– by Reg Gunn (First Mate on the Canadian Coast Guard Ship Sir James Douglas)
To see what life was like in the workboats that delivered our groceries and took us off for holidays, check out Reg Gunn’s article Life in the Canadian Coast Guard below.
I was talking with Reg Gunn and he told me “I remember when it was first published I received favourable comments from other Coast Guarders who also had enjoyed working the workboats on the west coast.”
His story follows.
This story was originally three pages long (sorry Reg, I had to split it into two parts – WordPress restrictions) – JC).
Unfortunately not everyone understands Coast Guard and the jargon of the sea. The following, rather long version is necessary, my girls insist, if one is to understand the circumstances and the significant parts leading to the reason why. This story is from a collection of personal memories that I jotted down when I had time.
It starts during the most challenging year I had in the Coast Guard when I was chief officer of the Sir James Douglas1for several years and several years as second officer before that.
Being chief officer of the Douglas was a much easier task than the Estevan2 in that Bill ran a tighter ship. There were very few crew problems and it certainly was a happy ship.
I had full rein from the start and within a few months he allowed once or twice a week that I get the ship underway in the mornings. If we were running after midnight I anchored and secured for the night. Whether he slept or not is another matter I suppose. In other words he gave me rope and I gladly took up the slack and thoroughly enjoyed my new experiences. This was great for my confidence and naturally I did more and more to justify his confidence in me.
Thinking back, it must have been great for him to have such confidence in the mate. However life with Bill was not without its exciting moments. One such situation was the time we had to take Mr. & Mrs. Pearce off Carmanah Point Light to Port Hardy. This was a trip to remember. It was perhaps my last great ride in the workboat.
On the way up from Port Renfrew the ship was throwing a fit as usual as she pounded and rolled in the swells. The sounds from her engines were perhaps the noisiest on the coast. You have to have been on the “Douglas” to appreciate what it was really like.
It was not going to be a good day. I was in my cabin trying to get through some paper work and later as the engines slowed I knew we were at Carmanah Point. I heard the derrick being lifted from its stowed position and I knew that Bob Hancock, the bosun, was getting things ready for the landing. In my mind’s eye I envisioned the deck crew under Bob’s supervision going about the business of getting the workboat ready to launch.
No helicopter in those days. Everything landed or loaded from workboats and barges operated by sailors who were highly skilled in their trade and who performed well for their generation of Coast Guarder. It was a great life and I am glad I was part of it.
It can be very enjoyable running workboats when you have the necessary skills and confidence in yourself and the crew to achieve full potential of their operation. It takes many years of learning and training in every conceivable condition to reach this high standard. This combination, when faced with extreme conditions, allows the accomplishment of seemingly impossible tasks in the eyes of the less trained.
As those in my generation started our training years earlier with Bill Exley, it follows then, that he was the dominant senior of our group. As such, he had great influence over our situation for quite a few years. You either joined in and enjoyed or you gave up and quit.
I was fortunate in that I not only liked my job, I enjoyed life with Bill as well. My learning curve was continuous as well as being exciting. I feel that my generation of Coast Guarders took their learning to the limits, resulting in a great number of changes and improvements. We did things that no one had done before and our successes became the standards for the future. I witnessed many great changes ranging from rowed workboats, powered workboats and barges and into the helicopter period. It was quite an experience and for this farm kid life was great.
The bosun would be positioning the derrick over the boat and when he brought down the whip hook the crew would hook on the bridle. Bob would then tighten it.
They would release the load binders that tighten the chains that hold the boat firm to the deck. Various lines attached to the boat would steady it during the launch procedure.
I was just about to go topside when there was a knock at the door. In response I found the captain clad in duffel coat and hat on the back of his head. His flushed face was an indication that all was not well. He said, er, the second mate says it’s too rough for him to make the landing. Er, I was wondering, if you would er, have a look at it. If we don’t get the Pearces off for their charter flight to England, they will lose their money. And er, I don’t er, want you to er, like if it is too rough, just say so and we will try later. I thought to myself, great! Here we go again! If the second mate did not have the confidence would I? This negative thought perhaps was the result of initial alarm. Like, it was rough out there. Old fears began creeping into my head as I remembered some of my earlier experiences in rough weather. It was a period when I too did not have confidence which is so necessary to overcome fear of the unknown. Being asked to confirm if a landing was possible is a good indication that the conditions were extreme. I knew that if I said there was a possibility then I would become the workboat driver for the occasion.
I went up to the wheelhouse, and through the binoculars I looked at the old familiar landing that I had become quite used to over the years. The landing is a small exposed bay partially sheltered from the open seas by the surrounding rocks. One rather large rock about fifteen feet high or so at low water is where we drilled the rock bolts to fasten the chains that attach to the aerial at the water end. I had helped Ed Harris erect this aerial when he was second mate and I was third mate of the old “Estevan” many years ago. Its length is over one thousand feet over the mast at the top near the light station and was the longest aerial on the west coast. Joe Watt the blacksmith, helped by Tom Harper, made the carriage and attachments at the blacksmiths shop at the Victoria base.
The loading area in the little bay then, although not the best, was the only one. The aerial crosses the bay and when the hook is down it is sort of in the middle. On the right of the bay a rather large low outcropping with a rock face that is very steep provides some shelter for that side and it is on this side that we embarked people. The swells run directly into the bay and parallel to the rock face towards a little sandy rocky beach. Landing conditions in the bay on a rough day then can only be described as being somewhat less rough than on the outside.
What I saw then through the binoculars was huge seas breaking over the rocks and across the entrance. Driven by a wind from the southwest at about twenty-five plus knots. The whole area had water and spray leaping high into the air as some of the seas were going straight up when they hit the rocks. The whole area was white with scud (froth). On the positive side the tide was roughly two feet below high water and going down allowing part of the swell’s energy to be expended over the outcropping. The landing looked grim but as I could not see all the way into the bay I really could not be sure what it would be like. With the tide going down and if the swell direction was straight into the bay, it could get worse with time as more energy would get into the landing area.
Bill was looking through his binoculars too and he said, “Well, what do you think?” I said, “I really cannot see into the landing area from this angle. If there is a chance to make the landing it will have to be taken at the landing if there is an opportunity. I think if we are going to go we should go now as the tide is dropping and it may get worse. If the Bosun can get us in the water, I will go and try it.”
I had learned many years ago, from Captain (father) Davidson of the “Estevan” during my second mate days that making a decision from the ship was not a good idea. Many seemingly impossible tasks became possible by just going there and having a look. He had pushed us so that we worked at the limits of our capabilities. We really grew up very fast. The more we did the more he knew we could do. On the “Douglas”, getting the boat in the water was the problem.
Returning to my cabin I pulled from my locker my old workboat gear. This was not a day to be wearing issue gear consisting of duffel coat, heavy-duty rubber long coat and sea boots. I found them far too cumbersome and restricting. My gear was a very light nylon top and bottom with a hood that I had bought up town.
The jacket had enough room to fit over my work-vest that is like a comfortable lifejacket. I also wore a pair of light rubber boots and light eye protectors that I bought in the war surplus on Government Street. There is nothing worse than being hit in the eyes with drops of sea water that are driven by the wind from the bow. It can really hurt, especially during winter when the temperature is down to freezing.
I went to the well deck to view the sea state from there. To say the least, it was a bit rough. Getting the boat in would be difficult. I thought to myself, did I really want to do this? Doubting thoughts began to creep in as I viewed the scene. I began thinking I really did not want to go.
Unfortunately it was our job and I was the mate. My only hope was with the bosun. If he felt he could not get the workboat in the water with any degree of safety, then that would be it. Reassured, I went forward to where Bob was standing. “Do you think you can get us in Bob?”, I asked. He contemplated for a few moments while he completed manufacturing his cigarette, as the ship rolled first one way then the other. After a suitable period of thinking he said, “Yeah, I think we can put you in the water okay.” His response was not what I had hoped for! What I had done I realised, was that by asking Bob if he thought he could put the boat in the water, was in a sense questioning his professional ability. I should have known better.
As I moved back to the hatch and the boat I made a mental note to myself. Should there ever be a next time I would not put the question in the same way. I felt somewhat amused at the thought of a pre-arranged wink, or a clasping of the hands in prayer as a signal that I was having doubts. I realised of course I was only stalling and the decision was really mine. I knew the boats crew were great kids and would not falter. I buttoned up my jacket and tucked in the towel around my neck. I gave the captain a couple of quick nods as an indication it was a ‘go’. This was it and like the many times I had been in similar situations before I said, “Okay guys, lets go!” The boat’s crew and I jumped into the workboat as the captain started to manoeuver the ship. I started the engine and gave a quick look around. As everything looked okay I gave a nod to the captain to let him know I was ready. Looking up at the bosun who now was in the winch house, I said, “At the captains word Bob”. I had committed us to who knows what. Everyone would gain experience this day. We in the workboat would have to use every skill we had learned and by the looks of the landing we would gain more skills before this job was done.
As my adrenaline began to flow I began feeling better and searched my mind for positive thoughts. It was too late for doubts now. You can only be successful if your mind is clear of negatives. People who are thrill seekers would pay considerable sums for a chance to go with us on this day. Just think of the experience! It was going to be a great day!
The crew tensed at their stations as we all waited for the captain. Every one had a part to play in this operation and I knew that success in launching the boat was in their hands. There would be no room for errors. One mistake and we would be out of control. Everyone was in the trust of each other.
It seemed to take forever for the captain to get the ship in the right spot where the ship would remain relatively still. Just long enough for the few moments it takes to get the boat from the deck, out over the side, and into the water. Finally, as the ship gave a slight roll to port, the captain gave the word.
The bosun lifted the workboat high enough to clear the rail. There is an awkward moment at this point when the ship stops its movement to port and starts back to starboard, as everything is so difficult to control. The bosun works quickly, moving levers like an artist playing a fine instrument. He is a master at his trade. Winch motors stop, the brakes go on, clutches disengage, as he does what ever else he has to do to be ready in the moments that remain.
The ship begins its starboard movement. I hear Bob say ‘slack away.’ This means he is ready and I brace as the workboat starts its swing out over the side. Each crewmember on a line is either slacking away or taking in the slack both on the deck and in the workboat.
As the workboat starts its swing outwards, Bob starts his release of the brake on the whip drum allowing the boat to make a rather rapid descent to the water. Our insides and senses are suddenly floating somewhere above our ears. Just as you expect the boat to hit, the descent slows rapidly and Bob gently puts us in the water as slick as a whistle. Our insides are now as far down as they can possibly get and I think to myself, I knew I should have gone before we left. When the bridle slacks, the boat’s crew pull the trip hooks and the deck crew pull the bridle and whip inboard as Bob slacks away on the whip. This is to prevent any injury to the boat’s crew and to maintain control. By this time the ship is back to that hideous rolling again. The boat’s crew let go the lines and we are on our way.
I turned the workboat in the lee of the ship and headed for the landing. Glancing at the ship from the top of one swell I noted the “Douglas” on the side of another. She was doing a big roll. We could see about 90% of the well deck as the swell started to slip under her keel. It seemed so strange to see the crew standing vertical. Exhaust was coming out of the starboard funnel as the captain was giving her a slick to meet the swell.
As we went down into the trough the only visible part of the ship was from the top of the funnels up to the top of the mast. Both vessels rose on the next swells, and as we cleared the stern I noted Harold Williams, one of our engineers, jigging for a cod and wondered if we would be having fish and chips for supper. I shouted to him to catch one for me. He waved back and shouted something that was lost in the noise of the engine and the wind.
On the run towards the landing the swell was big enough to make it appear the boat was half out of the water at the bow as we surfed along. Closer to the landing the choppy confused area caused by the swell’s encounter with the rocks was breaking about a quarter of a mile seaward. The height of the chop on the swell was about six to ten feet and confused. To traverse this area I eased the speed to prevent being swamped from the stern. Going with the breakers always seems easier as you are not pounding into them.
I could see that the landing area was fairly full of water so it would be okay to safely enter. At the entrance I turned a little to port so as to put us square on for the approach. When the stern began to lift on an entering swell I cut the throttle allowing the boat to coast in, as the sea boiled at the stern. This manoeuver works well providing you do the right things at the right time. If you don’t watch it, well, you could get wet. I think I was enjoying myself as I had not been in the workboat for quite a while. Just like a kid finding an old toy. It felt great to be back in my old job again.
Mr. and Mrs. Pearce were waiting patiently with their suitcases at the embarkation area. We came alongside and I stopped the boat about four feet away from where they stood. As we went down the side of the rock face on the surge Mrs. Pearce was saying in that old familiar voice, “I didn’t think you could have made the landing today because of the big swell.” When we came up again she said, “I haven’t seen you for a long time Reg. I’m certainly glad you were onboard to come and get us. I think if anybody can get us off it will be you.” The only words I could get in were, “Good morning”, as we went down again.
The rise and fall must have been about eight feet and to them it must have been a little scary as they contemplated getting into the workboat. The boat came up again and she said, “Don’t you good morning me, just as though everything is like a summer’s day Reg Gunn. How can you expect me to get into the workboat on a day like this?” I think she was trying to talk herself out of it. It was not going to be easy for her. I explained as calmly as I could what I wanted them to do and what I would attempt to do with the boat. We gave them work vests and explained what to do in the event the swell pushed us away and they went into the water.
As we came up again I smiled at Mrs. Pearce to make it appear that I was not as worried as she was. I said, “Mrs. Pearce, don’t worry about getting into the boat. All you have to do is just pretend it’s a lovely day”. She said, “Don’t you give me that smile of yours to kid me along, Reg Gunn! Its all right for you! You are in the boat”. I said, “Mrs. Pearce. Think about it. If you are to make your flight to England you have to at least try once. Everything is going to be fine. We are going to get into position now and when the time is right we will come and get you, so trust us”. She said, “I will do my best”.
We rode the surge up and down as I watched the swells and did my count to see when they filled and then emptied the little bay. The bay filled and then emptied and if you watch you notice the bay staying fuller longer and longer. It will do this to a point where it becomes relatively calm for a short period of time. Then all hell lets loose and the cycle starts again. It certainly was not a good day. I needed the bay as steady as possible for this job. The cycle was on the fill again and I felt the need to be ready. I positioned the boat bows on with the stern angled to meet the sea. About five feet from the rock wall I selected a suitable spot where the bow fender could slide up and down easily, without hanging up.
I asked the Pearces to move themselves and their luggage just above this place. The idea was to put the bow to the rocks at this point when it was on the rise. This would hold the bow in place and steady for them to get in while the stern came up and then down. We all realised they would have but a few moments to get in the boat before the water in the bay went out against the incoming swell. Pulling the boat down as the serge went out to start a new cycle of filling and then emptying our small loading area.
Finally, it looked as good as it was ever going to get. The bay was fairly full and steady and I thought to myself, now or never or some other dumb thing. I said to the crew, “I think this is it”, and to the Pearces, “Are you ready?” Mrs. Pearce who was probably realising she was going to have to do some unlady-like things like sit on the wet slippery rocks, then slither into the workboat while trying to hold down her skirt, said, “Of course we are ready. We have only been waiting down here for an hour you know and I’m just about frozen!”
I moved the boat quickly towards the rocks and locked the bow fender in the selected spot. As the luggage came in the stern went down and sideways towards the rock face. I corrected it with the tiller. The stern started to rise and I was becoming higher than they were. I eased the throttle a little to let the bow slide up to keep the bow as close to them as possible. As Mrs. Pearce seemed to be hesitating, I shouted to her to get in along with a few other choice sayings designed to speed up the process. The stern started to go down and I opened the throttle a little to hold the bow harder against the rock. She was saying, “I am! I am!”
The boat was still level. They had to get into the boat now! Mrs. Pearce was sliding in on her seat over the bow while Mr. Pearce helped her from behind. The crew were helping at the front. She looked at me in the stern in my full out stretched position, Left hand on the tiller, steering the boat at the rocks to control the stern as it surged first one way and then the other. Right hand on the throttle to control the engine, my eyes fixed on the bow fender to see in advance any possible problem.
To Mrs. Pearce I probably looked like everything except being in control. I could feel the stern going down further. I eased the throttle again to let the fender slip down a little. Time was getting short and I felt the need for them to hasten. It was then that I heard Mrs. Pearce shout, “Don’t you dare look up my knickers Reg Gunn! I am old enough to be your mother!” I felt the sudden need to stop everything and roar with laughter. There we were at the most critical period and her concern was I seeing her knickers. I said, “Never mind your knickers Mrs. Pearce. Hang onto something. It’s going to get a little rough in a few moments!”
I glanced over the port side and noticed we were on the edge of the surge as it boiled to meet an incoming swell. It was like a six foot drop to the beach and within two feet from where we were. Although we had enough water under us we were getting too close to the shore. I noticed Mrs. Pearce being released by the crew as they grabbed at Mr. Pearce. He came scrambling in just as the boat started to slide and I had to back away. We had them!
The bay was now empty and all hell was about to break loose on us. I saw a large swell coming in through the gap. It was breaking as it came towards us. We had to get away from where we were. I shouted, “Everyone aft!” This would keep the weight at the stern. I gave the boat a hard kick to port and then a full throttle astern with two hands on the tiller in order to be able to steer. We began backing away from the beach and up the side of the swell. (continued in part 2)
– a complete list of CCGS vessels from 1850 – 1967 is located at the DFO website here.
1 There is an excellent webpage on the CCGS Sir James Douglas by Fisheries and Oceans Canada
2 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.