First past the port: Why Montreal gives out a golden prize to year's first ship

Since 1880, the captain of the year's first ship to dock at the Port of Montreal has been presented with a 14-karat-gold-tipped cane.

Since 1880, Port of Montreal has presented captain of year's first ship with 14-karat-gold-tipped cane

What's the tradition of the gold-headed cane? 2:02

While party-goers ring in the new year at midnight with a countdown and a burst of confetti, out on the St. Lawrence River, there are ships' crews at work.

For decades, the captains of those vessels have had an incentive to navigate their ships through wintry waters with one eye on the clock.

Every Jan. 1, the first vessel to enter the port is treated to a special ceremony, complete with a champagne toast and the presentation of a gold-tipped cane to the ship's captain.

A time when Montreal was ice-bound

It's a tradition that dates back 180 years, explained Sophie Roux, vice-president of public affairs for the Port of Montreal.

"It started back in 1840, when the port was closed off in winter because it was stuck in ice," she said.

Back in those days, it was sometimes spring before the ice broke up and the first ship of the year arrived.

"Montrealers would gather on the docks and cheer when it came into view," the Port of Montreal explained on its website, "happy that communication and trade with the Old World once again had been re-established."

Volodymyr Yurchenko from Ukraine celebrates after receiving the 180th Gold Cane, as captain of the first ship to dock at the Port of Montreal in 2019. (Ryan Remiorz/THE CANADIAN PRESS)

"For the first 40 years we were giving a top hat to the first captain" to dock at the port each year, said Roux.

"From 1880 onward, we've been giving a gold-headed cane, with both tips in 14-carat gold with the name of the captain engraved as well as the date of arrival."

Year-round navigation since 1964

With the completion of the St. Lawrence Seaway in 1959 and the advent of modern ice breakers, year-round navigation to the port became possible in 1964, and ships began arriving close to or on New Year's Day.

When the first vessel of the year arrives, Roux said a delegation from Montreal boards the ship and presents the cane to the captain.

The 14-karat gold head of the cane is crowned with a Canadian coat-of-arms, coloured with inlaid enamel. (CBC)

She said that while the tradition no longer serves its original purpose — to give captains and their crews an incentive to return to Montreal after the winter freeze-up — it's still a meaningful tradition.

"The marine world is filled with traditions, but this one is quite special," she said. "It's like a continuation of the holiday season for the community."


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