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Cabot 500 celebrated 20 years ago

The Matthew with all the Grand Bank crewmembers on deck as the vessel pulled into the wharf, upon arriving at Grand Bank on July 11, 1997.
The Matthew with all the Grand Bank crewmembers on deck as the vessel pulled into the wharf, upon arriving at Grand Bank on July 11, 1997.

June 24 marked the 20th anniversary of when Queen Elizabeth II was at Bonavista to be part of the Cabot 500 Anniversary Celebrations and to welcome the arrival of the replica of John Cabot's ship, the Matthew.  

As the Matthew left Grand Bank on July 13, 1997, she bid farewell by firing her guns going out through the harbour entrance. Her next port of call was Harbour Breton.

It was foggy and very cold, but the weather did not dampen the spirits of the estimated 30,000 spectators who were on hand for the event.
Two weeks later, on July 11, residents of the Burin Peninsula were given the opportunity to have a close-up view of the small vessel when, accompanied by a flotilla of other boats, she arrived at Grand Bank for a two-day visit.
The full-size replica of the Matthew was reconstructed at Bristol, England, by naval architect Colin Mudie and the boat-building company Bristol Classic Boat Company.
The design was based on archaeological data and illustrations of caravels, the type of three masted vessel believed to have been manned by John Cabot and his crew when in 1497 they set sail from Bristol, crossing the Atlantic and reached North America, claiming it for England.
Shipwrights began work in February 1994 and it took them two years to complete the $3.8 million project.
In 1997, the replica Matthew sailed across the Atlantic as part of the quincentennial celebrations. After 54 days at sea, it arrived at Bonavista. It then toured Newfoundland and the eastern seaboard before wintering in Toronto. The ship returned to Bristol in 1998.
At the helm of the Matthew on that July day in 1997 when she slowly entered the harbour at Grand Bank to much fanfare was Grand Bank native son Captain John Smith. Greeting the 77-year-old veteran seaman at dockside were 14 family members, including two daughters — Ruth and Gail — as well as his sister Freda who welcomed him in period costume. Some 10,000 people had lined the wharves and streets of this historic fishing community for this momentous event. Smith spoke to the crowd from an outdoor stage erected in downtown Water Street, describing the Matthew on her transatlantic voyage as being "a good ship, a good roller but a poor sailor. A fine sea boat that will take you home every time."
On the voyage across the Atlantic Smith had the responsibility of being the mate on the Matthew while David Alan-Williams of England was the Master of the vessel.
After leaving Bonavista the ship visited St. John's and then proceeded on to Placentia where six other Grand Bankers joined the crew for the Placentia to Grand Bank leg of the trip.
Randell Pope was one of the local sailors chosen as a result of his enquiry to the Tourism Department of the provincial government. The other Grand Bankers who were onboard were William Cooper, Jake Weymouth, Clayton Dollimount, George Clements and MHA Judy Foote.
The Matthew left Placentia at 6 a.m. on July 9 and arrived at Grand Bank some 32 hours later, around 2 p.m. on July 11.
“We encountered very stormy conditions", Randell Pope recounts. "The wind was between 35 and 40 knots out of the southwest and that was the direction we were heading. There were times when our speed was reduced to two miles per hour."
Steering the Matthew was very difficult.
"It took three men to keep her on course," Pope said, "as a block and tackle system on the tiller was the method used. It was impossible to make use of the sails to steady the vessel and there were times when she would go down in the troughs, gaining speed only to abruptly stop. It felt like a snowplow crashing into a bank of snow."
They did have a Canadian Coast Guard escort but apparently "they (the coast guard) couldn't take the pounding so they harboured at St. Lawrence for the night."
However, conditions did improve after finally the little 50 ton craft came around "the boot"; the wind dropped and the vessel's speed increased to about five knots.
All of the Grand Bank crewmembers were on deck, sporting costumes of the Cabot era, as the Matthew passed the lighthouse and finally tied up at the wharf where hundreds of schooners, trawlers and other ships had berthed in earlier days.

Allan Stoodley resides at Grand Bank. He can be reached at and he welcomes comments on this or any other article he has written.


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