A family history of saving lives
By Michelle Osmond
Randy Billard didn’t really make the connection but a lot of other people did including his father, Blanford Billard. He thinks it’s very ironic that his son is in the business of saving lives given that he is a descendant of the famous Ann Harvey, the young woman who saved a number of Irish immigrants in a shipping disaster over 150 years ago.
For Randy, who is a seventh-generation Harvey family descendant, starting a business that develops lifeboat training simulators was something that came naturally to him. He wasn’t thinking about his family history. Even when deciding on his masters project in Ocean and Naval Architectural Engineering, marine simulation just made sense. “Working on a project that’s going to save lives was the only decision for me. It’s a project that’s very easy to get motivated about.”
So in 2004, Randy, along with engineering professor Dr. Brian Veitch, started Virtual Marine Technologies, a platform technology provider specializing in marine-based simulation solutions. “Half of my work terms during my undergraduate degree revolved around safety. It’s pretty ironic. It’s pretty amazing, actually,” added Randy. The Lifeboat Training Simulator that VMT has developed brings simulation technology to clients who don’t want the risk or the cost of real boat training. It can make the environment pretty harsh. It can be dark, snowy, rainy, whatever real life conditions could throw at you while you’re operating a vessel.
Blanford says shipwreck disasters are part of life in Isle aux Morts where Randy grew up. “On our coasts, shipwrecks were something that happened all the time because all ships heading through the Gulf of St. Lawrence had to pass by our coast. Add a lot of fog to that and southeast winds and you’ve got a lot of ships running aground.”
The Ann Harvey story, which recently made its premiere as an opera at the Arts and Culture Centre, was also something Randy grew up with. “Randy spent a lot of time with his grandmother growing up. She took care of him while we worked and she lived next door to a man who was a close relative of George Harvey. So, he’s heard this story his whole life.”
The opera, Ann and Seamus, written by Stephen Hatfield and based on
a novel by Memorial alum Kevin Major, tells the story of Ann Harvey, the courageous
heroine who, with her family, saved the lives of over 168 Irish immigrants near
Isle aux Morts on the province’s west coast after their ship ran aground in
a storm in 1828. The premiere of the opera, which was attended by descendants
of those rescued, as well as direct descendants of Ann Harvey, was performed
by singers from Shallaway, Newfoundland and Labrador Youth in Chorus.