Tall ship schooner Madeline visits ports around Manitoulin Island

The beautiful tall ship Madeline with sails up departs the Meldrum Bay Marina this past Monday. It later made its way to the ports of Gore Bay and Little Current. photo by Dave Vien

MELDRUM BAY – Madeline has sure received a lot of attention from local residents and visitors to Manitoulin Island over the past few days.That is, the tall ship-the schooner Madeline, owned and operated by volunteers with the Maritime Heritage Alliance (MHA), based out of Traverse City, Michigan.

“We’re travelling to the Midland Tall Ship Challenge,” said Jay Ruzak, captain of Madeline, in a visit the ship and crew made to Meldrum Bay this past Sunday (and since to Gore Bay on Monday and Little Current on Tuesday), “which includes boats from all the Great Lakes, five others, and us.” 

Mr. Ruzak explained that the schooner Madeline is a reconstruction of a mid-19th century Great Lakes schooner and one of the State of Michigan’s official tall ships. She was built between 1985 and 1990 in Traverse City, Michigan by volunteer members of MHA.

Her mission is to serve as a floating centre for the interpretation of Great Lakes maritime history. She is open to visitors in her home port of Traverse City and travels to other Great Lakes ports under local sponsorship. Madeline’s financial support comes entirely from people who are interested in preserving Great Lakes history. This includes MHA members and others around the Great Lakes who believe in what MHA is doing. 

Between 1985 and 1990, 165 MHA volunteers gave 40,000 hours to build the schooner Madeline, which is 92 feet long (56 foot in deck length), twin masted replica of an 1840s commercial vessel.

“No, I haven’t been to the Island before, although some of our crew have been to ports here before,” Mr. Ruzak told the Recorder. “This is a very beautiful area; I’ve just retired and I’m looking into getting a dual citizenship to live in Canada as well.”

Mr. Ruzak who has been captain of the Madeline for 15 years pointed out the MHA, “had found photos and replicas of the original Madeline. Our members built this vessel because we all love what we are doing.” He pointed out the crew on hand earlier this week are all volunteers. “It is great to be here.”

The crew of the Madeline, a tall ship that visited Meldrum Bay, Gore Bay and Little Current earlier this week. The ship is owned and operated by volunteers of the Maritime Heritage Alliance of Traverse City, Michigan.

Roger Merillat is first mate on the Madeline and has been a member of the ship’s crew for 21 years. “We are here (Meldrum Bay) today, then into Gore Bay on Monday and Little Current on Tuesday, then we will spend an afternoon in Killarney and then overnight in Midland.”
He explained, “on the Great Lakes in the 1840s, Great Lakes schooners would have had three to five masts, and they were used to transport cargo like salt and fish.” The deck of the current Madeline is made of B.C. Douglas fir trees, and the helm is all the way back and it and the stove on board were made in Lunenberg, Nova Scotia.

The Madeline is “coast guard certified (with inspections yearly),” said Mr. Merillat. He pointed out on the original vessel would typically have the captain and two crew members, but the captain might want to take his wife and family, so they would have a skeleton crew to help load and unload the materials off the ship.
“What makes this boat unique is that volunteers built it, and worked on getting grants and donations for its construction,” said Mr. Merillat. “I’m not sure you would find this very often. It took a real community effort in Traverse City and the support of a couple of major corporate donations to support this. The primary reason we did this is to promote and educate people about this vessel and others.”

The original schooner Madeline sailed the waters of the Great Lakes about 140 years ago. She was built in 1845 in Fairport, Ohio to carry freight. The story of the original Madeline is special for the residents of the Grand Traverse area because for one winter, that of 1851-1852, she served as the first non-Indian school in the region.

Five young men, the captain and his crew, realized they need some book learning to become successful so they decided to devote the winter months, when the lakes were frozen, to their education. There plan was to take Madeline to a secluded harbour so they would not be distracted from their studies. The Madeline was sailed into Bowers Harbour, north of Traverse City on the Old Mission Peninsula. Stephen Wait, a 17-year-old, was hired as a teacher and the five spent the winter learning reading, writing, and arithmetic in the mornings and cutting firewood and doing other chores and having snowball fights in the afternoons.

The school must have been a success for all the young men went on to successful careers on the Great Lakes. The Captain and his brothers were named Fitzgerald. One of their grandchildren headed an insurance company which named and owned another famous boat: “The SS Edmund Fitzgerald.”

Mr. Merillat said boating in our area is special because, “there are very few places on any coast where you don’t see condominiums and other structures on the shorelines. What we saw in your area waters was pristine, just water and beautiful scenery. It would be similar to the period when you would see fur traders traversing in their canoes. And we had great weather travelling here.”

When not on tour to Great Lakes ports, Madeline is berthed at Elmwood Township’s old Coal Dock (Discovery Pier) on West Bay Shore Drive, just south of the Elmwood Township Marina.