Forever joined through friendship

Tara Bradbury
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Peter Walsh's 'White Fleet' airs tonight on CBC-TV

Filmmaker Peter Walsh discusses a scene with the captain of the Santa Maria Manuela, Antonio Sao Marcos, while shooting on location in Averio, Portugal.

Sometimes a news story just begs to be told in a certain way. When former Telegram reporter Peter Walsh completed a series of reports in 2008 and 2009 on the return of a restored Portuguese White Fleet vessel to St. John's, he knew it was the type of story that would spark memories.

Writing the pieces, Walsh could picture the arrival of the Santa Maria Manuela - left as a scrapped hull after 57 years of sailing between Portugal and Newfoundland, and brought back to life by the owner of a Portuguese fishing company - and all the nostalgia and historic importance it would bring to the people of this province.

It was a tale Walsh thought deserved elaboration on screen in something more than a news clip.

As an experienced documentary filmmaker with his own company, Nine Island Productions and Consulting, Walsh has spent the last few years working on "Return of the White Fleet," an hour-long film about the vessel, one of the last remaining members of the White Fleet.

Walsh, who was given exclusive permission to board the ship, wrote, directed, shot, edited and produced the film mostly by himself.

Walsh's original connection to the vessel was Jean-Pierre Andrieux, a St. John's-based historian and hotelier who's a longtime friend of Anibal Paiao, an owner of fishing company Pascoal e Filhos, who purchased the Santa Maria Manuela.

As Walsh discovered when writing for The Telegram, the vessel was built in 1937 and sailed as part of the White Fleet, bringing Portuguese fishermen ashore in St. John's until 1974. It remained a part of the fleet until it was partially scrapped in 1994.

In 1986, Portugal agreed to a European Union demand to reduce the number of vessels in its fishing fleet, but lobbying by historians saved the Santa Maria Manuela - the EU agreed to make an exception for it.

Pascoal e Folhos bought the four-masted schooner in 2004 and began to restore it in Portugal.

Paiao's father, grandfather and uncle were all captains in the White Fleet, so the historic significance of the project to this province isn't lost on him, Walsh explained.

Walsh remained in contact with Paiao after writing his stories, and convinced him and the other ship owners to let him come to Portugal and board it for a film.

"(Paiao) has a huge emotional connection to the White Fleet," Walsh said. "On one hand, they are a fish company and they realized it would be good marketing for them, but they want to tell the story, and they had to trust that I wouldn't mess it up. They were very co-operative since Day 1."

There are likely very few people in St. John's older than age 35 who don't have any memories or knowledge of the White Fleet, Walsh said. From 1504 until 1974, Portuguese fishermen were brought to St. John's on the vessels, known for their white hulls, every year, becoming a fixture in the downtown area.

For his documentary, Walsh interviewed people on both sides of the Atlantic about their memories and connections to the fleet, from historians to fishermen, and at least one of the women who fell in love with them.

"I spoke to Linda and Carlos Oliveira in St. John's. Linda was 13 when she went walking on the waterfront one day and saw Carlos, and it was literally love at first sight," Walsh said.

"They wrote letters back and forth and when Carlos was 17, he came over and they got married and they've stayed together."

Antonio Simoes Re, a naval architect with the National Research Council Institute of Ocean Technology based in St. John's, is also featured in the film. His father was a member of the White Fleet, Walsh said, and his family moved to St. John's when he was a teenager.

"It's just one example of the legacy left by the White Fleet," Walsh said.

There are also five retired White Fleet captains, who shared their stories with Walsh and his camera over coffee in Portugal.

"They had such strong memories of St. John's, even though they hadn't been here for 30 or 40 years. They knew the streets, and you could see the passion in their eyes," Walsh said.

"Even though they were speaking through a translator or with a thick Portuguese accent, you could tell that they really understand the culture; they seemed almost like Newfoundlanders. If it weren't for the sunshine and the language, you'd almost think (Portugal) was the same place."

Walsh was aboard the newly-refurbished Santa Maria Manuela when Paiao and his company sailed it through the Narrows on May 19, 2011. A dockside ceremony took place upon its arrival, with the unveiling of a plaque commemorating the White Fleet's visits to Newfoundland.

Local dignitaries and the Portuguese ambassador to Canada, Pedro Moitinho de Almeida, were also there.

Paiao's company also owns a second White Fleet vessel: the Argus, which Paiao bought from a bankrupt tour company and had towed from Aruba to Portugal. Local media and about 100 locals gathered to watch the schooner arrive.

There are two more White Fleet vessels still remaining: the Creoula, owned by the Portuguese Navy, and the Gazela, owned by a museum in Baltimore.

Paiao is restoring the Argus, and plans to use it much like the Santa Maria Manuela: as an adventure tourism vessel.

Narrated by Allan Hawco of "Republic of Doyle," "Return of the White Fleet" will air on CBC-TV tonight at 8:30 p.m. in Newfoundland, 8 p.m. in Labrador, as part of CBC's Summer Series. Walsh has also been in discussions to have the film shown in Portugal.

"It's a beautiful story of a boat, but it's really the story of a friendship between Canada and Portugal," Walsh explained.

"The beating heart of the documentary is the friendship. I think it's an important story and a good story, and a story worth telling." Twitter: @tara_bradbury


Organizations: CBC, European Union, National Research Council Institute Portuguese Navy

Geographic location: St. John's, Portugal, Newfoundland Canada Aruba Baltimore

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Recent comments

  • Kevin Power
    July 22, 2012 - 17:50

    Great story and I do remember the White Fleet from my early years in St. John's. Definitely, many years ago now.