The first time you see Obsidian anchored just offshore in Kootenay Lake, it looks like an optical illusion. A comically small pirate schooner painted a dusty black and highlighted with gold ornamentation, it has two looming masts and a spray-painted skeleton figurehead that also happens to have a voluptuous female bust.
Step aboard and you’ll see an authentic-looking treasure chest, a gloomy captain’s quarters full of nautical tools and crates overloaded with marauder’s booty. The boat looks like it belongs on the set of Pirates of the Caribbean, not anchored near Walmart in the gently lapping summer waters of Nelson. But captain and owner Gary Ramsbottom wouldn’t have it any other way.
“Nelson is the only place I’ve ever really felt like I’m home and I don’t need to go anywhere else,” said the modern day privateer, a signature cigar dangling from his lips and a braided ponytail resting against his chest. “I’m happy here and doing stuff like this just makes me happier.”
The local filmmaker originally envisioned using Obsidian as the main character in a children’s adventure television series, but after years of pitching and development, the project has yet to come to fruition. In the meantime its become a beloved landmark across the Kootenays.
“People come here from all around just to see the pirate ship. And not just Nelson people. I had a couple from Quebec who spent two or three days trying to find me because they wanted to spend the night on the pirate ship. I said that’d be fine, but I haven’t finished the inside so I don’t know where you would sleep,” he said.
“I love how much people love it. It sank to the bottom of the lake a couple winters back and the whole town went mental,” said Ramsbottom. “They thought it was a goner. I was like ‘no big deal, I’ll just pull it up and dry it out’. Got a barge, a big crane and we pulled it back up.”
He said the operation wouldn’t have been possible without financial contributions from boat owners in the nearby marina. The community has contributed and assisted him with the vessel in a number of ways over the years, and he’s grateful for their support of his wacky hobby.
“Nelson is full of pirates and rebels and all kinds of people who go against the status quo, so the pirate theme is perfect,” said Ramsbottom’s son Lucas, who helps his father decorate and maintain the near-derelict vessel. “It’s nice to have that conversation starter, people get to town and they’re always like ‘cool, let’s go see the pirate ship’.”
On Sunday evening the pair invited the Star to accompany them as they raised Obsidian’s main sails. For the past few months the masts have been resting prone against the deck, making the vessel look half-scuttled and sad. Ramsbottom removed the upper portions to repair them.
“I had to rebuild the top sections because they got just thrashed in the wind over winter,” he said.
Renovations are ongoing on the popular landmark. The ship has become a perpetual make-work project, but that’s not something Ramsbottom is complaining about.
“I hate to say it, but I don’t think I’ll ever get it finished. I’m an artist, right? And the fun thing for me is doing all these ornamentations. This is just a crappy piece of wood, but if I put it on a pirate ship it looks great,” he said.
Ramsbottom said he takes pride in owning such a recognizable community asset.
“Kids love it because it’s pirate-y. Adults like it because it’s sort of like something from their childhood, and it brings the child out of them. And then there’s other people who are just pirates,” he said.
Ramsbottom includes himself in those ranks, though he was quick to specify that he doesn’t truck with murderers or criminals.
“I came to the conclusion, after much thought and many years, that I am a pirate. But I’m a nice pirate. I mean, one day I got a beer off a guy with a fake gun at a party, but that’s about the extent of my pillaging. Well, other than thrift stores and yard sales,” he said.
Ramsbottom originally obtained Obsidian after seeing it on the side of the road.
“The pirate ship was originally from an old wooden single-masted sail boat, I think from the 1920s, and it’s got a beautiful hull that’s shaped like a whale. I was driving down the highway going to Starbelly Jam and there’s this boat, upside down, for sale. About a week later I woke up, straight out of bed, and went ‘pirate ship’. It was all downhill from there,” he said.
Ramsbottom is currently looking to obtain two trolling motors that will allow him to manoeuvre the ship more effectively.
“Whoever helps me get those gets to go for a ride in the pirate ship,” said Ramsbottom.
He said he appreciates how much residents love the ship but at times that enthusiasm manifests in peculiar ways.
“Little while back I was down in the parking lot there and this whole rugby team, all these guys, were diving into the lake naked and swimming out there, right? I could see ‘em jumping on and off, like some sort of initiation or whatever. They broke some stuff and I waited for them, but I couldn’t be too mad. I mean, I get it,” he said.
The damage caused by tourists is evened out by all the donations and contributions he receives from friends and strangers alike, he said. It took him and Lucas approximately half an hour to raise the two sails on Sunday evening, and then Ramsbottom retired to a friend’s speedboat, which was idling nearby.
“Look at her,” he said, admiringly. He pointed out the flags, which have “Obsidian” hand-scrawled with Wite-Out pen. “Isn’t she a beauty? That’s what makes this all worth it is seeing her floating there proud. Makes me happy.”
For more information about Obsidian, or to donate to its ongoing repair efforts, email garyramsbottom(at)yahoo.ca