At the port of LeHavre, France they gathered with their final belongings. They brought clothes for all weather, tools for every task; they were farmers, blacksmiths, sailors, hunters, carpenters, tanners, explorers, even an apothecary (herbalist). They provisioned their five ships with the usual sailing supplies and food, but had to have all the tools they would require to build a small settlement from a wilderness. Many would die from disease or harsh winters, and almost all would never see their families or friends of France again. It was 1604, and the Acadians were setting out for Nova Scotia.
On June 17, 2004, we Acadians of Canada and Louisiana arrive, again in LeHavre, France, and board the Europa, a three-mast, square-rigged, 185-foot sailing vessel, in order to once more sail the route of the Acadians and commemorate the 400th year of our ancestors’ venture. We forty Acadians find a tall ship, fully rigged, yet inside there is a well stocked galley and expert cook, Marianna, an experienced captain, Klaas Gaastra, comfortable bunks and lockers, a lounge, a library, a doctor with surgery supplies. “Yes, we won’t have any wet hay,” Jorne, the Dutch first mate, tells me. The wheelhouse sports radar, GPS, satellite radiotelephone and other technical gadgetry. Ours will be a voyage much easier than the first.
As we depart LeHavre, we have fairly good sailing for two days. Then, we run into two consecutive force 8 gales. We were just getting sea legs, but with more pronounced pitching and swaying through thirty-foot swells, a type of black-market bartering begins for seasick medication. Those who are not sick trade medicine for chocolate and strike some great deals. The doctor aboard ship is often busy.
Had they become seasick, our ancestors would have had to sway in hammocks, lie in damp hay, avoid being stepped on by a cow or a pig, and just hope their body could adjust. Everyone would have sought the advise of the apothecary and there may have been bartering of herbal substances that relieve such symptoms. Who knows if they brought chocolate?
Our captain makes a decision to head southwest. “We go to Azores Islands.” Leaving the storms behind, everyone adjusts quickly to the smoother sailing. Because LeHavre is further north than Nova Scotia, the captain believes the original explorers would have also swung south near the Azores.
Though a few remain sick, all manage to take part in the lively routine aboard ship. Our three teams stand bow and stern watch, man the helm, hoist, brace, and set the huge square sails, even peel potatoes for the cook. On some days, we scrape and repaint railings, mend rope, climb the mast to furl sails. Classes are offered in knot tying, sailing, celestial navigation, oceanography, the development of the Acadian society in Nova Scotia after 1605, and genealogical tracking of one’s ancestors. We have short-story readings, watch films of the Europa sailing around Cape Horn or to Antarctica, or explore the well-stocked library in the stern. We play card games or chess, chat and describe our lives to each other, strum guitar and sing. I am often convinced that the things we do on board ship are equivalent to activities our ancestors took part in back in 1604.
One of our favorite activities is to compare genealogical lineage. Kinships are discovered and celebrated. Discussions of what might have happened in the gaps of our family records abound. Where had this great-great grandfather gone? Were they part of the Grande Derangement? Did they sail back to France? How did they get to Louisiana? Speculation is plentiful, but much remains unknown in many family trees. The ancient Acadians would have traded discussion of their lives, but they would not have known of the 1755 deportation of their grandchildren from their Nova Scotia homeland. More likely, the first Acadians would have looked forward with awe and excitement and would have traded stories of hope, what they were planning to do or become.
We laugh a LOT. And then, right then, I see the main reason for the voyage. We are brushing aside our differences in order to draw closer together. We are one working crew, becoming friends, and we don’t care about language. Often, conversations will switch back and forth from English to French to English to French. We all comment on how Acadians, from Canada or Louisiana, hold to an outlook on life that easily crosses language barriers. We seem to behave very similarly, enjoy many of the same beliefs, have a sense of justice that will not relent, and are readily tolerant of diverse viewpoints. The Acadians are aboard no matter what language they use.
“Is that land over there?” Carman on early bow watch asks, and wins the who-will-see-the-Azores-Islands-first contest. After thirteen days of just ocean, everyone is on the foredeck in minutes, land drawing us like food for the starving. We drop anchor at the town of Horta. Passports in hand, we scatter into the Portuguese village and expose ourselves to still another culture and their language and customs. The streets and sidewalks are hand-laid black brick made from the ash of local volcanoes that formed these ancient islands. The people are friendly, know some French or English, and we sweep through their shops, Internet cafés, and pizza parlors spending the Euro. We notice that we are noisier than the islanders, but then they haven’t been at sea for days. Besides, we’re Acadians.
Ryan, a young, impulsive Canadian who was separated from his luggage by the airline that got him to Paris, rents a motorbike, traverses the entire island, swims at a beautiful beach, but loses his wallet during the adventure. He then drops his sandals in the ocean. The common joke is that if he continues like this, he’ll arrive in Nova Scotia naked. Regardless, Ryan raves about the beauty of the island, the people, the great roads that encircle the hills, and the well-kept fields bordered with bamboo and hydrangea with contented cows that look down on the Atlantic. We all delight in our quick visit to this beautiful place.
After two days in Horta, we sail. Soon we pick up favorable trade winds and quickly learn what real sailing is all about. We haul away on lines, chanting “two-six” while heaving the heavy yards of the upper topsail, topgallant, royal, and sky sails. We set mainsails, lower topsails, every staysail, every jib, the spanker, even the ape. Every sail is up. The ship heels over nearly thirty degrees and runs like we’ve never seen her go. She slices through eight-foot seas, water brimming over the leeward gunwale, and Europa makes twelve knots with little effort. The trade winds are true and we don’t reset sails for nearly four days. Because of the lean and wave action of the boat, I slide toward the lower end of my bunk as I sleep and wake all balled up by my feet. That’s sailing.
Knowing this is the final leg of the journey, many make the decision to “go aloft.” Donning safety harnesses, we climb the ten-story mast and work our way out onto yardarms adjusting sails and taking pictures. Being on the mast or arms in these seas has a reverse pendulum effect. When the ship rocks, those up high are swung sixty, seventy feet from side to side. “Man, a roller coaster is nothing compared to this,” Mark, the fifteen-year-old, gleefully proclaims. I look up that afternoon and find a woman of sixty and man of sixty-two on either side of Mark, way up on the yardarms, loving the ride and the howling wind as much as he does.
We sail and we sail, and again the Atlantic proves its expansive presence. The flying fish are iridescent turquoise. Whales “blow” and I see one roll his sixty-foot length just above the waves. He is eight feet wide, brownish gray, and the crew tells us he is a fin whale. We keep journals, take pictures and movies, recording feverishly to preserve our memories. We keep watch and enjoy meals on the sun-drenched deck. We marvel at Marianna, who cooks for sixty, three times a day and does our laundry. Todd tells me that cooks on ships are usually recognized by burns on their arms and later that day, a lurching pot splashes boiling water on Marianna. “Ah, it’s not’ing I haven’t seen,” she shrugs. These Dutch are tough sailors, and we are lucky to have them. It’s possible, even probable, that some of the sailors taking the original Acadians to Nova Scotia were also Dutch.
Two days from Nova Scotia a pod of sixty or so dolphins arrive and are intent on fun. They chase our ship’s bow. They chase, they jump, they swim on their backs, and they stay for over an hour. Enchanted, we haul every camera device we have onto the main decks and click away. We become like children, watching other children play. The baby Dolphins are as quick as the adults. The sunset is one of the most magnificent we’ve seen, darkness arrives, and our friends the dolphin bid farewell. It is such a clear night that the clouds of the Milky Way are clearly visible. Scorpio decorates the southeastern sky and Polaris is higher in the heavens than should be allowed. I do not want this day or this voyage to end.
Were the original Acadians experiencing the same thing at this point? They reached Nova Scotia completely adjusted to life at sea. But their motivations and expectations were different. They were not arriving at a world already built, governments set up, economies established. They found a continent raw with promise and natural resources, and they were anxious to start building. At Cape Sable, they made the intelligent decision to split up. Two of the ships started up the St. Lawrence and their colonies gave rise to Montreal and Quebec. Others populated Newfoundland, and the one we Louisiana Cajuns study most went to the Bay of Fundy. After a first harsh winter, they gave rise to Port Royal and Grand Pre’ and much of Nova Scotia.
On the last day, the weather closes in and we’re reduced to quarter-mile visibility and rain. We know the coast is right there but are unable to see it. Cell phones start to work and happy calls are made home. A wave of realization causes a stampede of gathering belongings and packing luggage. By noon, we make Yarmouth, Nova Scotia and clear customs there. A crowd greets us on the dock with posters and sweet welcomes. “Bienvenue Europa!” Within an hour, we sail north toward Port Royal (now Annapolis Royal) and again an enthusiastic town swelled with visitors greets us at the dock. The town has planned a welcoming ceremony: speeches, music, and good food. The Mi’kmacq Indians paddle out in birch bark canoes to greet us, peace drum thumping.
The anchor touches down, the dingy is lowered, everyone hugs and exchanges email addresses. Laughs and tears mingle as we go ashore. Half of the forty Acadians will leave the Europa here in Annapolis Royal because we have obligations from our lives that can’t wait any longer. The other half will return to the ship and sail to Halifax where another commemoration ceremony awaits.
We mix with the townspeople, reveling in our welcoming. There is music, beer and food, friends all around. The Europa’s crew joins in the celebration, and memories are once again relived and joked about. French and English languages intermingle freely, and the sun sets just past the anchored Europa. I wonder at the celebrating that must have occurred on land as the original Acadians began to realize they’d made it across; that they stood on the continent they would now call home. Perhaps they butchered a pig, pulled out a keg of ale. Musical instruments and dancing were probable too. Little is known of the day they landed.
That evening, after the celebration had quietly subsided, we stood at the dock, telling the last load of Acadians and crew mates goodbye before they motored back to the Europa. Rob, the doctor from Holland, Rosie, a brand new high school graduate, my wife, Anna, and I stood on the dock, a light mist falling in our eyes and watched silently as the Europa raised anchor, sounded three huge blasts of their ship’s horn and slowly…oh so slowly…sailed away. Something in me reached out for that ship, those people, that experience, that life. Something in me went through a small panic that the Europa was going away without me. I could still feel the sea rocking below my feet, still feel the wind. I yearned to be out on a yardarm, and already I missed the crew and my shipmates. And I knew I was changed. It would take days, weeks, or months to fit the change into my life. The original Acadians probably felt this too. Their ship left with promises of returning with new supplies, more people, and economic trade with France. But they too had to stand there and wave goodbye and watch them go. They must have missed the sailing and their shipmates. But, once the ship was gone, they turned to a completely different task at hand.
The first Acadians indeed succeeded. They, alone in the wilderness against all hardships, despite all deportations, no matter what their ill treatment, have succeeded. Regardless of what coast they settled or what language they spoke, the Acadians are here and there and are growing in number, in government power, in economic strength, in all things. Their voyage of 1604, and ours of 2004, was indeed the voyage of an Acadian lifetime.