When Caitlin Simpson says she’s been a member of the Ship’s Company since the beginning, she means it.
The Ship’s Company is a group of dedicated heritage sailors that keep the spirit of traditional seamanship by sailing in replica 19th-century gun boats — or pirate ships — as Simpson lovingly refers to them when explaining what she does with her spare time at parties.
“I tell people that I sail pirate ships because it’s a lot easier than saying 19th-century replica gun boats,” says Simpson with a smile.
A pirate ship immediately brings to mind a picture of a boat that’s mostly accurate to what these ships look like to an untrained heritage sailor or shipper.
This eclectic group of historical re-enactors, mariners, sailors, shippers, and boat makers, with myriad other skills, came together when the boats at Discovery Harbour stopped sailing.
The group was originally comprised of Simpson’s father, Mark Simpson, and a group of volunteers that had sailed on the tallships at Discovery Harbour until 2011 when the historical site decided to stop sailing the ships.
The Ship’s Company’s first boat, The Revenge, was so-called because the sailors and re-enactors joked that it was their way of gaining independence from Discovery Harbour where they once had wonderful ships to sail.
Many volunteers still work at Discovery Harbour today, and the Ship’s Company are regularly asked to join reenactments and other events with their boats.
“We picked Revenge as a kind of an original name,” jokes Simpson sarcastically, noting that the Queen Anne’s Revenge was the name Edward Teach — better known as Blackbeard — gave his boat as a jab against England.
The smaller replica HMS Revenge is based on plans found in a magazine. Construction began in the basement of a carriage house in the winter of 1999, and that’s when Caitlin began helping her father establish the Ship’s Company.
When the Revenge launched on July 1, 2001, the company was larger than the amount of people the 14-foot naval skiff could carry, and the company quickly realized they needed bigger boats.
“They struck out on their own as true pirates,” Caitlin says referring to the original group banded together over strong ties that bind.
With nine sails, the HMS Badger is a 36-foot replica of an 1812 British Gunboat that was launched in 2001 after its construction began in a basement. The most recent upgrade was an electric motor, which the company is proud of as they transition towards greener alternatives for motors on each of the boats.
Mark Simpson, who taught himself how to build these boats with the help of other enthusiasts and craftsmen, explains the ships affectionately known as Penetanguishene’s Small Tall Ships were suddenly in demand.
“After we built Badger, we were asked to join events in other locations, but the boat was difficult to de-rig and move by road. So we built HMS Kingfisher for that purpose,” says the Ship’s Company’s founding member.
The Kingfisher launched on Canada Day in 2008, and although it no longer sails with the Ship’s Company, the team is proud to have completed the 17-foot ship-to-shore vessel.
They soon found the Badger too small, and made plans to build the Lynx. At 36-feet long, the HMS Lynx is the “newest” reconstructed naval whaler and was built and launched for the 1812 Bicentennial in 2012.
What may be even more impressive than having built so many replica boats with almost no boat-building expertise on-hand at the beginning is that all the ships have historical rigging.
Since 1999, the Ship’s Company taught themselves how to build, launch, sail four 19th-century replica British sailboats. In the last 24 years, they’ve also organized an entirely volunteer-led and run organization with some help from the Ontario Trillium Foundation and the Penetanguishene Centennial Museum.
The local museum allowed the Company to take up space in the old blacksmith shop, and eventually helped them establish themselves at a local shop.
When explaining how the Ship’s Company runs, Caitlin is quick to point to the 36 active volunteers.
“First and foremost it’s the members. We are 100 per cent volunteer-run,” says the professional mariner who has worked on cargo ships and tall ships across Canada.
“We do charge for memberships, and all those that come out give us their skill sets,” she says, noting there are volunteers that know finance, rope work experts, and historians.
“They do the groundwork of keeping things active,” says the sailor.
They keep the boats active and take them out sailing twice a week — every Monday and Thursday leaving from the Penetanguishene dock.
Beyond that, the Company participates in nine public historical events a year, and they also play the role of the dreaded pirates in the Orillia Pirate Party and Pirates on the Bay.
At the pirate events people walk the plank, and during the reenactments of naval battles there are no projectiles, but the blanks used in the cannons make a wicked bang.
Everything the Ship’s Company does is in service of keeping the boats on the water and they offer training for those new to the sport.
“We are maintaining an art that’s nearly been lost,” says Caitlin, officially a board member, and treasurer of the Company.
“We pride ourselves on being sailors over re-enactors,” she clarifies.
“We want to get those skills in there. We want people to know their knots and be able to tie them with their eyes closed.”
Caitlin started learning about sailing at four years old, collecting bits of string on ships with her father. Then she started volunteering and sailing on tall ships as a teen. Now, as a professional mariner, she is philosophical about what keeps calling her back to the boats and the water.
“It seems so archaic, but it’s incredibly satisfying to take nothing (wind) and create something out of it (motion).”