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MARVELOUS LADY: An Island Journal

David P. Stephens

Cape Breton Island

The Marvelous Lady is a tale of exploration charged with personal challenges and social circumstances. It contains the essential elements of culture; open-ended and unpredictable daily interaction amongst the characters combined with discourse and a healthy dose of humour in the face of adversity. This is a story of the arbitrary social, environmental and economic forces which shape and form individual characters and the colourful communities in which they live. Therefore, in its most basic form, this is a metaphor for living the life well lived.

As previously stated in the Introduction, the story is unpretentious, the central character being a wooden boat, the setting Cape Breton Island. The photo at right is the fishing hamlet of Little Lorraine, and it is here where Anna Felix and I first encountered the vessel soon to become the Marvelous Lady.

At this point allow me to present some background information on just how and why Anna and I ended up on this quiet and remote beach at the eastern end of the continent. This story actually has its roots in Houston, Texas, a community about as far removed, culturally and geographically from Cape Breton Island as possible. My partner Cathy Boudreau and I were visiting our friend Anna Felix, who at the time was working as an ER nurse at Texas Children's Hospital. The fast pace of this huge metropolis combined with the long arduous hours of a demanding career had caused Anna to search for some form of solace. At the time of our visit with her, Anna had a small day sailer which served as her retreat, her escape from the chaotic pressure cooker. But, sailing on the muddy and unpredictable waters of Galveston Bay was not always relaxing, in fact it was quite often as overwhelming as driving the freeways and beltways which envelope Houston like a nest of rattle snakes. Anna longed for something more basic, a raw and elemental experience which would allow her to relax and unwind with good friends, good conversation and laughter in the sun.

Anna decided that she needed some time away from the city. She planned to return home to Cape Breton for the summer and wanted to spend as much time as possible on the Bras d'Or Lakes. We discussed the possibility of Anna acquiring another sail boat, and she even considered having her day sailer transported to Cape Breton! Then she had a "plan". Her nursing supervisor and friend, Frankie Erwin, wanted to buy a sail boat. She was familiar with Anna's day sailer, having made several excursions into Galveston Bay. Anna and Frankie struck a financial deal that they both could live with and, problem solved - Frankie had herself a sail boat, Anna had some cash to put towards a boat which she would acquire on her return to Cape Breton. Anna and I agreed that I would scout out potential vessels on the island until her return in June of 1999.

Upon her arrival home in June, Anna and I immediately set out on the first leg of our journey. Our mission - to find the ideal Cape Islander. Now, for those of you who are unfamiliar with this style of boat I will attempt to present a definition. Cape Sable Island is a fishing community at the southern most tip of Nova Scotia - the opposite end of the province in relation to Cape Breton Island. The Cape Islander was designed here in the early 1900's to replace the older deep hull fishing vessels. The design is unique with its distinctive high bow, shallow bottom and long, broad open work space. Seaworthy, reliable, fast and tough, this is the most popular boat design in Nova Scotia. The Cape Islander is a multi-purpose and highly versatile vessel which can be used for gill netting, seining, hand lining, dragging and raking Irish moss. However, most are placed into service in the lobster fishery. Upon retirement, a good many Cape Islanders have started anew, with a life of quiet leisure as pleasure boats.

Our search began with pouring over local classified ads . Following up on these inquiries made for a lot of laughter combined with frustration and a general feeling that we were not going to be successful in our search for that ideal pleasure cruiser which Anna had been dreaming of. We soon found one potential vessel, a Northumberland Strait design similar to the Cape Islander, but larger and broader. This boat was on dry land, having been hauled ashore for the winter, which afforded us an opportunity to inspect her hull. She had fished for fifteen years until purchased by her present owner, a lanky young man who used her as a summer home on the Bras d'Or Lakes. The owner complained about how much money he paid for the boat, and how much he sunk into her over the years, and how much further work she needed to make her "right" - although he was unprepared to sink anymore money into her. "She cost me six thousand eight years ago" the young man proudly exclaimed. " I sunk two grand into the paneling and bunks in her cabin and her chemical toilet, but it don't work now - you can fix it if you want". "I got over ten grand in her now so she's worth about twelve, but I'll sell her for seven. The bank owns half of her, and if I don't get seven grand for her she can sit and rot - she's worth nothin' to the bank - the bastards".

Needless to say, Anna and I were quite taken with the honesty of this character and his complete and utter faith in the seaworthiness of his pride and joy. Why, we probably would have bought her there and then, that very moment, had he not impressed upon us his great love for this boat. It would have been too heart wrenching for us to simply throw money at him in exchange for this wonderfully maintained vessel! (You can see that sarcasm is one of my strengths!) But, the clincher, the one moment which caught all of my senses was when I discovered the hidden treasure at the stern of this great land-locked sea beast.

It was my sensitive nose which led me to this prize. I detected an aroma which was somewhat familiar, yet strange. I saw a ten gallon white plastic bucket sitting at the stern which said "pigs feet" on the weathered label. Upon closer inspection, I lifted the lid which was secured with three 2x4 boards and a concrete cinder block. As I lifted the lid, the proud boat owner said, "Oh. that doesn't go with the boat, that's mine buddy". First it was the odour that hit me, then, with the lid fully removed, this special treat was evident in all its glory. There sat ten gallons of fermenting, decomposing, putrid human excrement! In other words, this guy stored a bucket of shit on his boat! "That's from the chemical toilet" he said with a grin. "I gotta take that home and pour it on the wife's vegetable garden - she'd cut the nuts outta me if I forgot that!" Ever diplomatic, Anna and I thanked the guy for his hospitality and went off on our way. We laughed all the way home, what an encounter! Imagine, a ten gallon bucket of shit! What a sales pitch!


Click "continue marvelous journey" link below for the next Marvelous Lady "installment" as Anna and I continue our quest for the ultimate Cape Islander!