It’s Sunday morning at Assiniboine Park’s Riley Family Duck Pond, where members of the Winnipeg Model Boat Club have gathered for their annual, day-long regatta, made more special this year as it coincides with the organization’s 25th anniversary.
Shortly after Claude Dupuis launches a scale model, radio-controlled canoe, a pair of women approach him, explaining they spotted him and his cohorts while they were walking their dogs and immediately felt compelled to wander over to get a closer look.
They’re not the only ones whose curiosity has been piqued. An elderly gent, grandson perched on his shoulders, has been pumping Dupuis with questions about his eye-catching contraption for 10 minutes already. Meanwhile, a family of five is busily snapping pictures of the canoe’s pint-size paddlers, both of which can be controlled separately, allowing the metre-long vessel, made of birch plywood, to travel forward and backward, as well as perform full 360s.
(Holy oarsmen, Batman! It turns out one of the two figurines bolted inside the canoe, the one painted green, is a converted caped crusader toy. "I bought it at Spencer’s, cut the bat ears off, filled the holes with a bit of putty and voila, it was just what I was looking for," Dupuis says, noting his model’s maiden voyage occurred in a less-than-glorious setting, his bathtub, "just to make sure it’d float.")
"Compared to some of the other ships here today, Claude’s is a fairly simple device," says club president Leo Steinfeld, standing in an enclosed area containing dozens of model boats, almost all of which will get wet at some point this morning or afternoon.
"But even though it isn’t as detailed or fancy as some of the large, military ships we have on display, there’s no doubt about it; that canoe probably attracts more attention than the rest of our boats combined."
OK, that’s not entirely true. A few steps away, Dave Smith, sporting a black windbreaker to stave off a steady breeze, is entertaining an ever-growing crowd with his replica of a German submarine, circa the Second World War, which he built entirely from scratch. Smith, a 12-year member of the club, draws "oohs" when he completely submerges his U-boat via a hand-held RC unit, followed by a smattering of applause when he brings it back to the water’s surface in the middle of the pond, surprising a cluster of geese in the process.
Never heard of the Winnipeg Model Boat Club? You’re not alone, says past-president Bob Russell. Even though you can find members at the duck pond every Sunday morning from the middle of April to the end of October, weather permitting, most passersby remark they didn’t have a clue the club was "a thing," he admits.
In the spring of 1994, Russell was standing on the bank of a retention pond near Dugald Road operating a remote-control boat, a gift to himself the previous summer as a reward for quitting smoking. Sure, he enjoyed his new pastime, he says, but as the afternoon wore on, he began thinking how much more pleasurable it would be if there were others there, too; people who were as enthusiastic about battery-operated ships as he was.
He posted hand-written signs in every Winnipeg hobby shop he was familiar with, inviting those who shared his passion for model boats to contact him if they were interested in forming a club. What’s the worst that could happen? Within a week he’d heard from 10 like-minded souls, including Claude Rivard.
"At our very first meeting, we established a number of ground rules," Rivard says, noting the group has continued to get together on the first Monday of the month, year-round, ever since.
"Obviously, different individuals have different interests, so we agreed it didn’t matter what type of boats you were drawn to. My preference has always been work boats, while other guys are more into war ships. To us, it didn’t make any difference. The point of the club was going to be about meeting new people, discussing building techniques and hopefully having some fun along the way."
Membership remained around a dozen for the longest time, Russell says. That changed in 2012 when the duck pond at Assiniboine Park more than doubled in size, thanks to a $1.5-million donation from descendants of Robert Thomas Riley, one of the founders of Great-West Life Assurance Company.
"The park actually contacted us during the reconfiguration stage. They’d heard we had a model boat club that got together occasionally and that they’d absolutely love it if we came and sailed our boats in their new pond when it was fully completed," Russell says.
Thanks to their increased exposure, membership quadrupled that summer. That number has remained relatively steady between 30 and 40, primarily men 40 years old and up, ever since.
One of the benefits of belonging to the club — besides qualifying for discounts at a number of several hobby supply stores — is if anybody experiences a nautical disaster, a helping hand usually isn’t too far away, says Rivard, who keeps a fishing-rod-as-retrieval-tool in the trunk of his vehicle, "just in case."
"If your boat runs out of power in the middle of a lake or pond, for example, it’s definitely a godsend if there’s another boat around to push or nudge it back to shore," says Russell, who’s been known to slip into a pair of waist-high waders from time to time to rescue ships snagged by underwater weeds.
"In 25 years we’ve only lost one model, a fishing boat that, because of a ballasting problem, sank like a stone at Silver Harbour (near Gimli) seconds after its owner put it in the water. I don’t know how much that one was worth exactly, but you can imagine how badly you’d feel if you lost something that cost you $2,000 or $3,000 and took you months, sometimes years to build."
What kind of model boats will people see this year at the the Red River Exhibition (June 14-23), where the Winnipeg Model Boat Club is once again a feature attraction?
"You name it," Steinfeld says. "There will be everything from fictional boats such as the Nautilus, from Jules Verne’s Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, to replicas of real boats like the (SS) Foundation Franklin, a Royal Navy tug first launched in 1918, to the Edmund Fitzgerald, the Great Lakes ore freighter Gordon Lightfoot wrote a song about."
(Situated in the southwest corner of Exhibition Place Building, the club has their usual 15 tables of model boats for carnival-goers to peruse. Also, there is a five-metre-wide, one-metre-deep above-ground pool adjacent to their setup where members such as Owen Linton, whose specialty is replicas of ships he served on during his tenure in the Royal Canadian Navy, will happily demonstrate how their various models operate.)
Going forward, Steinfeld, a retired architect, says there have been preliminary discussions about building an area in Assiniboine Park that would be wholly reserved for model boat seven days a week during the spring, summer and fall. The space would operate somewhat like Conservatory Water in New York City’s Central Park, he explains, where radio-powered sailboats can be rented by the public from April to October.
"Not only is it a good way for the park to make money by renting boats out, it’s a fantastic way to introduce somebody to the hobby without making them go out and spend a few hundred dollars on a beginner boat or kit," he says.
Rivard, a grandfather, agrees, adding it doesn’t take a person long to fall in love with model boating, no matter what it says on their birth certificate.
"I can’t speak for the other guys, but for sure, I feel like a little kid when I’m out here. It’s definitely the sort of thing you can do your whole life," he says. "I’ve hooked more guys into joining the club simply by handing them my remote control for five minutes and telling them, ‘Here, why don’t you give it a shot?’"
Dave Sanderson was born in Regina but please, don’t hold that against him.