Toronto is full of hands-on small business owners who own and operate their own businesses and the waterfront district is no different. Even after 10 years the Boatel is still considered a newcomer to the harbour. Like the Boatel many of the commercial boats in Toronto are owner operated and share a passion about the waterfront and boating. Let’s take a closer look at one of these nautical families and the history of the tall ship the Empire Sandy and her owner Captain Eric Rogers.
Eric Rogers is one of the most distinguished captains in Toronto harbour and has spent his lifetime enjoying being either in, on or under the water. He presently owns and operates two marine businesses; Nautical Adventures which operates the passenger ships the Empire Sandy and the Wayward Princess and the Toronto Drydock which operates a floating drydock as well as several commercial tugs and barges. You might have noticed one of Eric’s beautiful red painted tug boats, the “M R Kane” at dock in front of the Empire Sandy.
Eric also sits on the board of directors of CharterAbility which is a charity aimed at getting handicapped people out on the water and presently offers creek cruises on pontoon boats out of Oakville harbour. Charterability also does annual fundraising cruises aboard the Wayward Princess.
The making of the Empire Sandy 1943-2005
The Empire Sandy was built during the second world war in 1940 as a tug boat by the British Government and did service in North Atlantic, Mediterranean and Indian Ocean. She was one of 1464 various ships that was built for war service by the British with each of the ships bearing the first name “Empire”. The name was later changed to the “Chris M” and she finished her useful life as a working tug hauling logs and barges on Lake Superior near Thunder Bay at which point she was slated to be destroyed and sold for scrap metal. Did I say she was built as a tug and not a tall ship? Yes that’s right!
Eric Rogers was just a teenager when his father Norm bought the Empire Sandy in 1975. Norm Rogers found the ship in Hamilton Harbour awaiting breakup so purchased her for $30,000 in scrape metal value.
Norm had a dream of recreating this derelict boat into a 19th Century Tall Ship so he went about gutting and rebuilding the ship to become the three masted schooner which she is today. Eric spent years working alongside his father on the rebuild. The original wheelhouse was re-installed at the stern and in 1983 re-christened the Empire Sandy she sailed as a tall ship for the first time. When we asked him how long the whole project took, Eric replied with a smile and a twinkle in his eye “I’ll let you know when it’s done”.
Eric learned to sail and has travelled extensively with the Sandy along thousands of miles on the Atlantic Ocean and the Caribbean Sea. Today the Empire Sandy provides public and private cruises for airshows, wedding, corporate events and even the occasional memorial at sea in Toronto. When the dock is empty she is travelling to various summer festivals on the Great Lakes and the St. Lawrence Seaway. Behind the scenes is Vice President Sharon Rogers taking care of the business. Sharon started on the Sandy in 1985 as general crew and has fond memories of the long sailing trips aboard the Sandy Empire.
I had the privilege this summer to take the summer solstice cruise on the Empire Sandy with some guests from Georgia on June 21st. We left dock at 7:30 pm and stopped in the inner harbour while the efficient crew put up six of the fourteen sails. The weather was perfect and the delicious roast beef dinner was served as we sailed around the Toronto Islands to watch the sunset. I went downstairs to have a look at the chart on the wall depicting the impressive history and travels of the Empire Sandy since 1943. A few hours later we were back at dock wishing that we could have stayed out there all night. If you have never had the opportunity to sail on a tall ship then I would definitely put it on your bucket list to do. Or plan to make it an annual event and relive the experience every year. There is something absolutely magical about looking up the mast past the sails to the stars in the sky. Every time I see her leaving dock I dream of sailing away!
Getting there is pretty easy. The Empire Sandy is our neighbour so the commute is less than a minute from our Bed and Breakfast in downtown Toronto. If you are staying at the Boatel then we will let you know if the Empire Sandy is sailing or check their website for more details.