When we met up with Sylvain Angers on the quay of Montreal’s Old Port, the weather was perfect for an outing on the water. Luckily for us, le Petit Navire “roams the waves” all summer up until October, as weather permits. “Of course, we have felt the full impact of the pandemic and are missing out on our foreign tourists. We are operating on a smaller scale, but we’re still operating, because we’re the only ones open in our sector,” explains this small businessman who likes to dabble in electric-powered watercrafts. Always ready to help visitors discover the river, and ever full of numbers, dates, kilowatts, and anecdotes, Sylvain Angers is a businessman, an inventor, a captain, and essentially a walking, sailing history book. We had the opportunity to speak with him over the course of a cruise on the river.
“When we made the decision to reopen this year, honestly our profitability calculations held up more or less. But this is our 18th season, we’ve always been fighting against the current, and then something in my mind clicked: if the phenomenon was here to stay, then we might as well learn as much about it as we can. I told myself that 2020 would be a year of learning. Opening in these times would be an investment of some sort.” Sylvain Angers is pragmatic, curious, and wise, and this is not his first storm. Tourists may not be flocking to the Old Port en masse this year as in previous summers, but there is still plenty of activity, especially on weekends. “This year will mark 34 years that I’ve been working here. Before Petit Navire, I worked with AML. 2020 has brought a lot of changes and things we’ve never seen before, but I’m an optimist.”
“Of course, like any investment, you need to approach it intelligently. We have reviewed our hours of operation, we no longer offer in-cruise beverage services unless the boat has been reserved specifically for a group, and we have reduced our trip capacity in order to satisfy public safety needs,” he explains while operating the boat taking us down the Saint Lawrence. “Luckily, we have a rather simple operation protocol. We’re taking advantage of that to increase numbers and information on our local clientele, so that we can analyze the data over the winter, and make preparations for next year on a more solid foundation.” For Sylvain, the trend of more local and more restricted tourism will ring in a new age of doing things differently; a trend that he’s already cottoned on to. “We’ll have to turn more toward a business model where we manage fewer people, but we do it better. Quality will rise, we just have to remain vigilant toward the profitability of our activities,” he clarifies.
“Since the company’s inception, we have seen a continued global growth in our clientele. Of course, environmental ecology is increasingly on the public’s mind, and that’s good for us. But I try to keep myself out of those commercial arguments,” he explains as he revisits the humble beginnings of his business and the nearly 20 years of surprises at every turn. “I had just turned 40 years old, and my child was 3. I was searching, full of questions, and fully captured by the idea of “simple is beautiful”. I began my vocational retraining, looking for something that actually suited me. I’ve always loved the water, but I also enjoyed silence and calm. I couldn’t continue dealing with the noise and smell of diesel. Le Petit Navire was born from the idea of using electricity, not only for the benefit of the planet, but for its inhabitants and us as well, since it provides a very high quality work environment.”
When we asked him about his pretty ships that were gently gliding on the Saint-Lawrence, a prideful look swept over Sylvain’s face. “When I started about 17-18 years ago, there was no such thing as prefabricated parts! I ordered parts from all over the world to develop a propulsion system. I had to get things right, and now this same technology is being used today! In the end, I had to go back to the origin – on the Thames, you could find electric boats even before diesel became the go-to fuel. Just like that, the more things change, the more they stay the same!” the builder chuckled. “Everything is recycled! The shell comes from a salvage boat made in Japan in 1976! I think that if I had been in Britain, I would have been able to take more advantage of newer stuff with the nearby naval docks, but here, we don’t have any of that and so I just had to adapt!” Nothing seems to stop this scientific dreamer. As contradictory as it may sound, he looks at peace.
“What matters most to me, is that people leave with something they didn’t know before. Architecture, history, marine knowledge, environmental stuff, country facts, anything. As long as they’ve retained some new detail, I’ll be happy.” The small boat continues its smooth journey across the water, and as it traced its habitual path that is shown to all visitors, Sylvain tried showing us the “collaboration” between the river and the boat. “There, where the Lachine rapids end, you’ll see that we won’t be able to go back up due to the current. The Port is a sheltered area, and you can see why it was built here. And here the boat is getting carried forward by the current, which will carry us for around a fifth of our journey. You can’t fight the elements. If you want to survive, it’s much better to work with them.” It’s this same interest in knowledge that led him to obtain his Carboneutre certification. “As a citizen, I think that there are things that we do a poor job of monitoring, like our energy usage and spending. I would like it if we could all be more mindful of it. This certification requires that everything be measured, from our employee’s commute between work and home, to our on-site management. We put the website “zeropollution.ca” on the hulls of our boats, because I would love for the site to be made known and for it to eventually open up a conversation.”
“Where did this interest start? At just 10 years old, I loved to sail, and I would also read stories about travel. It became a passion! At 17, I left Quebec for Newfoundland as a cadet, and I loved it! At 20, I went to school for port management in Le Havre, France. After that, I spent my days on an expedition on the Sea Shepherd. I remember leaving from Halifax in Nova Scotia and travelling to the Faroe Islands and Iceland. Eighteen days at sea – with no hot water – at a pace of three knots... it was like we were clinging to the raft of Medusa more than anything! In the end, I worked with them for four months, and then I went to AML.”
Behind the helm, Sylvain has found his place. “Many students who enroll in a nautical school already have family in the business, and that can make them feel really pressured. But what is truly required for this trade is passion. You can’t do things in half-measures. Aboard a boat, you are responsible for more than just yourself, because if a problem arises, that problem becomes your problem!” Sylvain emphasizes. “The water becomes your workplace, and you need to work with the elements; I think it instills in you a certain kind of respect. In that same way, when you work with electrical energy, you learn to manage your usage.”
“I came to the Old Port on the Marie-Clarisse in 1983. It was really different at that time, there were silos, sand-toting barges everywhere, and people playing music, while others drank beer and listened. Then, on Montreal’s 350th anniversary, we saw a city that wanted to change. Developments and green spaces started popping up, and the Old Port became a much nicer place to live in.” he mentioned, acknowledging that he could not have opened his touristic business without this renaissance. “For the longest time, the Old Port has been a rather austere environment, almost industrial. There was just a large 7 meter high block here to protect the city and the silos. The poplars on the Clocktower Beach are there as something of an homage to that block.” He put on a knowing smirk and said, “As the story goes, they would change them every 10 years. So soon, I’ll be seeing the fourth generation!”
“In the Old Port, everyone has their niche. All the boat companies offer different experiences, so everyone can find their interest here,” asserts the business head. “A smaller boat like ours feels like it’s really close to the water, but some prefer it, because it doesn’t aggravate their seasickness.” Owing to the time his boats have sailed and thanks to their sizes, le Petit Navire’s expenses and logistics have certainly allowed it to quickly adapt to the summer’s uncertain context. “What’s more, our boats offer a warm, friendly environment and people have gotten more and more used to the restrictive measures, which has vastly helped. For everything else, we’ve just easily adjusted.
“Montrealers have a rather poorly developed relationship with their river that had been very “industrial” for a long time, as I’ve mentioned. That said, I think that activities like kayaking, canoeing, and surfboard yoga are just the thing to provide an easy entry point and return to the water for many Quebeckers staying here this summer. People have really taken to rediscovering Quebec’s bodies of water,” he informs us, well-familiar with the water around here, being a resident of the shores of Lake St-Louis and working on the St-Lawrence River. He remains optimistic, despite being very up-to-date on current issues. “Of course there are numerous challenges, like used water management and the cohabitation of different economic and leisure activities. But today, for example, the river is 25°C, there is plenty of room for everyone, and you have to admit that it’s really very beautiful!” From the boat, the view of the city displays an urban gradient of roofs sparkling and wavering in the distance, while on the other side of the cityscape, a glimmer of Dieppe Park’s greenery suggests a restful luxuriance. The city works its charm.
“In Old Montreal, I feel like a tourist every time I walk down there – everything changes so fast! Once a year, my wife and I rent a hotel room and we take the time to rediscover the historic neighbourhood.” He cuts off and intones, “Well, I always go to Aloha Espresso Bar for my coffee, but that’s my only ritual there!” Being the ever restless wanderer, after so much time spent in the neighbourhood, Sylvain Angers stays as far away from any routine as he can. “After two decades, I’m still learning something new! Each outing is a chance to learn! We don’t just repeat things off a register, we tell anecdotes according to the interests of the group on our boat and we swap tales that way. I have traveled a lot, I relate easily with people, and the friendly atmosphere of our boats is ideal for chatting.” And we have no trouble believing that. Time flies by and as he changes his heading back toward the port already, our river trip ends in an all-encompassing sense of peace. One last question for the captain: “The water? It’s my horizon!” he replies. “It brings me the peace and reflection that you need in life.”
© Photos Credit : Petit Navire