The Lois McClure docks at Dow’s Lake for Rideau Canal Festival

Colin Johnstone

Colin Johnstone

The Lois McClure sits docked at Dow’s Lake.

The Rideau Canal's 180th anniversary promises to be the city’s “biggest floating birthday party,” so it was only fitting the weekend bash kicked off with a tour of a schooner that had just reached the Ottawa leg of its four-month trip.

The tall ship Lois McClure is a full-scale replica of an 1862 commercial boat and set sail from New York in May for a tour of Lake Champlain, the Richelieu, the St. Lawrence and the Ottawa rivers, and the Rideau Canal.

The voyage commemorates the bicentennial of the War of 1812, with the ship housing a floating exhibit.

Capt. Roger Taylor said the ship offers visitors a nautical experience they can’t get from just an everyday trip to the canal. “You can get a feel for what it was like that you can’t get from just looking at the canal itself or from just reading books about it.”

Constructed in Burlington, Vt, the boat’s design is based on the 19th century O.J. Walker and the General Butler, both of which sank off the Burlington breakwater. There were no existing design plans for modern builders to reference, so nautical archeologists had to dive down to the wrecks over several years to take photographs and measurements.

“Before these wrecks were discovered in the 1980s,” he said, “everyone had forgotten there was any such thing as a sailing canal boat.”

Ships such as the Lois McClure used to be manned by families carrying cargo. The parents and their children would live in a small compartment near the bow, usually sleeping in close quarters. If a hand was hired, he would sleep in a bunk near the stern. But Taylor and his crew number a dozen.

Those who didn’t follow through on their permission to come aboard mingled with local politicians and reps from the Rideau Canal Festival at the Dows Lake Pavilion.

“We are reminded that the Rideau Canal was actually conceived for strategic military purposes,” Ottawa-Orleans MP Royal Galipeau told the launch party crowd. “The canal schooner Lois McClure tells us of days when this type of boat was a common sight on the Rideau Canal.”

The schooner’s voyage is meant “to celebrate 200 years of peace and friendship between our two great nations.”

For the August long weekend, the schooner will be docked at Dow's Lake for free tours. Other activities will also help the festival live up to its ad campaign. Boats decorated with brightly-coloured lights – a “floating parade of lights” – will tour the canal Saturday night, followed by a flotilla on Sunday.