stayed on deck for several minutes, waving at the floating hordes below.
About a mile east of the lighthouse on the southern tip of the Tomb, the old Blackduck began to cough. The tossing and rolling had put extra strain on her steering gear. We found that water had been leaking through the improperly packed rudder post. In turn the engine, working at constant high speed, had splashed rising bilge water onto its ignition system causing the missing. Anticipating a stall, the skipper eased her away from the swarming escort boats and well out of the waves before the engine finally stopped.
It was obvious now that we would not get to Penetang to watch the party disembark in the Royal Barge and land at the town dock.
Our gallant old lady had done her best. With all the “spit and polish” we could give her, the Blackduck had raced across her home waters for several miles, proudly displaying her RCNSA (Royal Canadian Navy Sailing Association) penant on her bow and her Blue Ensign (permitted to RCNSA members, of which Kenneth With was one) at the stern. It had been human error that caused her breakdown. She had nothing to be ashamed of.
So we lay, rolling in the last of the swells, watching the flotilla round the buoy for Penetang. A peaceful silence quickly surrounded us. We drifted a half mile or so east of the Giant’s Tomb and passed out sandwiches and beverages. Then we waited for the engine to dry out. While doing so, we were able to watch the less spectacular follow-up events of that day.
After the flotilla had passed, I had noticed a wisp of smoke west of the Tomb. Now as we had our lunch, around the southern tip of the island came a heavily laden freighter of Canada Steamship Lines, likely on her way to unload grain at Midland. She was quite a sight herself. Her crew had “dressed ship” with signal flags for the royal occasion. The flotilla had likely passed her out in the open Bay as she plodded to her destination. A lone fishing tug had preceded her, maybe deciding that this was no day for fishing with the Queen passing by.
Suddenly there was a roar over our heads and, skimming towards us from the north at only a few hundred feet altitude, thundered an RCN Grumman Avenger patrol aircrafft. It scooted over us heading towards Penetang, probably part of the navy’s escort duties.
Then peace settled in again. The engine at last dried out and started, and we were able to pump the bilge. We decided to wait and watch the ships come out of the harbour.
Now we were able to absorb the significance of what we had seen that day. We discussed how this had been a slice of history and we, in a very small way, had been part of it.
Another lake freighter towing a barge, both of the Paterson Line, had been slowly making their way outward bound in the shipping channel. They were almost to the Tomb when the royal flotilla re-appeared.
HMS Ulster and one of the destroyer escorts had sailed into Midland harbour to “show the flag” and turn around, while Britannia disembarked the royals and the other RCN ship stood by. They all met up again at the entrance to Penetang harbour, falling neatly into line as they steamed back out to the open Bay bound for Parry Sound.
Aboard the yacht, the Royal Standard and Admiralty flags had been replaced by another White Ensign and the colours of the ranking admiral.
We were lying a couple of miles north of the channel by then and had an unobstructed view as they headed for the open. It was late afternoon. The sky was free of clouds and the water clear of even a ripple. Spread in line before us, steaming into the lowering sun, was Britannia and her three escorts. Ahead of them was the humble freighter and her tow.
In that order they each disappeared behind the Giant’s Tomb. Our last view of Britannia was a quietly majestic one. For a moment she was alone on the horizon. We could see the water reflecting on her glistening sides, her wake rolling away from the hull. Her tall raking masts with their flags stood out against the paling summer sky. The last we saw of her was those masts moving above the trees of the island.
The silence aboard the Blackduck was broken only by the gentle lapping of water along her sides. Then from far out west of the Tomb came a deep-throated three-long/two-short formal Great Lakes salute from the lowly freighter. I wonder if any flags were dipped as an acknowledgment.