Brampton man retracing ancestor's voyage from France 330 years later

George Ayers, 72, began researching part of his family's history. That journey led him to embark on a 40-day voyage aboard a tall ship and a return to his ancestor's homeland.

A family secret began George Ayers's journey of self-discovery

George Ayers, 72, embarked on a journey that started when he learned the truth about his birth name. He traced his ancestry back to a French marine named Jacques St. Denis who arrived in Quebec City on May 26, 1687. (Joe Fiorino)

A Brampton retiree is embarking on a summer trip that will span the centuries and not only reconnect him to his roots, but celebrate the history of Canada, too.

George Ayers, 72, is retracing the sea journey his great-great-great-great-great-great grandfather took from France to Quebec, then known as New France, exactly 330 years ago.

And he'll be doing it as a crew member of a century-old tall ship.

  • Click here to follow George's journey.

It's a personal journey of self-discovery that all began with a surprise revelation.

When Ayers was 15 years old, his parents revealed to him that his mother had been married before and that his birth father's last name was actually St. Denis. Decades later, after his adoptive father's death, Ayers became curious about this part of his personal history and set about tracking down any St. Denis descendants.

"I happened on an article written in an Ottawa newspaper about a St. Denis and I called and said, 'Hi, my name is George and I think we might be related,'" Ayers told CBC Toronto. "The response astounded me. He said, 'You're my long-lost cousin!'"

Ayers found out that he was part of an old Quebecois family that traced its arrival back to Jacques Saint Denis, as the name was originally spelled, a 22-year-old French marine.

A group of typical Troupes de la Marine from the 1600s. (George Ayers)

"He came aboard a French man-of-war called the Arc-en-ceil and sailed from France and arrived May 26, 1687," said Ayers.

Ayers, a writer and adventurer who has travelled extensively through South America, decided to trace his ancestor's route to celebrate Canada's 150th year since Confederation.

But he will be closing the loop by travelling in the other direction. Ayers will leave from Quebec City on July 22 and cross the North Atlantic and make port at Le Havre, France on Sept. 1.

"I know the story of Jacques, but what I don't know is the sense of the sea and the feeling he felt making that voyage. So I wanted to retrace that and get a sense of what his journey really felt like," said Ayers.

The retired photographic engineer booked passage aboard a ship of similar dimensions to the tall ship his ancestor came on.

The Oosterschelde is a three-masted topsail schooner that is the last of a large fleet that sailed under the Dutch flag at the beginning of the 20th century.

The ‘Oosterschelde’ is a three-masted topsail schooner that is the last of a large fleet that sailed under the Dutch flag at the beginning of the 20th century. Ayers will be crossing the North Atlantic aboard her, arriving in France on Sept. 1. (BV Reederij ‘Oosterschelde’)

"It's a museum piece. It 100 years old," said Ayers.

Although he paid more than $4,000 for a ticket, the schooner is entered into a competition against other tall ships racing from Halifax to La Havre, so Ayers will have duties as part of the crew.

"I will have shifts of four hours on, eight hours off," he said. His duties will include managing sails, navigation and port and starboard watch.

Captain's log from the French man-of-war 'Arc-en-ciel' that sailed from France and arrived in Quebec City on May 26, 1687. Ayers used the log to determine the approximate route of his ancestor, Jacques Saint Denis. (Archives Nationales Paris)

But he thinks that will make the experience all the more authentic. Ayers already knows that a good portion of the routes will mirror his ancestor's journey. He tracked down the captain's log of the Arc-en-ceil and plotted its path against that of the Oosterschelde.

"There will be days I will be staring at the sea and imagine Jacques coming the other way," said Ayers. "I'll see his ghost somewhere out there. Our paths will cross."


Philip Lee-Shanok

Senior Reporter, CBC National News

From small town Ontario to Washington D.C., Philip has covered stories big and small. An award-winning reporter with three decades of experience in Ontario and Alberta, he's now a Senior Reporter for the National Network based in Toronto. His stories are on CBC Radio's World Report, World This Hour, World at Six and The World This Weekend as well as CBC TV's The National and CBC News Online. Follow him on Twitter @CBCPLS.