Handmade ship joins Pirates Week

Didier Epars stands near the bow of his ship, Grosse Ile, which will take part in Pirates Week festivities. – PHOTOS: MARK MUCKENFUSS

The crew of the Grosse Ile was desperate.

On its way to the Cayman Islands, the 10-day journey the ship had made from Bermuda to Inagua in the Bahamas had been rough, with high seas, daily squalls and a strong headwind as the crew skirted the backside of Hurricane Maria. The crew had been forced to run its diesel engine – also the ship’s source of electricity – almost constantly and the fuel tank was running dry.

“We were supposed to stop in Turks and Caicos, but it was completely destroyed,” said crew member Giacomo Bruno, 26, of Reggio Emilia, Italy.

Hurricanes Irma and Maria had left little standing there. So the ship moved on to Inagua. The crew found things hardly better in Matthew Town.

“It was like a ghost town,” Mr. Bruno said. “They were trying to charge us a lot for fuel.”

Then the ship was chased out of port, being told it had to make way for an arriving barge. It turned out, to the crew’s relief, that the barge had fuel available.

“They still charged us US$6.50 a gallon,” Mr. Bruno said.

It was one of the many challenges the Grosse Ile (in English, “Big Island”) faced – bitter cold off Nova Scotia, intense thunderstorms off Haiti that broke the bowsprit – before cruising into Grand Cayman Oct. 11, two months after leaving Canada and nearly a month before Pirates Week, which was the main purpose of the journey. The ship will be part of Friday’s pirate invasion of George Town.

Crew members of the Grosse Ile, from left, Giacomo Bruno, Vincent Epars and, his father, Didier Epars.

Didier Epars, 62, the captain of the Grosse Ile, is no stranger to piracy. He was prowling the deck of his ship on Wednesday in a black T-shirt with “Sea Shepherd” printed on the back and a skull and crossed weapons over the left breast. The Sea Shepherd belongs to Greenpeace, the environmental group that often attempts to block vessels hunting whales and endangered sea life. The Sea Shepherd stopped in to Grand Cayman earlier this year.

“They’re good pirates,” Mr. Epars said with a smile. “They save the fish.”

Mr. Epars saves ships. Well, he saved this one anyway, and it took him 17 years of painstaking work.

The Grosse Ile, built by the Canadian military in 1951, is the last schooner produced in Quebec, Mr. Epars said, if not in all of Canada. It was originally used to ferry materials to a weapons station on the island of the same name in the St. Lawrence River.

When he found it in 1992, it was being used as a second home for its private owner and was a wreck. Virtually every part of it had to be replaced, twice.

His friends and family thought he was insane to buy the thing. He was a consultant on diesel engines for a Canadian university and had no shipbuilding experience. He found someone who did, Paul Mailloux, and the two went to work.

“The first difficulty was the big wood,” said Mr. Epars, who emigrated from Switzerland to Quebec as a young man, in his limited English. “It’s big and very long.”

The shortest boards on the hull are 20 feet in length. Nothing like that was available commercially, so he and Mr. Mailloux had to become lumberjacks and mill the wood themselves. He estimates it took 800 trees to complete the project, countless hours of labor and $1.5 million Canadian dollars.

“Everything is made by his own hands,” Mr. Bruno said. “Someone else did the wood carving [on the figurehead], but he designed it. It’s his creation.”

When Mr. Epars was diagnosed with prostate cancer in 2003, he spent four years away from the schooner fighting the disease. Much of the work he had done on the ship deteriorated and had to be redone.

It was finally seaworthy in 2013, he said. He sailed in and around Quebec and, last year, did whale watching tours out of Tadoussac. But, Mr. Bruno said there are only three good months for sailing in Canada and the winters are harsh.

“We were looking for an alternative for the winter,” Mr. Bruno said. “Pirates Week invited us.”

Mr. Bruno has a friend who spent time in Grand Cayman when his boat broke down, during which time he got to know Pirates Week director Melanie McField. When she mentioned wanting to add another ship to the event, the connection was made.

Mr. Bruno said neither he nor Mr. Epars knows how long the ship might stick around. They have had an offer to sail under a local tourism outfit. Or, he said, they may take to sea next week.

That kind of freedom is a bit of vindication against those who doubted Mr. Epars and his grand challenge.

“People thought I was a crazy man,” he said with a grin. “Pirates Week is a good place for a crazy man.”