The Hamilton Harbour Queen is locked tight in the ice behind the marine-unit police station. But in another six weeks or so, she’ll move back to centre stage – tied up to the wall by the waterfront promenade.
The 200-passenger steel ship from the Fifties has cruised our bay for eight seasons. She’s made 1,180 trips past the mills of Steeltown and the mansions of Aldershot.
For all but four of those journeys, it was Captain Brian Brooks at the wheel. He was six-foot-one, silver beard, wore the uniform well. He was born to the role.
I stopped by the boat one day last summer, wanting to learn a little of where the Harbour Queen had come from. Brooks knew every inch of the story. How the boat had been built in Owen Sound, cut in seven pieces, shipped west to work the Mackenzie River, cut in seven again, shipped back to Hamilton, welded back together, did a stint in Newfoundland.
I just needed a few paragraphs, but there was no stopping the captain. He loved his boat and wanted me to know all about it.
"Ask Brian the time and he’d tell you how to build a watch," says his wife Deborah.
It began in high school
They were high school sweethearts in Ottawa. Married young, had a son named David. For half-a-dozen years, he worked in the ad department at the Ottawa Citizen, then moved to the Southam newspaper chain’s head office in Toronto.
Next stop was Sault Ste Marie. Brian and Deborah stayed in the North for 20 years and started an ad agency that really flourished.
They worked hard, but made time for sailing. They had a dream, the kind you read about in the cruising magazines.
In 1995 they found a derelict 42-footer in Florida and had it shipped up by truck. "Then we spent every spare minute, every spare nickel, on that boat," Deborah says.
Two years later, the Tamarak II was ready. The Brooks sold their agency in the Soo and pushed off in August, 1997 with three cats and mixed emotions. "We were scared and excited at the same time," Deborah says.
New people, new places
For four years, she and Brian wandered the Caribbean. "The boat was a means to an end," she says. "It was a chance to explore different cultures, different places, on your own timetable."
They shopped where locals did, got to know many along the way. Brian sketched the people and the places. They dove in waters so clear, Deborah says, "you could count the bumps on the starfish."
They survived two hurricanes, Lenny, then Joyce. Deborah flew out once, to B.C., for the birth of their second grandchild.
In 2001, they decided it was time to tie up. "It was a conspiracy of events," Deborah says. The dot-com meltdown had eaten into their savings, they had a place in Florida that needed attention, and two of their cats had died.
The couple lived in Florida awhile, coming to Canada with a trailer in tow in the summers.
Port Dover first
Meanwhile, Brian was upgrading his marine qualifications. In 2004, he got the captain’s job aboard the Harbour Princess out of Port Dover. A year later, the Waterfront Trust brought the boat to Hamilton. They wisely hired the captain too. He had commuted from home in Simcoe ever since.
"Brian was right in his element," Deborah says. "He liked the mechanical side of things and the people side too. He said people were not there to see the propellor turn around. They were there for an experience."
And Brian always had tales for his passengers, she says. "He was a storyteller. And the truth is where he started."
There were dinner cruises. Dance nights. Charters for weddings, the Jarvis Lions Club social and everything in between. Political fundraisers brought Jack Layton and Dalton McGuinty on board.
The captain’s job was seasonal, but Brian didn’t see it that way. Every few weeks, right through the winter, he drove up to Hamilton to check on his charge. He was at the boat just before Christmas.
The end came at home
Then, at home on Dec. 28, he was felled by a heart attack. He was 66.
Kevin Warnock, operations manager at the Hamilton Waterfront Trust, worked with Brian from the beginning. He says he was a captain in every sense of the world.
"And he hated to be late. When he put his hat on, it was showtime. He’d go down the ramp to greet the guests, and the crew all knew they’d better be ready."
Warnock is now trying to locate a replacement. There have been applications from across the country, he says, "but it will be a challenge... We won’t find another Brian."
Brian had no plans to retire. Deborah explains he had even added a new project, putting together marine training manuals, complete with his own illustrations. "I’ve said that he’s going to be so upset when he finds out what happened to him. He was in the middle of so much."