Sea gypsies re-berth in home port

'Nomadic Tempest,' a Cirque with a message, brings Caravaners back to B.C. after 30+ years

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After a fleeting attempt to settle down on an 80-acre Okanagan farm (where an offshoot theatre company still remains) Kirby and Kelder hitched up their Clydesdales and hit the road again, first playing Vancouver’s Expo ’86 and then rebasing to Ontario.

In the Kingston marina, they conceived the notion of nautically nomadic theatrics. It took four years, 1994-97, to hand-build their dream ship, largely with donated labour, expertise and materials. Once afloat, they toured the Great Lakes, Eastern Seaboard and Gulf Coast, before striking out for Europe (hitch-hiking atop a trans-Atlantic freighter, as the Amara Zee is not set up for open ocean sailing).

Anchors aweigh for trans-oceanic long-haul. Photo: BBC Chartering.

Eight years and 17 countries later, the ship returned to North America atop the German freight line BBC Chartering’s M/V Ohio. But landing in Texas, in 2013, the Caravaners were dismayed to learn that the Harper government’s Canadian Transportation Agency had, in the meantime, revoked their ship’s “pleasure craft” status, reclassifying the Amara Zee as a “commercial vessel.”

Under that designation, to re-enter Canada would have imposed insurmountable staffing, regulatory and insurance burdens far beyond the company’s meagre means. Ensued a four-year legal wrangle during which the company had to linger south of the border, essentially stateless as “bureaucratic refugees” (Kirby’s phrase) until a Vancouver law firm finally won a waiver of “coastal trading” requirements for Caravan’s current B.C. tour.

The contest still rankles. So much so that Kirby and Kelder now refuse to fly the Maple Leaf flag on the Amara Zee, much less the stars and stripes of the U.S. (where the ship is still officially registered as a “pleasure craft”). Instead, the stern flagstaff defiantly bears a “world ensign” – a cloud-marbled orb against a field of inky night – defiantly flapping in the False Creek breeze.

Still, Vancouver remains a friendly port for the couple, home to numerous well-wishers, allies and two of their sons. After the Vancouver premiere of Nomadic Tempest, Kelder invited “all the Caravaners” in the audience to stay on for an after-party. Most who lingered were greying Boomers like Kelder and Kirby themselves, redolent of tie-dyed 1960-70’s nostalgia.

A kind of class reunion? Hardly, Kelder laughs. A Sea Wall embankment could never accommodate a full-on convention of Caravan alumni. “For that, we’d have to hire a stadium,” she suggest with a wave across False Creek to the Rogers Arena.

For nearly half a century, Kirby elaborates, the company has lived on the kindness of strangers. “Pretty much everything we use – gear, lights, talent, materials, transport, connections – has come to us as donations in kind. From thousands and thousands of people. And more joining in all the time, everywhere we go.”

So where next? After September 3rd end of Nomadic Tempest’s False Creek run, the ship will unstep its mast to limbo under the Cambie Bridge and then make its way to Vancouver Island for a last few valedictory engagements in Canada.

And then?

Well, when BBC Chartering dropped us off in Nanaimo, they were on their way to Shanghai, Kirby notes. And they mentioned that there’s always trans-oceanic deck-space for us on their freighters. A lot of coastal and riverine ports in China…  

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