Photo by Jaana Björk
Once upon a time, Steveston’s lively waterfront was teaming with classically-masted vessels hailing from ports throughout the world.
This week, a tall ship will magically reappear in a much-anticipated tribute to the community’s maritime history.
Headlining the Ships to Shore King of the Sea Festival, produced by the City of Richmond and presented by Re/Max, will be Japan’s majestic Kaiwo Maru which will be making a rare visit to North America for the free celebration May 5 to 7 in Richmond’s Garry Point Park.
Translated into English as the King of the Sea, the Kaiwo Maru is one of the world’s largest tall ships—a four-masted, 361-foot long and 182-foot high naval training vessel.
“The Kaiwo Maru rarely leaves Japan and Richmond will be the only North American port of call on this visit,” said Richmond Mayor Malcolm Brodie. “This special visit recognizes the strong cultural ties and long-standing friendship between Richmond and Japan.”
The tall ship will be available for public viewing from its arrival May 3 until its departure May 8. Free boarding will only be during the festival, but only a limited number of passes will be available online in advance and a small number on site. A notable highlight of the visit will be a Sail Drill on Saturday, May 6 when nearly 200 crew members will climb high into the masts to unfurl nearly 30,000 square feet of sail.
A century ago, the biggest and fastest sailing ships in the world came to Steveston’s busy cannery row to load a particularly precious cargo: Pacific salmon.Today, the harbour is still the largest commercial fishing port in Western Canada and also home to a growing tourism sector based largely on its extensive maritime history.
Richmond Coun. Harold Steves, with whom the idea of a tall ships festival first originated, said it’s gratifying to see the ongoing interest and success of what has become an annual celebration of the community’s maritime history.
“When the idea was first floated in 2000 we were just working on restoring the Britannia Heritage Shipyard building and cannery,” he recalled.
Recognizing the first shipment of salmon to Europe went through Britannia, not long after its opening in 1889 as a cannery, Steves thought an ideal way to celebrate would be with the visit of a tall ship. So he asked a friend “Can you find us a tall ship to bring in (to celebrate)?”
That friend promptly went on the Internet and found an entire fleet.
“He found the American Sail Training Association which was looking to bring tall ships to California,” Steves said. “He made contact and asked if they might not come here.”
After securing that, Steves was inspired to see if expanding the visit into a festival might be possible. With fears that the cost would be prohibitive, it took a bit of convincing, he said, but ultimately council approved a five-day festival in the summer of 2002. The first night, a Thursday, drew 170,000 people to Garry Point Park. By the end, the event had drawn some 400,000.
“(Richmond) spent $800,000 on the event, but we were also building infrastructure there including what is now a popular fishing pier,” he said. “And when it was over the economic spinoff was about $10 million.”
Today, Steves looks at the tall ships festival, and the myriad of other events the city now hosts, as a “staycation.”
“It’s become very popular for people staying at home and I think it’s helped our businesses as well,” he said.
As founder and president of the Steveston Merchants’ Association, Jim van der Tas is dedicated to bringing the business community together. He sees events like the Ships to Shore King of the Sea Festival as helping to advance the cause.
“I think it’s great, and it (promises to be) one super weekend here in Steveston,” he told the Richmond Sentinel. “For us at the restaurant (van der tas is an operating partner at Blue Canoe Waterfront Restaurant) we’ve asked all staff to be available (for the May 5 to 7 event).”
van der Tas said he hopes Steveston will collectively continue to expand on its maritime history, as well as consider additional events to help draw even more tourism. One idea he shared is converting Steveston into a truly Christmas village.
“We have a blank template here for a winter wonderland,” he enthused. “We could have a throwback to the 1920s and 1930s, with special shopping events while carollers (stroll) throughout the village.”
An annual event, Ships to Shore launched in 2002 with a five-day celebration of maritime history and culture. An estimated 40,000 people turned out to greet a majestic fleet at that year’s Tall Ships Festival. The success of the festival was pronounced, with the city recognized with several awards including the Port of the Year Award from the American Sail Training Association, Tourism BC’s 2003 award for Best Tourism Marketing Campaign and the 2002 Gateway Award from Tourism Richmond.
A 2004 visit of the Kaiwo Maru also thrilled crowds, which lined up for free public tours and an awe-inspiring demonstration of the crew’s sail rigging skills.
Part of Richmond’s year-long celebration of Canada’s 150th anniversary of confederation, Ships to Shore King of the Sea affords festival-goers an opportunity to not only board and view the visiting ships, but also enjoy a myriad of music, food, culture and fireworks.
The festival includes free headline concerts by Alan Doyle and the Beautiful Gypsies and Dear Rouge, plus a free Saturday night fireworks spectacular over the Fraser River. Ongoing entertainment includes buskers, pop-up demonstrations and hands-on activities, food trucks, a maritime-themed Kids Cove, community art installations, a marketplace and various displays. Festival hours are 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. May 5 and 6 and May 7 from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. More event details are at shipstoshore.ca.