Paper Boats

Our imaginations are wonderful places to escape from the rules and structures that define reality. Some children are incredibly fortunate to have both a vivid imagination and the time required to adequately explore their creativity. I was one such child, often building models of various vessels out of paper and embarking upon "missions" that would often consume an entire afternoon. One of my favourite pastimes around the age of 10 or 11 was constructing boats that were modelled on the large military and civilian ships that I could find in the family encyclopedia set. My models would rarely exceed 15cm in length, but what they lacked in tonnage they more than made up for in complexity.

Paper Boats on a Cold River

The first boats were quite simple. A sheet of paper would be folded in half with the ends glued shut. After the seal had taken hold, I would "open" the centre like a hotdog bun, attach a deck, and then cut the ends to be tapered nicely at a 45˚ angle. Once all of the glue had dried, I would bring the model to the nearby creek and release the ship into the water with the goal of following the craft as far as I was allowed to travel1. Unfortunately, the early ships would all tip over immediately after being put in the water. I had yet to learn about ballasts and keels.

As time went on and my knowledge of water craft improved, the models became ever more complex. Ships would have water-tight compartments where air could be trapped to keep the vessel afloat even if some glue had come unstuck. The best ballast was often the artificial gravel used with HO scale model railroads, so I would use that either at the bottom of the hull or — better still — within the keel after wrapping the plastic stone in cellophane. In order to keep the ship floating near the centre of the creek's winding route, a rudder had to be set at an angle between 8˚ and 12˚ turning starboard, otherwise it would wind up hitting the stones along the shore with every bend and curve. Masts were impossible to use without the vessel tipping over, so sails were out. Every ship had to rely only on the flow of the water to complete its mission. Of the dozens — or hundreds — of attempts, only two managed to travel the kilometre or so from the launching point to the King Street tunnel without hitting the shore or otherwise coming apart at the seams as glue bonds deteriorated.

It was fascinating work. The encyclopedias at home explained the basics of buoyancy and how ships generally worked, but the increasingly complex designs came about as a result of the extra study that was put into the effort. In my imagination, these weren't just paper models of cargo vessels, aircraft carriers, or passenger ships. These were water-borne craft that I captained, with a crew of people who were just as intently focussed on the objective. We had to make it to the King Street tunnel, where the creek would enter into a gated tube 3 meters in diameter2. We had to.

In order to build a ship that could make the journey I read every book on boats that I could find. The elementary school I attended and the nearby library had some magazines and books that showed a number of interesting designs, including some twin-hull concepts that would have made a sail tenable while also eliminating the need for a double-reinforced, complex keel to keep the ship upright. But these books were mostly about pictures rather than substance. The real breakthrough came when I went to the Hamilton Central Library on a school trip and looked up the technical books on ship design.

My adolescent mind was blown.

There were blueprints, complex equations, cross-section drawings, and pictures of yachts. I learned that a boat designed for fresh water would work differently in salt water. I saw manoeuvrability diagrams that showed very precisely how much area was needed for a ship of a certain size to turn or come to a complete stop. I discovered just how primitive and utterly simplistic my models were … and stepped up to the challenge.

For my most ambitious vessel, I would take everything I learned from experience as well as the ideas and concepts I thought I understood from the professional books at the Central Library to construct a ship that would travel from the "launching pier" near my school to the King Street tunnel and right on through the other side without coming undone or getting stuck on the shallow shore along the way. More than this, the ship would carry a cargo of one Loonie, which I could only use if the mission was successful.

The Planned Journey

For what seemed like weeks I toiled away on the ship. The hull was the simple part, as I'd become rather proficient having the paper bend and hold the best shape for the water. The keel was complicated, though. I don't remember how many times I rebuilt that part of the vessel, trying so hard to have the built-in tail rudder hold a proper starboard angle after the glue set. The decks were easy, and I even went so far as to have the Orlop deck made from a handful of carefully-shaved popsicle sticks. This sat on top of the in-hull ballast and would be where the single Canadian coin would be stowed. When everything was said and done, the ship was easily the most complex and most difficult thing I had ever built. My father was impressed with the attention to detail and asked if I was really going to have it sail down the Redhill Creek towards Lake Ontario, where I might never see it again.

So I thought about it.

And I thought about it.

And I thought about it some more.

While the ship never once met physical water, it regularly played an important role in the imaginary excursions I would enjoy from the comfort of my bedroom3.


  1. As one would expect for a child of 10~11 years, my father had set some boundaries for how far I could travel. As the creek trickled downstream, it would go under King Street in Hamilton, which was the farthest north I was permitted to go.

  2. The concrete pipe where the creek went under the four-lane busy street was gated, of course, to ensure kids didn't go in and drown.

  3. This was the last boat I ever built. Some years later, when I was attending high school, I had the opportunity to visit C&C Yachts in Niagara on the Lake, where fibreglass yachts were designed and built. During the trip the employee that was giving us a tour explained what it took to be a designer and a longtime friend of mine pointed at me and said "He's your man!". Sometimes I wonder if I would have been up to the challenge of the decade of schooling followed by a decade of apprenticeship.

Fifteen Years

Back on August 1, 2002 I made the 4,880km trek from Hamilton, Ontario to the west coast city of Richmond, British Columbia, just a stone's throw from Vancouver. The move came at a time when I was under an extreme amount of stress in both my personal life and professional. The move from one side of Canada to the other was my way to run from all the problems, lay low for a while, and make a new me. A lot of mistakes were made, many of which resulted in regrets that persist to this day. But a lot of good came from the move as well. I learned who I was and, more importantly, who I wasn't.

The first few weeks were rough. Very rough. I thought I might end up homeless due to my arrogance and over-confidence.

You see, I decided to move across the country on Friday July 26th. On Saturday, I went to work, did what I needed to do, and then drove off to see my step-father and let him know of my plans. He didn't completely approve, but he understood and wished me luck. That night I began clearing out my apartment by tossing things from the fire-escape into the dumpster below. Sunday I bought a plane ticket for an August 1 flight, and afterwards continued clearing out the apartment with the help of some friends. Anything they didn't want, we tossed. One difficult item to lose was my computer at the time. I had invested over $8,000 into it at that point, and it was simply too large and fragile for me to carry it across the country. As I didn't have an address in Richmond, yet, there was nowhere to send it to. I had to let it go. Monday through Wednesday went by in a blur. I went to work, did what needed to be done, but kept my departure secret as the boss had one heck of a temper. I couldn't tell him becuase I was a coward.

The whole move was cowardly, really.

During the evenings I would go online and look for work in the Vancouver area. There was a lot of opportunity from the looks of the help wanted ads, and I got in touch with a company that was in the same line of work I was doing in Ontario; appliance repair. The role they needed to fill required a person with several years of experience who could tell the difference between a Maytag, Whirlpool, Frigidaire, and Bosch component at a glance. I could do that. We had a telephone interview and asked if I could start on August 1st. My response? "I'd love to, but I'm flying to Vancouver that day. Could I start on the 2nd?"

They were surprised that I was moving across the country and applying for a job that paid $10 an hour. I don't blame them. In retrospect, I'd be surprised, too. They asked me to call them when I landed and I hung up the phone confident I had gainful employment lined up. Finding an apartment was more complicated, as I didn't know the area, but I knew I needed to be in Richmond. Every place I called wanted me to come in beforehand, so I decided to wait until I was in the province to look for a place to stay, confident there would be a home waiting for me.

Wednesday night I went to visit my step-father one last time to thank him for everything he'd done, give him the keys to the office1, and chatted about what the future might have in store. The next morning a friend of mine came to pick me up in the early hours of the morning and we drove up to Toronto where I'd catch my flight. My heart was beating hard the whole time as visions of consequences played out again and again.

The move had to go on, though. I could not turn back.

After checking in and confirming everything was good, my friend and I shook hands. I walked towards the security gates, and he went back to his car. Though we'd see each other again, our relationship would not be the same. My relationship with everyone in Ontario would never again be the same. I was leaving everyone and everything, both the good and the bad, to forge ahead on a fool's errand.

Welcome to Vancouver

The flight across the country was rather uneventful. No turbulence. No weather to avoid. The passengers — to the best of my recollection — were all well-mannered individuals. After landing, everyone clapped and we eventually got to leave and collect our bags. One of the first things I did after picking up the two pieces of luggage that contained the last of my belongings was buy a newspaper. While I was confident I had work, I needed to find a place to sleep. I had enough money on me to stay a week at a motel if needs be, but cash was not something I had a great deal of nor access to.

The first few places I called all had the same story. A tenant was found a day or two before, and I'd have to look elsewhere. Eventually I did find a place that was renting a room for $400 a month, and that seemed decent. While shared accommodation is not always ideal, it is relatively cheap. The woman who answered the phone invited me to see the small apartment and gave me the address. Soon after, I was on my way to catch a taxi.

Interestingly enough, when I gave the taxi driver the address I wanted to go to, he started asking me detailed questions. "Where is that? Over by number three? Number four?" I had no idea what he was talking about and said as much, which is not what he wanted to hear. In a huff he grabbed his mapbook and looked it up. "Four and Francis" he scowled, and I repeated it to myself a dozen times so that I'd not make the same mistake again.

After a short 10-minute ride, we arrived at the house and I knocked on the door. A short woman came out and started apologizing profusely in a language I didn't understand. Her son soon followed her out and said that the room had been taken the day before. However, if I didn't mind staying in their part of the house, they'd rent me a room they weren't using anymore for $425 a month, a little more than the room offered in the paper. Not wanting to start the house search over again, I accepted the offer and moved in. The son and I quickly became good friends.

Later that afternoon I called the appliance repair shop I'd spoken to earlier that week to let them know I was in the province, had found a place, and was ready for an interview or to start work as soon as the next day. Unfortunately, they hired someone in the few days since my call. I was now back to square one on employment.

For the next seven weeks I looked for work as though my life depended on it … because it did. I stopped spending money. I walked everywhere to keep the $2 fare for food. I grabbed old newspapers out of the garbage to look at the Help Wanted section. My prepaid phone was fast running out of minutes, but I needed to make calls. In desperation, I called my step-father and asked for some money. He came through the very next day and I was able to eat for the first time in 3 days. As the job search went on, I started eating once every four days. Then five …

I wouldn't wish this on my worst enemy. The body does some strange things when you go from 232 pounds down to 173 in the space of five weeks. Strange … awful things.

My clothes were all a hundred sizes too big for me. My belt needed new holes to keep my huge pants up. I didn't want to call Ontario for help again. My ego wouldn't allow it. I knew my bank had given me a $1000 buffer with ATM deposits, and I was seriously considering depositing a napkin with an IOU and risking the wrath of the bank for a few measley dollars … but decided against it. That wasn't who I wanted to be.

On a sunny day in mid-September I received a phone call. A printing company in town needed warehouse staff for their busy season, and they were paying $8.75 to start. I jumped at the opportunity, had an interview I found confusing and repetitive, and was awarded a 4-month contract. My shift would be 6am to 2pm Monday to Friday, with occasional weekends if I agreed. I was so incredibly happy …

The work was not easy. I'd lost a lot of weight. Working in the warehouse meant moving pallets of paper that could weigh anywhere between 300 and 4,500 kilograms. I wasn't certified to use the forklift, so that meant using a pallet jack and physical labour. When a person eats every day, this isn't too hard to accomplish. When a person eats the equivalent of a peanut butter sandwich every 5 days, and walks the 4 kilometers to work then again back home every day … even a medium-sized load is a bit too much to bare.

But I persevered. One week later on a Friday, I was called over to recieve my first paycheque only to discover that there was a mix-up. It hadn't been printed. "If you could wait until Monday …" the manager started, but I'd gone too long without food at that point. I didn't want to go three more days. Rather than ask me to wait, we went to the office and had someone write a cheque. $173.74 it came out to, and to this day it's the biggest paycheque I've ever received. Not in terms of dollars and cents, but value. I valued every last penny. I bought some food. I bought $10 in phone minutes to call my family. I bought a pair of pants that fit.

Over time, that temporary job would become permanent as I started writing software to help me do my job better. That caught people's attention and, eventually, I was put in charge of the warehouse and a small team. A year later I was moved to logistics, and six months later to IT. My entire five year stay on the west coast of Canada was paid for by working at that company, and I'm still thankful for every opportunity they offered … and the ones they forgave me for manufacturing.

Fifteen years ago I left Ontario a scared, scarred boy who didn't know anything about the world or himself. The five years in British Columbia, while not always easy, prepared me for what came next ….


  1. we worked at the same place, and I had a set of keys.