A Trip by Workboat from Carmanah Point c. 1970s – Part 2

Part 1 is available here.

It was a big one with a lot of energy. To slow down would have put us at risk of being carried forward up the shore. The stern went violently up and I felt my weight double. As I looked down the length of the boat, it was easy to see we were not in a very good position. I noted the crew were getting the pike poles ready for what ever came next. I thought to myself, this day has not improved. I knew the next thing would be the stern would go down just a fast and I would be floating in air. 

At the top I kicked in the throttle and braced with all my strength as we went down. The stern met the next swell and we shipped considerable water but not enough to kill the engine. I opened the throttle again and backed up and over the next swell. On the back of the next one I did a full powered one eighty degrees turn to get us clear. I slowed and moved over to the lee of the aerial anchor rock. We could assess our situation here and get ready to go out through the gap. 

       I looked at our passengers. They were soaked. I said, “Are you all right there?” Mrs. Pearce said, Apart from being a bit wet, we are fine. Thought you were going to put us back ashore again their Reg. I was glad when you changed your mind!” 

As she went on, I tuned out as we had things to do. We had about four inches of water above the floorboards and the bilge pump would take care of that. The bow fender had pulled off on one side. The 1/4-inch wire rope that crosses the fender in the middle held it in place. The bowman said the bolts had pulled right out of the gunnal (gunwale). The crew started stowing all the gear that had become loose from their stowed places – bow anchor, line and trip float, both rock hooks and lines, and the fender. The oars had unshipped too. 

I remember wishing we had brought some blankets or something for the Pearces as they had dressed in their uptown clothes. I felt the need to get a few words in on Mrs. Pearce’s chatter. I explained to them as best I could what I thought was going to happen and what the boat might do as we went out of the landing area. I suggested the best place for them would be to get under a sling and sit on the other slings which the crew were folding. 

At least they would be sitting above any water that came in. Mrs. Pearce was still getting in her two cents worth as she kept on about how great she thought we all were. “We knew you could do it Reg. If anyone could do it, we knew it would be you. I don’t know how we ever will be able to repay you for getting us onboard to catch our flight.” 

I broke into the seemingly endless chatter and said, “We had a lot of help you know. We have a great workboat. The boys and Mr. Pearce were just fantastic in helping you in. You had a great deal of courage yourself for just attempting to get in the boat on a day like this.” Then for good measure and to give her something else to think about I added, “Captain Exley is on the bridge and for sure he is watching everything we are doing. What more could we wish for? As for paying us, you can make us a cake when you get back from England. By the way, when you were getting into the boat I didn’t have time to look at your knickers because I was far too busy doing other things.” Not to be out done, she said, “A fine story that is! When I glanced at you, you had a fixed stare on something. If it was not my knickers you were staring at what else could have fascinated you for all that time?” She added, About the captain watching us, I think we had someone else watching too. So don’t forget to count Him in among the watchers. You will not have to wait till we get back for me to make you a cake. I have one in the suitcase in a biscuit tin. It is not iced so I will have to do that later when we get onto the ship. 

Mrs. Pearce, who would never to be outdone concerning one-upmanship, had brought a cake in a tin box just to be sure. 

CCGS Sir James Douglas – photo DFO Canada

Throughout all this Mr. Pearce (I think his name was Bert) had not said a word and I wondered if he was more than a little worried. I knew his eyesight was not very good. Perhaps it was this that made him quiet. Before getting under the sling he looked at me and said, “I don’t think I will ever see anything like this again.” I said to him, “I don’t think you ever will either Bert. This is not a good day to be doing what we are doing if you don’t enjoy it! Fortunately the worst is in the past.” He nodded as he too took shelter under the slings. 

As things were just about squared away it was time to move. I think we all felt very relieved that we had the Pearces onboard. It felt good that we had lucked out so far and I felt boosted by our success. The crew were jostling each other as boys will do when all is well. I said, “Hey guys, that was great thinking back there when you were getting setup for the worst. I don’t know what we would have done if the engine had quit on us. That sure was a big swell.” The bowman said, “If you thought it was big from where you were, you should have seen it from where we were. It was breaking way higher than your head.” The sternman added, “I thought for sure we were all going swimming. It was so close.” Thinking about my non-swimming capability I said, “I think you guys did a great job back there and I’m certainly glad you were with me today. You are two of the best I have ever crewed with.” I think this little bit of praise only served to confirm what they already knew. 

The bilge pump had the water below the floorboards. The boys had stowed the gear, it was time and with confidence I said, OK guys, if we are ready, lets have a go at getting out of here. As I moved the boat out into the middle, I began to think about what had brought us to this day. The years of training, so to speak, the number of times you go out and each time it is just a little more difficult. Are there any limits to this game? The gap was a bit of a mess. It seemed as though each swell was breaking across the entrance. There was a heavy chop too. We had no choice, conditions were getting worse and we had to do it. 

It was then that I heard the voice of Bill Exley inside my head and he said, “Tie the oars and pike poles down boys.” I looked over at ours. We had forgotten to do that. I told the crew that We should tie down the oars and pike poles or we might lose them. I knew I should have seen them do it. What had brought this on I wondered? It did however add a sense of seriousness to the preparations for getting out of there. Bill Exley would have said that to us when I was crewing for him in the workboat years ago. It was the thing to do when it was going to become rough. In a sea like this the workboat may at times be at a very steep angle going up or down, depending on which side of the swell you were. Loose oars or pike poles fly about like javelins. If you lose them and the motor quits, you may find yourself with a problem. Was I becoming careless and over confidant or something? 

      I waited till the bay was filling and when the time was right I moved out through the gap. Not direct at the sea but just a little off to port so that we did not drop like a rock when we went over the top. At the top of the first one I slowed and braced for the drop to the bottom. It always is a little alarming when you do this because the counter weight that holds the fall’s trip hook in place always slams down against the stopper with a big bang. 

Remembering back, I think the chop on top of the swell could have been eight feet or so, maybe ten. It was certainly the worst conditions I remembered experiencing. 

I remember asking myself as we went over the next one, how do you really tell the height of the chop on the swell, or even the height of the swell for that matter? It is a difficult thing to do. At the top of the next one I glanced seaward and the breaking confused sea went for a long way. We would be in this forever. On the third or fourth swell I changed the tack and we headed for the “Douglas” which was rolling and bobbing quite close in order for them to watch us. I saw the exhaust coming out of the funnels as the engines started and the captain, knowing we had made it so far, moved the ship to gain sea room. 

Each time we went down from the top of the swell I could see our passengers under the slings rising a foot or so. It certainly was a rough one. Each time we hit the steep chop it seemed as though we shipped half the ocean as the wind helped the sea in from the bow. I called to our passengers, “Are you all right down there?” Mrs. Pearce shouted back, “You just watch what you are doing and where you are going, Reg Gunn. Don’t you be worrying about us!” 

When we cleared the rough and were out in the open swell I asked the boys to uncover our passengers and the ride back to the ship was much easier. 

We enjoyed the feeling of being successful in beating the odds in rough weather. It’s the feeling of calmness and peace, the freshness of the wind chilling the wet salt water on our faces and necks as we come down from the high. It lets you know what it is all about and makes you feel very good too. We removed our towels and wrung them out to get rid of the water they had prevented from going inside our shirts. I think the swell was a good fifteen feet but compared to what we had come through, the ride was now smooth. 

I glanced at the crew and I knew they were feeling the same. They had that smile of pride on their faces and were back at their teasing and jostling game. It is a great feeling. We had pulled off something that may never happen again. They had a right to be proud of what they had done. They were the best and we all knew that on their return to the ship, they would be recognised as such by the other crew. What a ride we had had. 

Thinking back to the question of what had brought us to that day. I think I can only say that it was the result of training, and the training I had provided to others, along with the continuous learning process. Bill Exley was a hard person, yet he had become an expert at his job and so had he taught us to be the same. When crewing for Bill there was only one way! That was his way and that was our way too. He taught us the things that worked. He once said, “Never try anything new unless you have a way that works first.” He taught us how to kedge, how to handle the boat, how to use the kedge and the rock hooks to make landings that to most, would have been impossible. He taught us the things that the old timers had taught him. They too had done well for their generation. 

They too had done well for their generation. 

Years later when visiting him, when he was quite sick we were talking about his favourite subject of when men were men and life in the days of Bill’s glory. That day when I had one of my greatest rides came up. The day we had to move off the Pearces for their trip. His old eyes cast back his memories and he remembered quite well. He said, “Did I ever tell you, you did good that day? I’m telling you, when I tell you, you have done good, that means, you really have done good, I’m not kidding you.” I thought to myself, he hasn’t changed one little bit. 

I remembered and mentioned to him about his voice being in my head on that day. I said, “Bill, it wasn’t me in the boat, it was you! All your ranting about how things had to be done, your verbal bashing and your screaming and shouting if we did not do things right. All the good times as well as the bad, regardless of what you say, you were in there with us.” He said, “yes, I know and like what you are trying to say, but it was you who was the driver in the workboat. I was in the wheelhouse sweating it out so I could not have been there, could I?” 

He closed the subject by saying, “You were just doing a mental check like you were supposed to do, like we all did, like they do today in order to survive. You have to do what you have to do. If you don’t, you don’t make it!” 

I mentioned to him that I clearly remembered everything about that landing except getting the boat back onboard. Even to this day I have no memories of how we got back onboard. He said, “That’s because we didn’t lift the boat back on board because it was too rough. Don’t you remember? You drove all the way up to Pachena Bay in behind Seabird Rocks before we could lift you out. In all my years at sea, that was the worst weather I have ever seen anyone make a landing in. I think we had the best crew of any ship there was. I’ve regretted ever since that day, as I remember saying the things I said that caused you to have a go at it. It was the Pearce’s trip to England that did it! Had anything gone wrong we could not have got to you in time with a lifeboat. It shatters me a bit in that for years I’ve worried about my judgement on that day and now you tell me you had the best boat ride of your life!” I said, “It’s easy to have a great time in hindsight. While he thought about my words of wisdom it occurred to me that perhaps my need to be positive and successful had caused my mind to block out the things that were not great. Perhaps that day was far worse than I cared to remember and so horrific that my mind had blocked out the eight to ten miles in an open boat up to Pachena Bay. 

That’s the way it was I suppose. I know from my own experiences I have sweated out many a landing in the wheelhouse while the younger generation did what it was they had to do to succeed. Bill used to say many years ago, “You can’t do everything all the time. You just have to let go some of the things some of the time.

By the way, Mrs. Pearce’s cake survived and we all enjoyed it. Mrs. Pearce enjoyed the status of being one up on us all as a result of the cake’s transit through some fairly abnormal conditions. 

CCGS Sir James Douglas – photo DFO Canada

They made their charter flight and by all accounts they had a nice time. A few months after this trip I moved on from the “Douglas” and I was off to Search and Rescue on the “Ready” and a new life started in the tin cans. Being part of the group that had always had a closeness to the lighthouse keepers I was always aware that I had to get one back at the Pearces someday. 

I often used to think of my workboat days and I suppose you might say we all gained a lot in understanding how to handle the larger vessels when our time came. My workboats days were always fun and exciting times although a little scary under the direction of ‘father.’ 

I have several other stories to tell someday about beating the elements and working in the face of adversity. 

CCGS Camsell – photo DFO Canada

A short while after my appointment to the “Ready” I accepted a short assignment to the “Camsell”, a medium class ice breaker for several months while Captain John Strand went off to acquire his Master FG Certificate. For me this was great and a great opportunity too. I was back in the real world of Aids to Navigation. Back to a world where you could put into practice the arts learned so many years earlier. The pay increase was great too. 

CCGS Ready – photo DFO Canada

My first chore was to test out the newly installed MacMullen Stabilisation System and shortly thereafter we had a west coast supply trip with passengers Larry Slaght, District Manager. Bill Exley, Inspector of Lights, and Ian Campbell, District Engineer. They were going to do some station visiting or as we used to say taking a little holiday. 

On the way out from Victoria old memories came to the surface and I remembered the Pearces at Carmanah Point. That day years ago when we took them off the Lightstation to go to England. What could I do to gain one on them? Mrs. Pearce had brought the cake out in a tin on that rough day. It was then that I got a somewhat silly idea. I went down to the lounge to see Reg Needham, an engineer whom I had known for years, who was on the 12 to 4 watch. I asked him if he could make me a Victoria Cross out of brass or something in the machine shop. That would have a big VC Stamped in the middle. 

Next I went to see Fred Leak who was the purser and asked him if he could scrounge up some cloth that would look like ribbons on a medal and a safety pin. I went back to my cabin and created a little presentation scroll and at lunch I asked the passengers if they would make the presentation when they went ashore the next day. The next morning Fred and I put the thing together. Heavy was not the word for it as it weighed a ton but what could we do? Reg had made it out of 1/8 inch brass. It looked great and just what I had in mind. Fred stitched the ribbons in place and we attached a huge safety pin. We put it in a small cardboard box along with my verse that said in brief: 

This VC is awarded to Mr. and Mrs. Pearce,
For being Very Courageous
On the occasion of their departure for England
On that stormy day so long ago
From one of the workboat crew, who remembers so well!
Reg Gunn, Commanding Officer, Camsell. 

The helicopter flew our guests ashore to Carmanah Point from about ten miles back. On our arrival we flew in the supplies. As I waited, I felt great. Just like a little kid. I knew I was going to win. I was in the wheelhouse waiting for the passengers to return. The helicopter lifted off from the station and headed towards the ship. The wheelhouse radio squawked. It was Mrs. Pearce. “Carmanah Point to the Camsell, come in Reg I know you are there because Captain Exley said you were there.” I responded with, “Good morning Mrs. Pearce.” She said, “Don’t you good morning me in that sweet tone Reg Gunn. Too big to come ashore yourself now that you are captain of the ship, eh? The tears are still running down my face. My dress is all wet and I’ll never forget this presentation as long as I live. Fancy you remembering us. I hope you will keep on remembering us.” 

      I knew I had won. I said confidently, “But Mrs. Pearce, how could I ever forget you. I have known you as long as I have known my own mother. You will always be that very kind lady on the light station at Scarllet Point who provided first aid to my cut finger many years ago.” She said, “Now don’t start talking like that or I’ll start crying again. Today you have brought back a lot of good memories for us to mull over. We thank you, good bye for now and have a good trip.” 

      After we were underway one of the crew brought a parcel to the bridge. Sort of like a special delivery. It contained some of my favourite chocolate chip cookies and another favourite, a slice of chocolate-iced double-layer chocolate cake. How could I ever win? I got on the radio and called the station. It was Mrs. Pearce who answered. I think she must have been waiting. I said, “Mrs. Pearce, just look at what you have gone and done. Just when I knew I had won one on you. I don’t know what I can do about it or say right now except thank you very much.” She chuckled and said, “Enjoy them and on your next trip come and see us now that you have a helicopter.” As an after thought, perhaps resulting from her memories of that day so long ago, she said, “I’ll bet you wish you had had a helicopter years ago, eh?” I said, “You can say that again Mrs. Pearce, although I think I feel safer in the workboat.” She said, “You can say that again too Reg Gunn because they scare the daylights out of me every time I have to get in them. Don’t forget to come and see us next trip.” I said, “I will try my best.” 

Many years later on a phone-call visit to Bill Exley when he was close to the end of his life, I reminded him of the day that they had presented Mrs. Pearce with the medal and their visiting trip. We talked some about people too. About who he thought were the good ones, and whom he thought were the dinks. I asked what he thought of the two farm kids, Fred Wedgwood and I. He answered with, “That was a good thing you did that day, I mean, about the medal and all that. They were good people. I really enjoyed that trip.” 

To this day then, I don’t know if I was a good one, or was I one of the dinks. One of Bill’s sayings was, “Hoping for the best, while fearing the worst.” I wonder if he did that on purpose. Hmm, oh well, it’s too late now. It was a great life that we all had.

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FOOTNOTES:

A complete list of CCGS vessels from 1850 – 1967 is located at the DFO website here.

There is an excellent webpage on the “CCGS Sir James Douglas” by Fisheries and Oceans Canada

There are two excellent articles on “CCGS Estevan” on the Wayward Navigator webpage plus a nice photo of the beautiful brass engine room telegraph from the ship.

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