One of my favorite musicians talks about how “the past didn’t go anywhere,” the idea being that history surrounds us, and is the thing upon which we have created the world we live in. The work I have done both with the RMCC Yacht Club over the past few years, along with the research I have done in writing the last three articles on sailing at the military colleges has proven this idea over and over. Whenever I have to dive in Navy Bay for some sort of maintenance function, I see the beams and stones that were once cribs that supported the old piers or the former boathouse. Whenever I rebuild the mooring cans, I find wooden bodied blocks that must have been installed before I was born. Within a kilometer from the opening of Navy Bay lie the remains of several great sailing ships that once plied the waters of Lake Ontario, some from as long ago as the War of 1812. Progress is good, but at times the best one can hope for is to live up to the principles or the accomplishments of times gone by; this is the very essence and value of tradition.
As an example of history waiting to be refound, in my third article I mentioned the former gentleman cadet (599) LCol. “Leary” Grant, and his outstanding accomplishments building the sailing program at RMC and in the region in general. Beyond his volunteerism developing CICSA and LYRA, he was a fierce competitor who won a series of awards in his day including the Freeman, Baldwin, and Sodus Cups, as well as the Lake Ontario Trophy in 1954. This was all accomplished in a boat he had built for this purpose name the Tramp Royale. When I first read the history, I assumed that like so many wooden boats of the era her design details would be lost and her fate would have been consignment to the deep or a bonfire in years past; then, I found her. It would seem she has been well cared for over the years, was most recently moored in Deadman’s Bay, and is currently on the hard at Portsmouth Olympic Harbor. History doesn’t go away. We may misplace it, it may fade or deteriorate, or we may forget, but the very bones upon which we build the present are the past.
Sailing traditions at the College have similarly been an exercise in trying to create what once was, often against claims that ‘we have never done that before.’ The old chestnut “those who forget their history are doomed to repeat it” can also be rethought as “those who forget their history are doomed to not know what is possible.” There are comparisons one could make in the wider military regarding procurement or force redevelopment as compared to at the outbreak of the conflicts of the last century, but I digress. Prior generations were smart, resourceful, and hardworking, and we bear the same collective capacities. With respect to sailing, we once had inter-squadron competitive sailing, we once raced competitively against other Canadian institutions, and we once had a matched fleet. After the lean budget years in the mid-1990s, all of these ceased to be a part of our traditions, and in most cases, our collective memory. Some twenty-odd years later, they are once again a part of College life: IM Sailing is back, has been exceptionally popular, and has been progressing well; our racing team has competed well over the last few years both against Canadian institutions and against military colleges from around the world; and, a major procurement over the past season has brought four J/24s to the College that are rigged for match racing, and an Aloha 27 has been acquired for cruising and long distance navigation training. Already we have had success with these new boats, winning first and second places in the J/24 one design class during the Amherst Island Pursuit Race, and adding to our pride in that race the fact lesser crews dared not race that day due to the extreme conditions.
I have been asked a few times over the past few months about my overall level of satisfaction with the huge advances that sailing has made at the College over the past few years. I would suppose that I associate the word ‘satisfaction’ with a conclusion, and I don’t think that we have concluded the rebuilding process. I reply that although I am ecstatic with the support from the Club, the College chain of command, the Unit Fund, the RMC Foundation, and PSP, satisfaction remains elusive. The only way I can describe my feelings on the subject is to metaphorize the process; it is as though we were lost in the woods, and have now managed to work our way up a large hill. Now that we have climbed as high as we have, we can start to see which way to go to reach our destination. The vision is simple, if profound in implication: Young Canadians will want to go to RMCC in order to have a chance at competing in our sailing program.
From the perspective of the overall organization of RMCC sports and distribution of resources, this is a logical focus with respect to return on investment. Certain sports occupy a place in our Canadian mythos which places them in a position where, if a student has not played them aggressively their entire lives, they have no real chance of competing once they arrive at the College. Sailors have an edge, in that they can go from very basic skills to real competence and international competition during their tenure at the College. Add to this the unparalleled access to waterfront that our cadets enjoy, and the pre-existing physical infrastructure that is the envy of every collegiate sailing program in the country, and we have a means to fulfill that vision. Just through the acquisition and race-readying of our J/24 fleet, we now have an asset for keel boat racing that, to my knowledge, no other university in Canada can boast.
These acquisitions and successes are a good start, but our past tells us how much more we can accomplish. Our physical infrastructure requires a great deal of attention over the coming years, such as the redevelopment of the boat ramp that is used for both RMCC and HMCS Ontario trailer launches, the shoring up of the retaining walls that hold together the boathouse jetty, the acquisition of a shore crane so that we control the length of our own sailing season and can do our own hull maintenance, improvements to the docking and breakwaters to facilitate safe berthing for our fleet, and the acquisition of a sailing center that can be used for instruction for large groups of cadets. As I mentioned in my second article, infrastructure can seem like the “boring bits,” but having the boats means nothing without the ability to care for them properly or train the crews to man them. Similarly, as the sailing community grows it may well become necessary to once again expand the fleet. The J/24s have already become so central to our operations that increasing their number to six would be welcomed. In the very long term, larger matched keelboats requiring larger teams would be an outstanding addition, and I for one would like to see some smaller craft unlike the others we have access to, such as Hobie Cats or ice boats, become a part of the resources the College has to offer.
The racing team has also been working to expand its scope, and has been assuming a wider role in competitive sailing. Aside from their own training and intercollegiate racing activities, they are the group that is training and running the competitions for IM sailing, which both increases their knowledge base, and creates a pool of people that the team can use in future years to swell their ranks. They will also be playing a pivotal role in the CICSA National Championship that will take place at RMCC over the weekend of October 24th, and for which huge numbers of universities across Canada were invited. Because they wish to expand their experience beyond competitions in Canada, they will continue to compete in internationally, as they did in Liverno, Italy during the past two seasons, and they are hoping to represent Canada in sailing at the Military World games in Korea 2015.
In the third article I wrote on sailing at the Canadian Military Colleges, I stated that “our effect on history has been disproportionate to our size.” Our student body is relatively small, and so too the resources base that sailing has access to relative to the expense of the sport. With that said, the advances we have made with our fleet and physical infrastructure have been disproportionate to the money we have spent. I would happily take sweat equity on the part of passionate people over large amounts of funds if it meant the indifference of those who participate. This is not to say that we do not require the assistance of our many benefactors, the Unit Fund, the RMC Foundation, and PSP being primary among them. It is merely to say that the gains we have made with the resources we have been given have been disproportionate in terms of the gain for the College. There remain many serious challenges that will require the dedication, innovation, and cooperation that has facilitated our current state of affairs. With that said, satisfaction for me remains elusive, because if the last three years have taught me anything, what we can be and where sailing at the College can go is far greater than our current state. There are many unknowns, but like all problems, they won’t be solved until someone tries to solve them. So too are there limits to what is practical, but as yet we have not reached them.
One day I will be sitting at work or in a mess talking with friends, and someone will ask me where I went to university. I will respond that I was a proud gentleman cadet of the Royal Military College of Canada. Unprovoked, they will respond something along the lines of “did you sail while you were there?,” or “how about that sailing team?,” and only at that point I will know what is possible now. In the meantime, I will continue to rely on the generosity of the alumni, the hard work of the RMCC Yacht Club, and try and realize a vision of our alma mater as great as what once was. History is proof of what is possible, and it is our duty to respect tradition and seek a future in which we are second to none.