Tall Ships Return - Grander Than Ever

By Judy Stafford

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Tall Ships Return - Grander Than Ever

Excitement is building as the Tall Ships' visit to Victoria this month sails ever closer. It can be seen clearly in the crinkles of Bill Conconi's eyes as he tells how a massive enterprise, which includes organizing over 1,000 volunteers, will come together.

"I've been involved since before the first Tall Ships' event happened here in 2005. I was on the board of directors who started the process and, last time around, I was responsible for boat tours, programs and berthing the boats - that's berthing with an E," he explains with a laugh.

The Tall Ships' Festival is divided into two major components - land and water. Bill looks after water, along with co-chair, Steve White, who is retired from the navy. The two men are tied into the communications and operations centre. They look after the vessels, their crews, and the events built around vessels, like the tours. A committee looks after guided tours, and Bill and Steve help facilitate the line-ups of people. An estimated 30-40,000 ship visits will need to be co-ordinated.

With something for the whole family, the Maritime Museum of B.C.'s Pirate School staff will teach children, ages four to 10: nautical tattoos, scrimshaw carving, pirate swordplay and the art of treasure map-making. There will be regular live pirate performances demonstrating the life of a pirate - right up to the infamous eye patch.

Also, for students in Grades 6, 7 and 8, there's the Tall Ship's University with "professors" from a Canadian naval vessel currently in refit. Children will be given a passport to be stamped as they board the ships, complete certain tasks, and learn skills, such as tying knots. And at the end, they receive a diploma.

"Part of the training of the Tall Ships is about teaching leadership," says Bill, "giving kids challenges and skills. Scouts, Cadets, youth groups and even children at risk are put into leadership roles. The ships are traditionally rigged vessels, designed like back in the 1800s - very hands on; there are no buttons to push. Kids work hard, and gain the confidence to go up a mast and get over their fear of heights."

A resident of Victoria most of his life, Bill may be retired from a 30-year teaching career at the senior secondary level, but he remains heavily involved with youth leadership. His passion for teaching has continued as he explains one of his other "jobs."

"I'm also the Executive Director for the Canadian Association of Student Activity Advisors. We have member schools across Canada and we offer programs that have leadership opportunities tied to Tall Ships. Every year, I bring 15 leaders here; they stay with my wife and me before they go out to sea for a week on a Tall Ship. We've done it for four or five years now. There's no TV on board, they have to work together, stay in close quarters and they might even have to stay up all night to make sure they don't drift. They have to meet a lot of challenges and it increases their confidence. We get to see them at the end of the week after they've had their experience, and they're changed kids. It's amazing."

It seems Bill is in great demand and not just by the kids. He says he can't get along without his Blackberry, which he checks several times and chuckles, "I just cleared it of messages yesterday, and I have 70 messages again today."

But he does manage to sneak off occasionally for a few days on his powerboat to get away from the crowds and cellphones. Trading in his sailboat of 30 years, he admits that paying for gas isn't so bad. The cost of replacing one sail is enough to let him cruise for three or four years. And after the Tall Ships festival is put to bed, he'll take a month or two off in the summer and cruise up the coast.

But vacations are secondary to staying busy, which is in keeping with Bill's style. He's been very involved with the Royal Victoria Yacht Club, as a past commodore and now an honorary life member.

"I enjoy it. If I wasn't enjoying it, I wouldn't do it. I consider it a personal challenge - I believe in the whole concept of being a lifelong learner," he says. "Through volunteering, I'm more learned and aware of working in a community, working with business people, and the organization component of a large event. It keeps me alert and on top of things and I get to meet new people. I was very involved as a teacher for years - now I just transferred that involvement. I was busy then; I am busy now."

Thinking for a minute, he laughs, "But then I had weekends off that I don't have anymore!"

It doesn't take long to realize why he forgoes his weekends. "I work with some great people and I learn something from them all. I watch people volunteer and they just come to life. It's an incredible opportunity and I get a sense of well-being when I see opportunities open up for people to keep connected. Giving back to your community is important; there is more to making a society run than just taking wages and doing your job."

In his spare time, Bill chairs the Swiftsure International Yacht Race, a racing event that hosted over 200 boats during the last week of May. Establishing a connection with harbour people and the city made for an easy transition to throwing his hat into the Tall Ship's entourage.

"It's a lot easier this time around; we are a lot clearer about what we have to do. The first time, it was a discovery for all of us - we probably over-organized. Now we have done it once, we are more focused."

Organization of the event is first-class - they've covered everything from music to food. The Festival Entertainment Stage will host live concerts and festival goers will enjoy some historically inspired "Bites" from the 1830s until today, including early Jewish and Chinese food eaten in the city, Gold Rush fare and Afternoon Tea.

An indescribable magic surrounds the Tall Ships; they bring with them a feeling of nostalgia as the towering clouds of the sails appear over the horizon. The history and the mystery make many, young and old, dream of life on the open seas. And if you see Bill out there, give him a wave.

For more information on Tall Ships Victoria, June 26th-28th, or to volunteer, call 250-384-2005 or visit their website www.tallshipsvictoria.ca

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