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The Canadian Empress–Why Not?

It has been some time since I stood in the grand salon of the “Canadian Empress” Cruise Ship, in Kingston Harbour. It was not unlike one of those days that I enjoyed, many years before. The “Empress” has a deep place in my heart, for several reasons.

The Beginning – Why Not?

I was one of a few people who knew the “Canadian Empress” was coming to life, from someone asking the question…"Why not"?

Dreamers have dreams and when that happens, at times, the seed of the dream germinates and becomes a reality. First, the idea. Then the friends, who may or may not laugh. Next, is the talk with the money people, who, in time, can and do the “why not” shuffle. When the right mix of the “why not's” and the “money people” smile at each other, they water that seed and, with luck, it grows. Some grow fast, and some grow slow, and many never see water.

The “why nots” require important answers that most locals would never consider. Plans and more planning, but at last, the approvals fall into place and the seed grows. For all those who have cruised on board the “Canadian Empress,” and those who will in the future – we have Bob Clark to thank for having the dream.

For me, his dream was the beginning of two important “shockers.” At the time I had a business building scale models. I had just finished building a commissioned piece, in fact, the local business magazine in Kingston published an article on my business.

Bob Clark, the owner of the future "Canadian Empress" cruise ship, rang my bell asking if I would build a model of his ship, which was under construction in Gananoque.

Today, that model, that traveled to many marketing shows, sits in Bob’s office. Bob wanted the ship's model as the "Empress" was something greater in complexities than anything that the shipbuilder, Rene Longtin and his Algan Boat, (Gananoque, ON) works had ever built.

The ship was originally designed to ply the Rideau system not the St. Lawrence River.  Therefore the ship had to fit in all Rideau Canal locks, from Kingston to Ottawa; she had to clear under all the bridges; plus carry as many passengers as possible and as few crew as needed.  She was also designed to look and feel like a ship from the years gone-by and be a cruise ship  special glamour and class.  Not every one can see and vision  3-dimensions or even relate to it when looking at 2- dimensional drawings. The big mind-bender at that time was the transition from the 30’ wide beam to the vertical bow in about 15 feet, or so, and how a ship with that design would look.

For many an hour, Bob sat in my shop as he watched me create his dream out of Plexiglas. We would talk of my days, working in the Kingston Shipyards. Of my going from a labourer to a "lofts man" (the top level of blue collar workers) in a short time span.

Then shocker #1 came about.

Those days were fun with Bob looking over my shoulder as Bob was in awe. Then one day Bob stated that he needed the model finished in 10 days. This was only five months ahead of my time calculations. I had other models to finish and had only been working on his for about six weeks, part time.

The panic was simple, the model was needed at the marketing announcement of this dream was becoming a reality.

Somehow, somebody must have waved the magic wand and with a lot of burnt candle wax, it happened. The last work period was 31 hours non-stop. The model, though not fully finished, was a major hit. From then until today, the model’s image has been on the cover of the different annual “Canadian Empress” brochures.

The day it was finished there were tears in both of our eyes. Bob was holding a miniature of his dream for the first time and I as a very tired but pleased creator.

Then shocker #2 came.

When the school year ended that year, l made a camping trip with my family  to Canada's West Coast. On returning, we went to Gananoque, to see the "Empress," who was soon due to sail.

What a shock to discover that construction was three or more months behind schedule. The yard did build bigger boats and ships, but this was their first project involving a lot more complexity.

Chit chat soon re-educated Bob and Rene of my past in the Kingston Shipyard. The long and the short of it, I started the next day into what quickly saw me change from a laborer to fitter, with a helper and working 24/7.

Well not quite.  Some of us who lived outside of Gananoque soon came to work with sleeping bags.  We developed that “get her done” attitude. When you got tired,  you would hang a wake up note on a stateroom door, crash on a bunk or the floor till something woke you up. Once the ship was launched, I still worked on it 24/7, helping to get her operational.

Simple jobs to some trades, proved to be a bigger challenge to those tradespeople who never had the required experience of working around metal construction, rather than wood.

Just think, 87 doors and frames to be fitted, no nails used, 34 toilets installed and plumbed and they were not all in the same area of the ship. Just think of how many holes were bored, just to get water up to the bridge and a waste water pipe to get it down to a holding tank.

To mount a toilet in a house, one cuts a hole in the floor, screws down a flange floor plate, pops in two bolts and fastens the toilet. On the “Empress” there is about an 1.5 inches (3.8 cm) of yellow magnesium chloride cement coating on the deck, which one had to drill through -  then you hit the aluminum plate. The hole cutting for the flange plates, plus drilling and then tap threads in the deck plating for the mounting bolts. Both of which broke or clogged blades and wore out drill bits really fast.

We fitters had even more fun as they would say, sure.  Well fitting the vinyl coated metal wall panels that have a compressed fiberglass core did not go according to plan. The panels suffered the problem of European and North American engineering drawings standards. Somehow the manufacturer missed the fact of the thickness of the deck coating material which is sound and fire proofing material. So, all the panels were made too long and each one needed to be custom trimmed, as required to fit between the deck and deck head tracking. It got so bad that only two of us fitters were allowed to cut the panels.  Mistakes were costly with only a few replacements in hand.

Also the panels were two inches thick and jigsaw blades for the most part, only extend to about 2 1/4 inches. We ate up so many drill bits and jigsaw blades, that one day, two drivers were sent out, going each way from Gananoque, to buy find and buy every jigsaw blade and drill bits in eastern Ontario!

Just think of how many screws you see in the ceiling panels alone.  There is no wood behind them, so every one had to have drilled hole in the aluminum framing first.  Yes, there are hundreds of stories of the many fun times in creating this piece of Canadian history!

I was certainly proud, as we sailed down the River on the first trip late in the fall of 1981.  As we turned  into the Seaway channel under the American bridge, Captain Chris MaCarney, at the wheel, was busy chatting to the other vessels who came to see us and blasted their horns in respect.  Me, why I was there too, as a fitter - fitting up the ceiling tin plates to help get the bridge finished and also to keep the insulation from falling in everyone's eyes.  That was a day in history well worth being a part of.

Snow on the Empress

Those winter months between the first fall lay-up and spring fit-out made for many lunch hour visits by different levels of Bob’s diverse business contacts, plus the run of government officials to tour this new marine venture.

Me, I just kept working to finish the interiors of each stateroom and to make changes, adjustments or in some cases create things not required on the original plans.  The great thing for my family -  I was home at night. My coffee breaks, lunch hour and evening were taken up with studying all that was needed to acquire my Master Minor Water License.

Come spring, life changed for me on the “Empress” as I then worked on board in a uniform that carried the gold bar of a Mate. With it came a different form of responsibility to the ship.

The Officers & Crew

Officer’s were allowed to mingle and eat with the passengers in the grand salon.  So off duty time on board as an officer, with my position and varied background (aviation to international auto racing), led to my meeting people from around the world.

It was a whole new experience for all of the crew members. There were college graduates as first time crew; local cooks who had never worked on a ship; former merchant seamen, and then the Captains, with their varied experience, some even from the deep sea world.

It was and is amazing how we all quickly learned and adjusted to  different situations. Bob Clark expected and set high standards for the many who have followed us. So many people around the world have come to enjoy the pleasures aboard the Canadian Empress.

So ask yourself, if you have never sailed on board the “Canadian Empress,” “Why Not?”.  As you have just learned, “why not” questions, can lead to great things and great times.

Signed Mate Preston (Robert Preston, Cameron, ON)

Editor’s Notea:

  • We thank Robbie Preston for bringing this special story to “TI Life.”  If you want to learn more about the "Canadian Empress," you can read all about it in his book "The Building of the Canadian Empress." (Available in local book stores) It is there he tells his own story about his switching careers as a master model builder to a master fitter, to a Mate with his Master Minor Water License.
  • Ian Coristine shares a 1000 Islands Wallpaper image each winter month with TI Life subscribers.  This month’s image(February 2016) has a reference and image of  the “Canadian Empress” and the St. Lawrence Cruise Line.  Ian asks if you have a story to share it too.
  • Kim Lunman, owner and publisher of the print magazine, “Island Life” shared her profile of Bob Clark and the “Canadian Empress” in the  King of the Empress in February 2009.

Robert W. (Robbie) Preston has enjoyed life working in many different fields of endeavours - ranging from Master Industrial Model Builder, Merchant, Charter Pilot, Master Minor Water Licenced mariner and International Auto Racing Official. He has also been a volunteer Fire Captain, Home Builder,  Author and award winning Photographer. He has received many awards over the years, from a Queen’s Scout and World Jamboree Scout in the 1950s to being recently named, along with his wife, Environmental Hero in 2012, by the City of Kawartha Lakes. Presently he resides in Cameron, Ontario and as he admits he is still - burning the candle at both ends.

Please feel free to leave comments about this article using the form below. Comments are moderated and we do not accept comments that contain links. As per our privacy policy, your email address will not be shared and is inaccessible even to us. For general comments, please email the editor.


Linda Mainse
Comment by: Linda Mainse
Left at: 8:44 PM Monday, February 15, 2016
For many springs we awaited her schedule of visits to the Arthur Child Heritage Museum and proudly shared our river heritage with her guests. But most special of all were the visits with Bob and his queen, Myrna, both consummate hosts who made everyone feel as if they were special. Retired now, I shall miss seeing the Empress pull up first thing in the morning but cherish always the visits with Bob, Myrna and their amazing pursors over the years. Thanks for reminding me of yet another special memory.
Brian Johnson
Comment by: Brian Johnson
Left at: 11:58 AM Tuesday, February 16, 2016
Nobody knows her inside & out like Rob Preston!!! If you want to know ALL about the Canadian Empress, especially her early years, PLEASE buy his book: The Canadian Empress: Building the last Canadian Cruise Ship. Available just about everywhere!! Mine is full of signatures of crew members over the years!!
Dan Morrow
Comment by: Dan Morrow
Left at: 5:33 PM Thursday, February 18, 2016
Robert, your wonderful story of the making of a legend filled me with joy. I always feel a sense of pride as the Empress glides by our island. Look forward to reading your book.
Marti King MacArthur
Comment by: Marti King MacArthur
Left at: 6:16 PM Monday, February 22, 2016
What a wonderful story Mr.Preston has written about the Canadian Empress. It is a lovely ship and he told so many things I didn't know about her. I was fortunate enough to take a short cruise on her a year ago with Mr. Clark, and it is a great memory. The Canadian Empress has gone by our cottage for many years and I thank Mr. Preston for giving us more of her history.