As most people know, I was in the Royal Canadian Navy for a bunch of years. It was the fulfillment of a dream I’d had since early childhood.
I had always been fascinated by anything to do with the sea and loved sailing vessels especially and everything about the Navy and its ships intrigued me. I joined the Navy when I became 17. But that’s just part of the story and one I’ll leave till another time.
Prior to joining the Navy I was no stranger to the ocean. When I was 15, I often hung around Fisherman’s Wharf down on False Creek in Vancouver, but then one day I met an old master of the seas named Jack Harwood with the moniker Whiskey Jack. Jack at the time was 76 years old. During Prohibition, he had been a rum runner in a vessel with a secret weapon that she used to outrun the American Coast Guard. She had a pair of gas engines that could outrun anything on the ocean, he told me. They would move liquor from Canada and Mexico to US shores all along the Oregon and California coastline. He told me they kept a person in the crowsnest on sharp lookout for fast American Coast Guard cutters. And when they spotted one they skedaddled and headed to sea as fast as they could go, which wasn’t always faster than the USCG vessels would do. His exploits along the coast not only took my imagination on a wild ride, but so much so that my father, who was at the time of our meeting, the president of the Vancouver Art, Historical and Scientific Society, had the archivist, Major J. S. Matthews interview old Jack for a few days to get some insight into the history of our coastline and the shenanigans those amazing outlaws were up to during the prohibition era. Here is a link to a great website about rum running on a vessel called the Chief Skugaid… http://www.chiefskugaid.org/1923-33-rum-running.html
In early 1950, Jack became a tugboat captain of the deep sea tug Mogul. She was a large, 165′ steam tug capable of rescuing just about anything plying the seas off the west coast. She had been originally built in New York in 1943 as the Naval tug USS ATR- 65 and after WW II was decommissioned and entered commercial service on the west coast in 1950 as the Mogul. She was converted to four, 10 cylinder, Fairbanks Morse diesels. She was sunk in 2008 and was a total loss.
When I got to know Jack, he was the owner of a small, 30′ gill-netter, the name of which I don’t remember. His little boat had a two cylinder Eastope engine that had been built in Vancouver in the early part of the 20th century. This amazing engine had a huge flywheel and petcocks to suck the ether, which was used as a primer, into the cylinders when you wanted to get it started. You would prime the engine by squirting ether through the two brass petcocks , turn on the ignition with a blade switch, then back the cylinder up to get compression and swing the flywheel to get it going. The Easthope was sometimes difficult to get started, but once running it would take an army to stop it. It was about 6 HP I believe.
Here’s a YouTube video to see what it looked like on a small fish boat and to see an Easthope in action. The boat in this video looks almost exactly like the one we were on. She could only go about 6-7 knots so it was slow going through some of the more rapidly running waters of the west coast, but it made it an exciting ride, especially through Active Pass, where only a few years before they had blown Ripple Rock out of the water to aid navigation. The swirling eddies would pull and push us around and were simply terrifying, especially on a deep keeled fish boat like ours.
In the early summer of 1960, when I was 15 years old, Jack invited me to go along with him to the fishing grounds off of Prince Rupert. My parents reluctantly gave permission for me to go and we headed to sea and on up the inside passage between Vancouver Island, the other islands and the mainland. This is the most beautiful piece of coastline in the world, many have said, and because I’ve sailed along many coastlines in my lifetime, I would have to agree.
The distinctive putt, putt, putt of the Eastope echoed off the shoreline and we steadily made our way through the islands of Johnson Strait, passing by Campbell River, Active Pass, Alert Bay, Port Hardy and out into the open ocean of Queen Charlotte Sound.
It was smooth sailing and we wanted for nothing until we hit the Sound and the weather kicked up a bit and it became extremely rough in the open ocean. We pressed on realizing that we needed to get into more sheltered waters to ride out the storm. Just after entering the sound, our little Easthope quit after shipping some water into the cabin and we were stuck in the middle of one of the most treacherous places on earth with no power or steerage. Jack and I worked feverishly to clean the engine of salt water and finally got it started after many hours of work. It was terrifying being at the mercy of the wide open ocean, but because of the expertise of this unique man of the sea, we were in good hands. He was an amazing person and confident in everything he did.
The simplicity of the old Easthope engine was that it could be worked on with very simple tools and was easy to get going again after our fix. We primed it and on the first try she started up again. I probably didn’t realize the seriousness of our predicament at the time and Jack being the person he was, never let on that we were in trouble if we hadn’t been able to get underway again. The seas were rough and the wind was picking up and we dashed as fast as we could with a following sea caused by tremendous tidal flow for shelter amongst the islands. Finally we made it to the safety of the inside passage and on our way to New Bella Bella.
That night we anchored at the south end of the passage in a small bay, which I don’t remember the name of. Finally we could get some rest and then navigate the channel in the early morning.
I remember Jack giving me a beer to drink that night, even though I was only a lad of 15. I remember him telling me that I deserved it because I had worked so hard to help save the boat and showed no fear. I was so proud to have this great man congratulate me and acknowledge what I’d done. I remember we ate steak and chips that night and listened to the weather report on the radio that I had built for him and installed on the boat before we’d left False Creek Fisherman’s Wharf.
That night he told me about his one dream in life which was to die in the arms of a woman. I had no idea how prophetic that statement was going to be until later on this journey. But for now, we needed to sleep and be ready for one of the most beautiful sights I have ever seen, the Inside Passage and the Grenville Channel.
It’s important to note that the coastal villages at this time were dependent only on fishing and coastal freighter traffic for both their supply of goods and other commerce. New Bella Bella, which was one of those important coastal villages is small and is landlocked and therefore completely isolated and dependent on supplies from Vancouver. The government docks were at the end of a long ramp leading up to a general store. Jack was well known to the locals as apparently he’d been supplying the coastal communities for many years and was respected and liked, so it was a friendly visit when we arrived.
Here is a link to the history of Bella Bella that you will find fascinating… http://www.emergingstewards.org/bellabella.html
The general store was well stocked with everything any nautical person would need. The floor and ceilings were rough hewn lumber with stocked shelves, barrels of food and various tools, implements and things hanging from the ceiling. It smelled of fresh coffee and pipe tobacco smoke. I remember in the middle of it was a hot, pot belly stove with a coffee pot bubbling away and about a dozen local citizens standing around it.
After a few minutes a group of women began watching me with a gleam in their eyes. I felt distinctly uncomfortable as they slowly started moving towards me while speaking amongst themselves in their own tongue.
Jack asked me to bring the rest of the groceries and I scooped them up in my arms and made my way towards the door while that group of women became more bold and started to follow me out the door and down the long, slippery ramp to the boat. I was beginning to get very nervous and started to run and was soon in full gallop yelling “Start the boat, start the boat!” (It sort of reminds me today of a popular Ikea commercial.) And they all began to laugh with Jack on deck, bent over and almost in tears. He’d set the whole thing up, the jerk. Jack loved a good joke, especially on me.
I learned a lot on that trip which lasted about seven or eight days as I remember and we ate amazing meals of thick bacon which we hung from the mast in the salt air and simply carved pieces of the slab in the morning to throw into the hot pan filled with fried eggs and potatoes in our little galley.
The Grenville Channel is a long channel that runs from the east coast of Farrant Island all the way north nearly to Prince Rupert. It’s narrow and tree lined all the way with no landings. We entered it early in the morning and had the benefit of seeing one of the most beautiful, pristine areas of the British Columbia coastline that you could ever see. It is truly a rugged paradise. The treeline comes down within a few feet of the water and its’ calm with very little other boat traffic along the route in those days. Today its’ a major artery along the coast for every type of traffic you could imagine.
We arrived in Prince Rupert and tied up. Jack and I went to town to have a meal ashore that night and then back to the boat for a good nights sleep. I was to leave on a pre-arranged bus ride to Prince George with a friend and client of my fathers. The next morning I boarded the bus and was to be back in a few of days to go fishing with Jack for the season.
When I got back a few days later and walked from the bus depot to the dock, I found my gear on the dock and a note on the boat to go to the police station. I did that and discovered that Jack had fulfilled his dream of dying in the arms of a woman two nights earlier. Apparently he had gone up to 3rd Ave. and had engaged the services of a local woman and had died in her arms of a heart attack.
I packed up my gear into a wooden box and dragged it up to the bus station and they shipped it off to Vancouver. I spent my last few dollars on the bus and headed back to Prince George and because it was summer, and I still hadn’t got my fill of travelling, I began a long hitchhiking trip north and east to Saskatoon. But that’s another story.