“In fourteen hundred and ninety-two, Columbus sailed the ocean blue,” goes the old poem. The mortal Columbus sails no more, of course, but a dandy replica of his flagship, the Santa Maria, can regularly be seen on the streets of British Columbia as a featured float in community parades — thanks to the dedicated work of the Knights of Columbus.
Credit for the availability and maintenance of the float goes to members of Port Coquitlam Council 9125 and Assembly 2701, who have maintained the float for the past three decades.
In the 1980s a hotel in nearby New Westminster had a small boat they used as a parade float. When a member of Council 9125 noticed the float was no longer being used and was in storage behind the hotel, he convinced the council to purchase the float and restore it in the image of the Santa Maria. The purchase was made, and a restoration process took place over the next two to three years.
Tony Vernerey, a former financial secretary and past grand knight of Council 9125, also happened to be a talented carpenter. He undertook the restoration himself — which actually turned into a total rebuild — presumably using an artistic rendering of the Santa Maria as a guide.
“Whatever he used, the final outcome spoke for itself,” said Robert Jones of the Port Coquitlam council and assembly. “The level of interest from other councils and assemblies for the use of the Santa Maria in community parades began to grow immediately after the restoration was completed.”
The Santa Maria appears in up to six events per year, mainly in the Greater Vancouver Region. It also was displayed at the British Columbia/Yukon State Convention a few years ago and appeared at a central British Columbia snow festival last winter.
Columbus Day is not a national holiday in Canada, but the Santa Maria is in high demand for Canada Day, celebrated annually on July 1, and for community parades in the area held between May and July, Jones said.
Although the float is not rented out as a fund-raiser, the council does charge a fee to help cover maintenance and insurance expenses.
“Parade watchers really appreciate the level of effort that has obviously gone into the float, and they also appreciate the sharp-looking Knights in regalia who usually walk alongside the Santa Maria,” Jones said.
The Santa Maria won awards in the 2017 and 2018 May Day Parades in Port Coquitlam, and was awarded the Best Overall trophy in the Hats Off Day Parade in North Burnaby in June 2018, where it was entered by Holy Cross Council 5423).
“We had two Knights holding up our council banner between Papal and Canadian flags; then two more Knights, one informal and one semi-formal,” recalled Graham Darling, brother advocate and past grand knight of Council 5423. Then followed colour guards at the corners of the truck and behind it, the grand knight riding in the truck, and brother Knights with their wives and children walking alongside.
Jones said maintaining and storing the float off-season present special challenges.
“Since the original restoration was completed, it has been necessary to carry out ongoing maintenance on the Santa Maria, including servicing the axles and wheel bearings, touching up the wood finish in places and changing the riggings from time to time,” he explained. These days, Assembly 2701 maintains and manages the float with the help of members from other area councils. A member of the assembly presently provides indoor winter storage at his residence outside the city.
It’s a project that achieves its purpose: showcasing the Knights of Columbus, and fostering pride in the Italian Catholic explorer who discovered America and gave the Order its name.
“The success of the Santa Maria provides a shining example of how the Knights can work together to realize a vision,” said Jones.
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