Editor’s Note: This feature was originally published in the August 2009 issue of Halifax Magazine.
When Christine Murphy had to work late on a homework assignment, she’d find a quiet corner in her tall-ship home and try to ignore the glorious Caribbean sun and waves outside. “I didn’t really do it very much,” she admits with a smile. “It was great.”
While her Grade 7 classmates back in Nova Scotia struggled into snowsuits and trudged off to school in the deep winter, Murphy and her siblings Catherine, Richard and Peter hung out in aqua-green paradises like Tortola in the British Virgin Islands. After her parents pulled her out of school and started her studying via correspondence, she began a real-life education about the world and tourism in particular.
We’re sitting in Murphy’s Cable Wharf restaurant on a busy weekday morning. The restaurant doesn’t officially open for another 30 minutes, but a few hungry tourists have already slipped inside. As Christine talks about the dreamlike early years, her eyes dart about the restaurant. She frequently breaks off to answer questions from some of her more than 200 seasonal employees. Today’s a two-cruise-ship day, which means the waterfront dining room, at the end of Cable Wharf on Lower Water Street, will soon be packed.
It started in 1984, when her parents, Gerard and Dorothy Murphy, bought a 23-metre ketch called the Mar. The tall ship was built in Denmark by the author Ernest K. Gann and had last found work with Pusser’s Rum company. It’s twice been around the world. Gerard bought it but discovered keeping a ship is an expensive hobby. He realized the Mar would have to pull its own weight, so he started offering chartered winter runs in the Caribbean. In the summer, he brought the ship—and his family—back to Halifax to take tourists on day trips.
“My family were my friends,” Christine says. When she and her siblings fought, they had few options but to make up. Life on a ship tightened family bonds, as squabbling siblings were literally all in the same boat and had to work it out, or voluntarily walk the plank.
The business grew with the kids. The Murphys added the vessels Harbour Queen and Haligonian, and then the Cable Wharf to open the now famous restaurant, giving the family a permanent business base on the waterfront. Murphy’s currently owns 11 charter boats, including the iconic Harbour Hoppers and the Theodore Too tugboat. About 10 years ago, Christine and her brothers bought the business from their parents. Jeff Farwell, the first non-family co-owner, recently bought in as well.
As we talk, Gerard wanders past, settling into a chair beside his daughter. He’s retired, but stops by regularly “for lunch.” When asked what possessed him to buy a ship and pull his kids out of school, his answer is deadpan: “Drugs.”
After lingering for a moment with a serious face, he breaks into a small smile. “It was wonderful,” he says of raising his family on the high seas. “They learned to get along with people very well. Education wasn’t the number one thing you know, there was the social part of it. They’re well-rounded kids and I’m very proud of them.”
He just wanted to sail and running a business between Halifax and the Caribbean let him do that. He sold his textile business to fund the adventure. “I didn’t know anything about it but it worked,” he says with satisfaction. He denies he’s retired, though: “Oh no, no, no,” he tuts. “He’s supposed to be,” Christine interjects, ribbing her father.
Peter stops by, curious to see what’s happening. “This is the real captain,” Gerard says by way of introduction. Peter says hello before handing over to his sister. “Christine’s got all the details,” he jokes. Father and son slide to the far end of the table and fall into business talk. Christine returns to her childhood.
The exotic lifestyle made it hard to maintain friendships back in Halifax. When her peers were emerging from a long, dark year of school, desperate for a glimpse of summer sun before heading back to the dank halls of academia, Christine would arrive at port tanned, relaxed and eager for a summer of sailing. That gave her a life-long empathy with visitors to the region, as she felt part local, part foreign.
She insists it wasn’t fated that she and two of her brothers would take over the family business. “It just evolved,” she says. Christine earned a tourism and hospitality degree at Mount Saint Vincent University as her parents continued to
grow the business. “About 10 years ago, my brothers and I bought it from my parents. I always liked the business. I always knew I wanted to be in this industry,” she says.
By 11 a.m., the restaurant is filling up. The family recently invested $1.6 million into Murphy’s, upgrading the entire Cable Wharf and plan to keep the restaurant open year-round. “We’ve been here for a number of years and have always wanted to do a renovation like this, but we never had a long-term lease. We recently got that and decided to do the renovations,” Christine says.
Exotic winters remain in the family blood. Her parents winter down south and a few years ago, the Mar needed some work done, which meant the woodwork required a dry climate. Peter sailed it to Cuba and wintered there, upgrading the boat.
Last summer, the family sailed Theodore Too to Mahone Bay for a weekend away. They had a great time, Christine says, as Theodore’s belly has plenty of room, but the boat drew curious visitors. “We had to cover the windows because people were staring in,” she laughs.
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Beyond the family, the business Gerard Murphy founded made a huge contribution to Halifax, says Paul MacKinnon, executive director of the Downtown Halifax Business Commission. That became clear to him last year, when the Murphys recruited him to support their bid to redevelop Cable Wharf.
“It’s one of those situations where you don’t realize what you have till potentially you’re going to lose it,” he says. “You thought, ‘Holy cow, we may lose Murphy’s if this goes to someone else,’ so we were very happy to support them.”
He believes that, in many ways, Murphy’s embodies the waterfront. “If you think about the kinds of things you do if you’re a resident of Halifax when someone’s coming in from out of town, whether it’s family or friends, you go to the waterfront,” he says. “You go out on the Harbour Hopper, you take a harbour cruise, you eat at Murphy’s. It’s become such a big part of what the waterfront is.”
The waterfront is central to Halifax’s tourist appeal, and what’s good for it is
good for the city as a whole. “The waterfront is crucial [to tourism] and Murphy’s is crucial to the success of the waterfront,” he adds. “If you were to single out who’s the family that’s had the biggest impact
on the waterfront in the last 20 years, it’s easily the Murphys.”
Darleen Grant Fiander, president of the Tourism Industry Association of Nova Scotia, agrees. The family’s brand of “experiential” tourism has been a boost for the waterfront, she says. “They’ve been great ambassadors for the province, and great business people. They’ve always been looking to reinvest and build up the product,” she explains. “It’s a great success story when the family’s involved in that tremendous ownership and pride about Nova Scotia.”
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Although their sister Catherine doesn’t work in the busines anymore, Peter and Richard work hand in hand with Christine. After decades of working and vacationing together, the family remain good friends. “We want to hang out with each other still,” Christine reflects. “I don’t think we’re like most families that way. We really enjoy each other’s company.”
Would she take her own two young children off to the Caribbean? “I’d love to do something like that. I don’t know if I’d be as brave as my parents,” she replies.
“Or as crazy,” Gerard adds as Christine grins.