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Last of Canadian schooners sets sail in Grand Cayman waters

You may have noticed it moored in George Town harbour, or may have seen it from shore, cruising past the setting sun under full sail.

The Grosse Ile, last of Quebec’s wooden schooners, has found its forever home in Grand Cayman, and as you might expect, there’s quite a story behind it.

It’s essentially a love story, and it got its start in 1951.

The Grosse Ile, the last of Quebec’s wooden schooners was built, surprisingly enough, by the Canadian government.

In 1992, Didier Epars became the Grosse Ile’s fifth owner. By that time, the vessel had been stripped of its sailing mast and had fallen into disrepair.

Over the next quarter century, the Grosse Ile became Mr. Epar’s labour of love. He rebuilt the ship from the keel up, even cutting his own timber to complete the massive undertaking.

Now, this piece of living history starts writing its next chapter in Grand Cayman.

“We had confirmation that this ship was the only Canadian schooner built from the army,” said Mr. Epars in French.

He told the the story of his effort to preserve a piece of maritime history in Giacomo Bruno’s documentary, the Grosse Ile.

In it, Mr. Epars details the blood, sweat and tears that went into a complete rebuild of the 91-foot sailing ship, and the deal that privatized a once public dock, stripping him, he said, of his right to free commerce and hastening his exit from his beloved Quebec.

“I was forced, in my opinion, to an unwanted emigration,” he said in the documentary.

The ship and its crew left Quebec, embarking on a voyage down the Saint Lawrence to the Atlantic, heading south to the Caribbean,  and dodging hurricane Maria in the process.

“We don’t have any satellite nor weather equipment on board,” he said.

Despite flying blind, the Grosse Ile arrived unscathed in Grand Cayman just in time for Pirates Week.

“Cayman is her new forever home,” said Jason Washington of Ambassador Divers.

Mr. Washington said the Grosse Ile will be starting a new chapter in its story here in the the warm waters of Grand Cayman.

“That’s french for big island,” said Mr. Washington. “We are going to call it by its English name, the big island.”

He says the experience of going under full sail on the historic schooner is almost indescribable…

“The ship actually comes to life under your feet,” he said. “It is not something that I can describe, but when she is under sail, thinking about the fact that this is the way that we used to get around the planet, makes for a really really unique experience.”

The Grosse Ile is the only vessel at sea today that flies the King George quarantine flag.  Mr. Epar petitioned the queen herself to preserve that permission..

Mr. Washington told Cayman 27 the Big Island launched nightly sunset cruises starting last week.

He said passengers will learn more about its mysterious past.

About the author

Joe Avary

Joe Avary

Joe Avary has been with Cayman 27 since 2014. He brings 20 years in television experience to the job, working hard every day to bring the people of Cayman stories that inform the public and make a difference in the community. Joe hopes his love for the Cayman Islands shines through in his informative and entertaining weather reports. If you have a story idea for Joe or just want to say hello, call him at 324-2141 or send an email to josephavary@hurleysmedia.ky

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