Jillan Valpy (right)

Maritime museum exhibit offers glimpse into life at sea

On a 52-foot-long boat, John Horton set out to do what few others have done.

On a 52-foot-long boat, John Horton set out to do what few others have done.

He set out to follow part of the route that British explorer Captain George Vancouver sailed between 1790 and 1795, during which he charted the northwest pacific coast and helped lay the foundations for what would later become Canada.

Vancouver (whom the City of Vancouver was named after) was originally a protege of Captain James Cook, the first explorer from Britain to make contact with the northwest coast from 1776 to 1779, and sailed on voyages with Cook. Vancouver later returned to chart the region from Alaska to Oregon.

Horton’s interest in Vancouver’s voyage began in 1994 during the 200th anniversary of Vancouver arriving on the coast, during which he was commissioned to put together a series of paintings on the voyage.

In order to make the paintings historically accurate, the maritime artist and avid sailor, completed weeks of research, combing through books and papers, and studying line drawings of the ships.

He also got his hands on Vancouver’s journals, which provided rare insight into the explorer and provided detailed descriptions of the places he visited. Eventually Horton decided if he was to make the typography and backgrounds accurate in his paintings, he would have to follow the very route Vancouver travelled.

Shortly after, he loaded up his vessel and set out from the mouth of the Columbia River with Vancouver’s journal in hand. Over a five-year-period, for up to six weeks at a time, Horton sailed Vancouver’s route, travelling as far north as Alaska, exploring every cove that Vancouver would have sailed.

“We would sit in a given spot and read Vancouver’s description of it,” Horton said. “Had the negotiations between the British and the Spaniards not been successful, Spain would have retained their claim over the coast and the Russians or Americans would have moved in. So the interesting story is how it’s part of the Canadian story and how Canada came from sea to sea.”

But the voyage wasn’t without challenges. Trying to understand Vancouver’s journal, which was written in Old English, was a problem at times.

“You would look up and say ‘oh that’s where he was’, and trying to picture what it was like when he was there. Much of the coast hasn’t changed, but some of it has,” Horton added.

He created roughly 50 works of Vancouver’s voyage charting the coastline and the challenges they faced, many of which have been sold. Nine of his paintings are currently on display as part of a new exhibit called A Summer of Discovery at the Maritime Museum of B.C.

The display also includes a wax figure of Capt. Cook, several navigational tools such as a polaris, a type of compass, a sextant, which helped explorers determine landmarks, stars and points to determine where they are at sea, a chronometer, which allowed explorers to keep track of the time it took to get from point A to point B, and telescopes.

Also on display are Cook and Vancouver’s journals and model replicas of the Discovery and Endeavour ships that explorers used.

Jillan Valpy, exhibits, collections and program coordinator with the museum, said the exhibition helps with the museum’s outreach program to schools.

“The importance of the exhibit is to promote our outreach programming and continue to develop outreach programming to our community and schools,” she said.

This is the museum’s first display since it moved from the Steamship Terminal last year.

The display will be open to the public from Thursday, May 26 until the end of September at the museum’s new location at Nootka Court (634 Humboldt St.)