Mariner Stephen Gillis was an avowed and proud non-conformist
Sept. 28, 2020
Stephen Joseph Gillis: Brother. Mariner. Non-Conformist. Autodidact. Born March 14, 1954 in Boston, Mass.; died June 21, 2020, in Sydney, N.S., from cardiac arrest; aged 66.
Stephen was the second child of Isabel and James Joseph Gillis. Both born in Grand Mira, Cape Breton, Jimmy and Isabel moved to the “Boston States” after their marriage, and all six of their children were born there. Steve was an intensely intelligent and talkative child, and often asked his mother to take him to the window at bedtime so he could look at the moon. As a boy, he spent a lot of his time pedalling away from his siblings on his bike, or catching turtles in the Concord River, or baiting his littlest sister into all manner of misbehaving.
The family moved back to the old Mira farmhouse in Cape Breton in 1967 – no phone, no plumbing, no central heating and one single channel on the television set. An avid reader, Steve always pushed his younger siblings to read the books he had enjoyed. As children, they swam in the river, rambled the woods and tobogganed down the driveway. Their father repaired the planked hull of a large lapstrake rowboat and, with Steve at the helm, the siblings set off on countless summer excursions: three sets of long oars, the family dog sitting up on the prow, and (sometimes) even a homemade Viking-esque square sail.
Steve attended Dalhousie University for one year. On his first summer break, he crewed aboard a commercial vessel travelling up the coast of Labrador. He never went back to school and became a full-time professional mariner instead. He spent most of his adult life living in and working out of Vancouver, a city he loved and a place where he developed many lifelong friends. As a member of the Seafarers' International Union, Steve crewed and piloted commercial vessels to and from destinations such as Colombia, Venezuela and Singapore. On one occasion, he sailed a tugboat back from China to B.C. He lived in New Orleans for three months, working onboard barges on the Mississippi. In his later career, he was employed by commercial ferry services servicing the Pacific Northwest.
While in Vancouver, Steve restored a handcrafted wooden boat with the traditional lapstrake planking that he so loved. It was a cast-off from the fishing and forestry industries in B.C. that he rechristened Tiki and had many adventures in the Georgia Strait and Fraser River Delta. The eye-catching, petite, red-and-white vessel with its inboard motor and small house always stood out among the larger, more sophisticated craft crowded into the West Coast marinas.
Steve returned to live in Grand Mira in 2006. The Tiki followed him east on a flatbed truck and began plying the gentler waves of the Mira River. As a retiree, Steve lived a simple, fulfilling life: he ate good food, smoked good weed, told good stories and engaged in lively debates with good friends. He had a passion for hockey, current events and world history. The cancellation of the NHL season interrupted the hockey pool, about which he was so fervent, but he replaced it with personal studies, learning about the development of world language groups and the history of Second World War aircraft.
Steve lived life on his own terms, with a notable aversion to conformity, but with a true moral compass and a gentle heart. He will always be remembered as a great brother, a great uncle and a great friend. He would certainly be honoured to know that his hockey pool friends have renamed their trophy the Steve Gillis Memorial Cup.