Sailing infrastructure at the Canadian Military Colleges
Author: OCdt P. Scotty Marshall, C.D., M1041, Commodore of the RMCC Yacht Club.
In the years since I took over as the Commodore of the RMCCYC I have made a habit of spending time examining photos of the College taken from distant vantage points in an effort to learn more about the history of its waterfront. While the focal point of these prints hanging in the various administrative offices is often Mackenzie, Currie, or the Stone Frigate, my attention tends to be drawn more towards the east side of the campus and the St. Lawrence Pier, scanning for boats that are often captured in the frame. I am certain that these photographers had no intent of documenting the waterfront, but together with the Massey Library Archives and the information gleaned from yearbooks, one can start to develop a history of the infrastructure and boats that have been used to enable sailing since the creation of the College. The following will be what I have managed to deduce from these sources together with my own intuition and the personal accounts of those who remember. I would like to treat this as a game of sorts; I will make a series of statements regarding the history of this aspect of sailing at the College knowing full well that there are holes in the historical record, and I would ask anyone who can find an error to email me or post to the bottom of this article with their correction.
The image above represents the oldest known documentation of boats on the RMCC waterfront, and is noted as having been taken in 1885 on the Navy Bay side of the Stone Frigate. One surmises that early sailing activities at RMCC benefitted from the infrastructure left at the College from the presence of the Kingston Royal Navy Dockyard prior to the College’s creation. Some of the earliest publications of “The R.M.C. Review” from the 1920s list a variety of small sailing craft that hardly seem to bear mention, apparently because they were as much a normal part of College life as the cannons and horses used for training and drilling future officers. In December of 1935 RMCC celebrated the loan of a new sailing whaler and a new cutter from the RCN, as well as the construction of a new boathouse not far from where the current boathouse sits. Every once in a while when the water is low, we “find” one of the cribs that supported this structure with the keels of our boats, usually stopping dead in homage to our forbearers. By 1935 dingy sailing in craft donated to the club by ex-Cadets had long since begun in earnest, and were old enough by this point that one such vessel had been retired to provide a source of spare parts for the six that were still serviceable. In addition, the “R.M.C. Dingy Fund” had been established and listed $1,065.79 in assets for the care of the RMCC fleet, and was funded and run by ex-Cadets. Much like we are experiencing today, 1935 marked an era of growth for sailing at the College, and was the first season that both Intercollegiate Sailing and Intermural Sailing were made an option for RMCC Cadets (more on this in the next article).
Thanks not in part to what came with the old dockyard, RMCC originally had five piers and the seawall behind the Stone Frigate that could be used to tie boats up. Among these were two piers on the downtown side of the campus, one not far from Fort Frederick where the gazebo sits today, and one adjacent to the Commandant’s residence. On the Fort Henry side there was the St. Lawrence Pier, the Stone Frigate Seawall, the boathouse jetty, and another smaller pier that once extended from the site of the current Senior Staff Mess. Their retaining walls and cribs were built of wood filled with aggregate and soil, though both the St. Lawrence Pier and the Stone Frigate Seawall were eventually redeveloped with steel and concrete retaining walls giving them their current permanence. Evidence of the prior wood and rock construction can still be seen in the jetty behind the boathouse, where the old timbers that have held that jut of land together against the south winds of Lake Ontario for eighty or more years are now slowly deteriorating into the bay. Perhaps it is not the most modern style of construction; that it lasted this long is testament to the techniques used in that bygone era.
The 1950s marked the beginning of another high-point in the development of sailing and boats at the College. By this time the annual regatta featured sailing races in Admiralty and Ackroyd dinghies, as well as Bluenose Sloops. In July of 1958 one of these Bluenoses went down off Garden Island, and a RMCC professor, Dr. Peter Fisher and three passengers lost their lives in the sinking. The Bluenose fleet persisted until around the mid-70s, though correspondence with a helpful ex-Cadet in response to my last article indicates that by this point they were experiencing troubles, including a sinking while tied up on the pier. Winter sailing was also a regular occurrence in the 50s, and ice boats plied the frozen bay until 1979 when the the last one was sold off. This was also the era of maritime construction at the RMCC, and the Engineering Department designed and built a submersible vessel, the much loved aluminum motor vessel “CORDITE,” and in the 1960s a Corvette V-8 powered hydrofoil named the “SHRAPNEL.” In recent years we named our J/22 “SHRAPNEL” in honor of this engineering project, an image of which was published with my prior article,.
Another important feature of the waterfront in the 1950s was the presence of Ron Dudley, who was the resident shipwright at RMCC. By the early 1960s Mr. Dudley was the only shipwright left in Kingston, and although he likely had his hands full maintaining the various boats such as the Bluenoses, Admiralty dinghies, and Whalers at the College, he also undertook to construct a fleet of “K” boats from a design developed in the RMCC engineering department. Out of a workshop in the basement of the Stone Frigate, he scratch built this fleet and it persisted until the arrival of the 420s in the late 1960s. By 1969, RMCC, RRMC, and CMRC had all begun one design 420 racing, with RMCC often hosting the other colleges in intercollegiate regattas. At some point prior to 1973 the Bluenoses had been phased out, and three Viking 22s were acquired, though the timing of this purchase is currently unknown.
In 1978 Ron Dudley retired from his position as the RMCC shipwright, and in his place Albert Angenet took over as the Supervisor Carpenter for the boat shop. At this point RMCC carpentry and boat maintenance were essentially the same organization focused in two directions. This was due not in part to the fact that the original boathouse also housed the carpentry, and so economies were found in having the maintenance team that was already collocated work to keep everything working. Another carpenter of the era, Joe Moore, hired Pat Carr, the current Carpentry Shop Supervisor, in 1981 as both a carpenter and shipwright. The old boathouse was torn down in 1984-85, and the new boathouse erected on the shore adjacent to its old site in 1989, with the jetty extending behind it to form a protective harbor. This became the primary home to RMCC’s powered safety boats, its 420 fleet, and in the early 90s, a fleet of 14 Albacores. In addition, a LCdr Dewes arranged for the College to purchase a Tanzer 22 in 1990 that is still at RMCC. In 1993 these boats were augmented by three Sonar 23 keel boats, one of which also still sails with our fleet.
With the extensive cuts to the military budget of the 1990s, and in the wake of the closure of both CMRC and RRMC, several significant impacts were felt in sailing at the college: First, the military began to create a greater division between public resources and non-public assets, meaning that it was becoming less permissible to have public employees maintain NPF assets. Second, as the shipwrights who had maintained the fleet retired, their positions were no longer backfilled in the interest of savings. Third, responsibility for the boats and much of the waterfront became the secondary duty for the PO1 of the Stone Frigate, though over time the role of Harbor Master disappeared entirely. Fourth, the last of the Royal Roads keelboats, a Martin 242 now named the “Royal Roads,” was delivered in 1995, and continues now to be our fastest and most preferred club vessel. Fifth, sailboat racing as a competitive sport on an intercollegiate level disappeared entirely from the mid-90s until the early 2000s. With much of the College marine maintenance infrastructure gone by the late 90s, the decision was made in 2000 to transfer our sailing dinghies, the 420s and Albacores, to H.M.C.S. Ontario for use with their sailing program. This came with the understanding that we would be able to use them by way of a SLA for training and racing activities over the subsequent years. Though the RMCC Yacht Club does own five keelboats currently as non-public assets, the College itself no longer owns its own sailboats that can be used for training cadets.
Although little time passed at RMCC before competitive sailing once again became a regular activity, it has yet to regain the level of institutional support that it once enjoyed. In 2006 a cadet-led initiative was undertaken to purchase the J/22 “Shrapnel” previously mentioned, which provided the opportunity for cadets to again try their hand at sailing a keelboat that is in excellent shape and meant to be raced. Within the last couple of months the Yacht Club was able to secure funding from the RMCC Unit Fund for the purchase of several used boats, something for which we are very grateful, and soon several of our aged keelboats will be replaced with three J/24s, as well as a larger cruising vessel. The matched J/24s will be used to train our competitive sailors with a renewed focus on keelboats, and it is our intent to bring intermural dinghy sailing back to RMCC in the coming fall term. We still have significant challenges to overcome: the money for matched boats needs to be spent well on quality boats to last the next twenty years, we have no means of lifting our boats out of the water on College grounds, and sailing must once again become a standard part of cadet life at RMCC.
Items of sailing infrastructure, the pier, docks, boathouses and boats, are rarely reminisced upon when sailors convene years after sailing together. They are the boring bits; these things are not the subject of fondly remembered stories regarding how they worked, unless of course they didn’t. Infrastructure is that part of the story that both makes up 99%, and is also invisible. Without the pier, countless students could not have jumped off of it for an early summer swim. Without the keelboats, Dr. Fischer could not have lost his life sailing off garden Island, nor could generations of cadets had their first taste of real sailing. Without the old boathouse, students of the era could not tell the story of how it once burned down almost entirely, or others how they learned the ropes of caring for boats while within its walls. Without the “Cordite,” engineers couldn’t recall using it as a floating classroom, nor would the College cheer be quite the same. The telltales of our history are made of the long yarns told by RMCC sailing alumni, and these yarns are made of the threads of infrastructure that keeps sailing alive at RMCC.
Stories, anecdotes, corrections, or digitized media can be emailed to the Club at RMCCYC@rmc.ca
1. The earliest known pleasure sailing boats at RMCC ca. 1885, Massey Library Archives.
2. Map fragment, Townsend Collection in the Massey Library Archives, date unknown; photo of the Navy Bay Shore, date likely early 1940s, Townsend Collection in the Massey Library Archives; a gaff schooner and three sloops on the St. Lawrence Pier, RMC Review 1945.
3. K-boats on the old boathouse ramp, RMC Review 1941; two Bluenose sloops, RMC Review 1966; Viking 22, RMC Review 1973; 420s doing a spinnaker run, RMC Review 1974.
Special thanks to the staff of the Massey Library for the use of their archival material and their guidance using the new overhead scanner. Thanks as well to Pat Carr for his time recounting the history of RMCC sailing and infrastructure over the past thirty or more years of his career.