Fifty-six years ago this month, three men and two kittens came into sight of Falmouth harbour in Britain aboard a raft made of logs lashed tightly together with rope.
The Canadian seafarers had launched 88 days earlier with official fanfare from what is now King’s Wharf in Dartmouth, N.S., and arrived on Aug. 21 to a curious and welcoming country. Daring, publicity-seeking Atlantic crossings might seem routine now, but this crew was the first to cross the Atlantic on a raft (the Kon Tiki crossed the Pacific in 1947), and the only one to have originated in Canada. And, for a while, the world was transfixed.
“They just wanted to prove that it could be done. Men are like that,” a British commentator pronounced in a newsreel showing the crew going through British customs. The bedraggled boat made of nine telephone poles became an instant tourist attraction. Pubs in London served up chocolate models of it and dinner invitations flooded the crew as they were given full celebrity treatment.
The kittens were given to the Duke of Bedford, a cousin of the Queen, who had invited the crew to his palace, and lived out their days in luxury. The crew was not so lucky.
Their celebrity status was short-lived, especially in Canada, where only a few small newspaper articles were written about the voyage. Maurice Duplessis, Quebec premier at the time, persuaded the captain to bring the raft home, promising it would be placed in a museum. The crew obliged, at their own expense. The pledge was unfulfilled and the raft was left to rot.
But now, the main players in this adventure who are still living want a new condominium complex on the wharf in Nova Scotia to include a plaque to commemorate a sea voyage that made international headlines in 1956, but has been forgotten. It would be a small gesture, but for Rose-Marie Comeau Maher, it would be long-deserved recognition of a truly incredible feat.
Ms. Comeau Mahar was a secretary at the Maritime Telephone and Telegraph company in May, 1956, when Henri Beaudot arrived at her boss’s office with a letter of introduction from a mutual acquaintance in Montreal. He wanted to buy telephone poles to build his raft. He had trouble explaining this to Ms. Comeau Mahar’s boss because neither man could speak the other’s language. She was a fluently bilingual Acadian and stepped in to help. The charismatic Mr. Beaudout then recruited Ms. Comeau Mahar to translate some more as he tried to persuade port authorities to allow him to launch the bid to cross the Atlantic on a raft from the wharf.
The officials were right to be skeptical. Mr. Beaudout’s raft was called L’Egare II, (The Lost One 2,) because his first raft, launched from Montreal the year before, was shipwrecked off the coast of Newfoundland.
But Mr. Beaudout persisted. Three fellow French immigrants to Canada signed up for the risky voyage: Gaston Vanackere, who would film the adventure; Jose Martinez, the cook; and Marc Modena, the wireless operator. Mr. Vanackere captured the entire journey, starting with the raft’s construction (which included a small plywood cabin for shelter); and the sendoff, for which Ms. Comeau Mahar ceremonially smashed an empty champagne bottle over the mast of the raft before a tugboat took it out to sea.
“We drank the champagne the night before, rather than waste it,” said Mr. Beaudout, now 85.
Film shot by Mr. Vanackere on the unforgiving ocean shows giant waves pulling and tossing the raft while the crew manipulates the sail.
But during calm seas, life aboard the raft looks surprisingly comfortable. The kittens, which had been given to the crew as mascots, are seen climbing the raft’s mast. The Frenchmen have scarves tied around their heads, pirate style, and play chess despite the heaving seas. They dine on sardines, coffee and the odd glass of spirits.
During one of those rare calm periods, the raft sent out a mayday when the cook complained he could not kick his seasickness. A research vessel on Newfoundland's Grand Banks called the Investigator picked up the message, and a crew member named Caleb Kean rowed out to help him.
“I explained we had another 10 days at sea until we got back to port,” recalled Mr. Kean, now a retired sea captain living in St. John’s. “He didn’t mind, he was just glad to be off the raft. I think he’d lost his nerve.”
Mr. Kean was sure it was the last that would be seen of the raft. “I thought they were all going to die,” he said from his St. John’s home. “I couldn’t understand why they were doing what they were doing. It was so dangerous.”
Keeping the dream alive
Mr. Beaudout would love to help someone build a duplicate of the raft, and see it installed in a Canadian museum before he dies. He said his reasons for making the voyage are more complicated than simply fulfilling some male whim, as the British news announcer suggested. The journey was the tonic he needed to fight the depression he suffered after his experience as a French resistance fighter during the Second World War. “I felt empty,” he said, explaining why he found it hard to set down roots in his new country.
Today, he lives in a Montreal suburb with his wife, Jeannine, whom he brought over from his native France after the end of the war. He attributes his excellent health to the physical activity of his youth and his Parisian wife’s cooking.
Anne Ryan, Mr. Kean’s daughter, has in recent years helped her 85-year-old father collect memorabilia of the voyage, which he keeps in a custom-made box.
“All through our childhood, we heard dad talking about the raft,” Ms. Ryan said. “But he was the only person talking about it. We never heard about it from anyone else. It was almost like he’d made it up, but we knew he wouldn’t do that.”
Ms. Comeau Mahar has run into the same skepticism in Nova Scotia. She has asked the province’s Maritime Museum to commemorate the raft voyage. A city councillor asked her to supply proof the voyage took place.
The developer of the new King’s Wharf complex has told Ms. Comeau Mahar it will have an answer for her at the end of August about a plaque.
In the meantime, there’s some comfort for Mr. Beaudout in knowing that his efforts, and those of his deceased comrades, Mr Modena and Mr. Vanackere, have not been forgotten by two important eyewitnesses to their remarkable journey.
“We should remember this voyage because no one else has done this, sailing a raft from west to east on the Gulf Stream,” Ms. Comeau Mahar said. “I saw the hardships they endured at the outset. And there was a lot of sacrifice involved.”