All Hands on Deck Magdalen islands' boats of play

Magdalen Island Treasures

Playscapes featuring all variety of boats and ships are recurring sights in many coastal communities. Nowhere are these play vessels more anchored in the landscape than the windswept Magdalen Islands in Canada's Gulf of St. Lawrence. Fishing is important business in this small archipelago of dunes, dips, harbours and hills.


On this day, a life-size prop is a powerful magnet for make believe. With its bow pointing straight to a fishing harbour and its stern face on to a fish plant, it is truly of the place.

“Lobster,” cries out Noah enthusiastically. “I’ve got another one,” Nellie shouts into a gust of wind. They are a crew of two, 50 metres from the shoreline, scrabbling across the grass and scooping up lobsters in their tiny hands. Dressed for the occasion, they are well bundled in rain slicks to protect them from buffeting northwesters.

This Cape Islander is steady as she goes in the very shallow shallows of L'Étang-du-Nord on Cap-aux-Meules. Colourful and rustic with plenty of room for adventure topside and below decks, it's a must visit when we spend time in les Îles.

This is a boatbuilder's boat infused with pride and craftmanship. Design elements, attention to detail and the surrounding environment enhance realism. The Acadian colours speak to the cultural present while linking to a centuries long maritime tradition.

The kids run stem to stern. It’s a perpetual movement show with dollops of laughter and snatches of conversation sailing on the wind. Stomping through the wheelhouse and leaning over the bow they look out on their ocean of pretend.

Early morning is a good time to sneak away and take photos of this place where the kids have so much fun. You can see a rough 360° take below. Lots of space for imaginative play....

On board there is lots to do and explore - navigating, battening down the hatches, dumping and hauling traps and of course generous measures of tomfoolery...

Grosse Île's Grande Échouerie

Here sand is the seabed for a boat whose wind, sun and spray weathered planks make her look older than she is.

An off ramp from the boardwalk leads to this DIY build. Aground in the sandy grass, the sight line from the fishing boat to the sea is blocked by gently rolling dunes.

Local design and workmanship incorporate some non-traditional fittings to this small crew vessel - a slide, monkey bars, bumper tires and a climbing board.

Deceiving in its simplicity, the dune boat offers great play value with the added bonus of a plentiful all-time kid favourite - sand.

The Fianço

The Fianço is the outlier of the marvelous Magdalen Island boats we've played on. Open to all who walk up a short gangway, this seemingly derelict ship is not designed as a playspace.

The ship with a scuffed yellow and black colour scheme is a throwback to the era of of Portuguese caravels. A broken bowsprit and boarded up stern windows are signs of neglect and disrepair. It is a prop of some kind never meant to be seaworthy.

I cannot even give an exact location for this vessel at rest in the grass overlooking a small inlet. Its purpose is a mystery that we mainlanders have not been able to crack.

Nevertheless, at the helm, each of us has a chance to scan the horizon for adventure on the high seas.

Havre Aubert

Our last stop in the Magdalen Islands is in Havre-Aubert to play on another homegrown play boat design and build. Near the southern terminus of Route 199, beyond the tip of Martinique Beach's luscious crescent, the landlocked boat is nestled next to a sheltered harbour.

There are so many possibilities to try new things here. Some of the play elements are not commonly seen elsewhere offering at once fun, challenge and risk. Kids assess their own comfort level and figure out how far they can push. If in doubt, an adult can always provide some perspective if asked.

There is no shortage of exhilarating moments to climb, drop and balance. It's up and down the rigging and then the big drop from two decks up, ringing the ship's bell above the wheel house before the quick slide down the pole to the sand below.

For those who dare, perhaps the pièce de résistance is a tethered swinging buoy that requires a steely grip after launch

while zipping through the air in short bursts, hanging on and avoiding obstacles.

The people and communities of Magdalen Islands have excelled in creating engaging play environments that celebrate maritime culture. In these magically rooted spaces kids get a chance to let their imaginations loose while crewing boats that help them explore their physical, social and cognitive abilities.

Full steam ahead for play....


  1. Photos taken over a number of family trips between 2009 and 2013.
  2. Flicker galleries of play boats from around the world here and here.