AN UNUSUAL INVESTIGATION ON
THE BRITISH COLUMBIA COAST
WHY WE HAVE QUALIFIED CREWS
I had investigated
marine accidents ranging from cruise ship fires to swamped
kayaks on Canada’s west coast, but the most bizarre one of
all looked straight forward at first.
A small crew boat, identified by its call
sign, had sunk and two men were rescued. Then I was
informed that the sunken vessel was not a crew boat but a
tug which was using the radio from a laid up crew boat.
The situation was to become even
I traced the boat’s skipper, John*,
through his mother, to a small coastal town that could only
be reached by a one hour ferry ride. John agreed to meet me
at the local café. As he told me his story, it became
quieter and quieter until everyone in the place was
described the tug as being thirty-six feet long and made of
steel. It had a small wheelhouse and a cuddy below deck with
two bunks. It was used to
sort and gather logs into rafts for bigger coastal tugs to
take from the central British Columbia coast to the pulp
mills further south. I learned
that a logger had built the vessel in his backyard without a
ship’s plan, inspection or approval.
The logging operation shut down in
winter, a common practice, because heavy rain and snow make
it too difficult to work in the forest. The company decided
to send the tug to Vancouver for an overhaul and hired John
for the job, because he had logged the area and watched the
nearby local tugs at work. John said he had always
wanted to sail the coast on his own boat and now he had the
chance to get paid for doing it. He asked a buddy, Nick*, to
come along for company.
To earn more money on the trip, John and
Nick were asked to tow three hulks to Vancouver for scrap.
The first was a sixty-five foot wooden towboat near a
logging camp. When they boarded it, they found its towing
winch and main engine were removed. The deck had been
chopped open and the cabins exposed to the elements. The
wheelhouse was intact.
John and Nick hooked up the hulk with a
rope bridal as they had seen tug crews do
John had heard that he should have an axe handy to cut the
towline in an emergency. Not understanding the concept, he
placed the axe on the bow of the hulk they were towing
instead of on their own vessel. Satisfied, they set off to
pick up their next tow.
High winds, strong currents and sudden
weather changes ravage BC’s central coast in winter. There
are no cities and only a few isolated towns, logging camps
and Indian reservations. Those that live on the central
coast are as rugged as their habitat and fiercely
independent. They shun government involvement of any kind.
Not knowing or asking what they would
need for the voyage, John and Nick set out for a six-hundred
mile, four-day trip through BC’s treacherous “Inside
Passage” with the wrong call sign and without charts,
sailing directions, tide tables or even a watch
When the weather deteriorated, they
sought shelter in a fjord for the night. Having logged the
area, flown in by seaplane and been taken across the fjord
by crew boats, John told me he thought he knew the area
“pretty well.” However, he didnot know the fjord’s narrow entrance was best tackled
at slack water because it was full of tiderips and
whirlpools the rest of the time.
As soon as the tug reached the entrance,
it plunged stern first into a whirlpool. The steering
compartment hatch, set flush into the deck, hadnot been secured. The rush of water over the deck
sucked it off its seat and flooded the compartment. The
stern began to sink. Being lighter and longer, the wooden
hulk shot past the whirlpool and was about to overtake the
sinking tug. John warned Nick to get off, so Nick leapt from
the wheelhouse onto the bow of the hulk.
John didnot escape as quickly and the suction pulled him
underwater. He surfaced clutching a propane bottle for
buoyancy. Nick threw him the end of a rope line and hauled
him aboard. Then he grabbed the axe they had left on the
hulk’s bow and chopped the bridal.
The seawater temperature was close to 0°C
and John stood in wet gear on an exposed deck where the wind
chill factor meant the air temperature was effectively
-22°C. Nick filled a bucket with diesel left in one of the
hulk’s engine room tanks and they retreated to the
wheelhouse. John stripped off his wet clothes and Nick
shared what he was wearing with him. Apparently neither man
smoked, but Nick happened to have a cigarette lighter in his
pocket. John found a book in the wheelhouse and lit its
pages to start the diesel burning. Eventually the fire dried
his clothes and they warmed up.
By morning, currents and high winds had
driven the hulk to the head of the fjord. John and Nick knew
there wouldnot be anyone onshore to find them. Their only hope
was to attract the attention of a passing boat. Since a bend
at the entrance blocked off any view up the fjord from the
sea, they had to get past the bend, a distance of about
Using the axe, they cut some of the spar
ceiling from the inside of the engine room, and fashioned
crude oars. Then they hacked holes in the bulwarks. Pushing
the oars out, they set off to row the hulk down the fjord.
Whenever the tides were against them they
barely held their position. When it turned in their favour,
they rowed hard and slowly progressed toward the fjord’s
entrance. It took three days and nights to reach it. They
had no food and licked the dew off the inside of the hull to
On the fourth morning they saw a large
pleasure craft with an American flag on the stern jack. To
get the operator’s attention, they burned the remainder of
the diesel in the bucket. The American came over to
investigate and radioed for help. He used the crew boat call
sign that the two men had given him.
Confusion abounded at first when various
authorities were notified, because they had been given the
wrong call sign. Eventually a floatplane came to the
American boat to pick up John and Nick and take them to
hospital. They had survived their ordeal without serious
When John finished his story and I
switched off the tape recorder the silence was broken by a
woman, who leaned round from the next booth and said,
“You’ll let us know when the book is coming out won’t you”?
The names of the individuals have been
changed to protect their privacy.
has a 1st Class
Marine Engineer’s Certificate.
The above incident happened when he was a
Safety Board investigator. He is now the Manager
of Transport Canada’s
Marine Inspection Services in Vancouver BC.
He lives with
his wife who has a
Master Mariner’s certificate.
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