Theodore moves on

Photo: Christopher Drost

It’s been a long time since the real-life Theodore tugboat first sailed the waters of Halifax’s Big Harbour.

Theo was the product of CBC producer and polymath Andrew Cochrane’s imagination, the eponymous TV show inspired by an effort to explain to his son William the comings and goings of the ships in the Bedford Basin.

Theo and the other anthropomorphic denizens of the Big Harbour (models in a big bathtub in fact), went about their business while their adventures offered children lessons characterized as “teachy not preachy.” You can see the original models and sets today at the Maritime Museum of the Atlantic in Halifax.

Before Theodore Tugboat‘s TV finale in April 2001, Theodore Too, a life-size replica of the original model, had taken to the waters. Snyder’s Shipyard in Dayspring, N.S, launched Theodore Too on April 19, 2000.

For two decades Theo, barring occasional forays to promote Nova Scotia tourism, was a fixture on the Halifax waterfront. In the summer of 2016, Mayor Mike Savaged dubbed Theo the city’s official “Welcome Ambassador,” and later launch his re-election campaign aboard on the ship.

Theo‘s relationship with Halifax ended in March 2021 though, when tour company Ambassatours Gray Line sold him to Blair McKeil, founder of McKeil Marine headquartered in Burlington, Ont. 

“While fielding inquiries from all over the world, it was the offer from Blair McKeil that felt like the best fit for Theodore’s personality, experience and potential,” Ambassatours boss Dennis Campbell says in a press release.

Theo’s new owner has deep connections to the Maritimes, to Hamilton and to the maritime environment more broadly. Blair McKeil’s forebears hail from Cumberland County, but it was in a barn atop the Niagara Escarpment above Hamilton they built their first boat. The Micmac was launched in Hamilton Harbour in 1956, initially ferrying workers building the St. Lawrence Seaway, McKeil Marine was built on these humble, handmade beginnings.

Theodore visits Sarnia, Ont. Photo: Sarnia-Lambton Tourism

Like so many Maritimers before him, on June 10, Theodore Too departed for, not greener pastures, but fresher waters: Hamilton, the port at the western end of Lake Ontario. Throughout the month-long trip, despite COVID-19 restrictions, Theo attracted excited crowds and garnered rave reviews, including coverage south of the border on National Public Radio.

In Prescott, Ont. Capt. Gary Byers told CTV News: “The reception along here has just been phenomenal. Thousands of people have come to see him. Even in the rain.” On July 15, escorted by a large flotilla, Theo sailed into Hamilton Harbour.

This is no retirement. “He’ll continue to be an ambassador for the Maritimes and Nova Scotia throughout,” McKiel says. Plans are already in the works for a return tour of the Maritimes.

Theo will also promote a non-profit organization called Swim Drink Fish, a group that has “connected 6 million people to their local waters and has activated about $2 billion in restoration work since it was established in 2001,” according to its website. Reflecting this planet-friendly mission, Theo is converting to biodiesel imminently. Along with these duties Theo will also be promoting marine careers, a field that current research indicates requires skilled trades and qualified graduates.

As East Coasters tend to do, Theo has found the company of other expatriates in Ontario. Berthed nearby is HMCS Haida, a Tribal-class Second World War destroyer (known as the “fightingest ship in the Royal Canadian Navy”) that sailed from Halifax often. (Learn more about HMCS Haida in this recent Halifax Magazine article).

Theo has, most recently, made his first transit of the Welland Canal and visited Sarnia-Lambton at the western end of Lake Erie, venturing as far northwest as Grand Bend on Lake Huron.

New Captain Caitlin Simpson, with 30 years of maritime experience, tells the Sarnia Observer: “It’s a real interesting contrast between the serious business of shipping and the whimsicalness of being a children’s entertainment icon.”

As Theo starts the next chapter in his life story in a new freshwater home, he will inevitably call to mind the words of fellow Big Harbour tug Emily the Vigorous, who used to tell the TV show’s young fans: “It’s nice to be on the ocean but the best part is when you sail into new harbours and meet new ships for the first time.”

This story was originally published in Halifax Magazine.

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