Careening a Sailing Ship in Modern British Columbia

by John M. MacFarlane 2011

North Star of Herschel Island

When I first met my good friend Captain Sven Johansson he was the Master and owner of the sailing vessel North Star of Herschel Island, an Eskimo trading schooner that he had rigged as a Ship. He lived on board her, anchored a few metres off the old Imperial Oil fuel jetty in Victoria Harbour. He had a wireless telephone connected to a landline hidden on the dock which connected the ship to the telephone network (this was before cellular telephones). He had a small dinghy moored below the dock where he also kept a bicycle for travelling into town.

His vessel, the North Star, was originally rebuilt by Sven on Banks Island NT and he undertook more of a restoration than a functional rebuild. He plated the bottom with copper in the fashion of sailing ships so that fouling growth would be discouraged if not prevented. This plating extended to a level above the waterline and visually formed part of the boot-topping. On the voyage I took it had been on for about 15 years and it was about three years since he had checked it. Copper sheet comes in different thicknesses and he had to buy about 1,000 square feet at about $2 per square foot. Even at twenty thousands of an inch thick it weighed about 1,000 pounds. He used pure copper nails. The hull was sheathed in Greenheart, a very hard and very durable wood, so he had to drill each of the nail holes first, about 8,000 in all, and he tarred behind each of the nails.

Surviving and even flourishing on a minimal income Sven undertook all the maintenance of the North Star himself. It was not only cost-effective but there is no marine trade that he does not seem to have mastered independently. Doing big maintenance jobs himself was a real necessity.

Sven was also a voracious reader. Over the years he accumulated a huge library which was stored on board. Anyone who owns books knows how heavy they are, and stored in a ship they cause two interesting issues which must be faced. They must be stored in a balanced fashion to keep the ship trim and the weight eventually causes the ship to draw more water. As the books accumulated the North Star settled relentlessly lower in the water. Near the end the copper plating in the boot-topping was well below the waterline. Suggestions to reduce the library always fell on deaf ears and Sven would show us a cache of copper plates that he intended to add to the top of the existing ones. But how to dry dock the vessel so he could attach the plates without paying the shipyard fees?

Sven often told me stories from his northern days about how he would winch the vessel out of the water onto a convenient beach to avoid punishing Arctic ice up north. That was the traditional way all such schooners were winterized and indeed she was abandoned on the beach when he originally found her. He said that in the traditional fashion he had careened her on Discovery Island many years before to recreate the way sailing ships would have been repaired centuries before. I suggested that we do that again. I was anxious to actually experience this process first hand.

Sven calculated that the Spring tides in August (the largest of the year) were the optimal ones to utilize. This would give him the maximum time between tides to do the work and still have enough water to re-float the North Star on the flood tide. (It would have been very awkward to have to wait a year for the next really high tide.) It sounded exciting and I volunteered to help. I wanted to see this operation in action.

We left Victoria Harbour in the evening and arrived at the north end of Chatham Island at 9:30 pm. We dropped anchor to await the high tide. Sven called Victoria Coast Guard Radio to tell them what we were doing. He told them that he didn't want to be rescued. I think the Radio Officer on watch thought they were dealing with a kook. The last time he went through this the Coast Guard had tried to involuntarily rescue him. He showed complete confidence as we went through the process - if he had any doubts he was not showing any signs of it. Sven's theory is that "People at sea are always getting into trouble. The question is whether or not they can get out of it or get in deeper trouble instead." He figures that real seamen will find a way out of difficulty. Everything looked good so we went to bed.

Around 3:30 am we drove the vessel parallel with the gravel beach and Sven went ashore with a tow line. An unexpected find of a very large timber floating in the water was too tempting and we were temporarily sidetracked by winching it aboard as salvage. The line was taken ashore again and attached to a large tree at one end and up through the mast on the North Star and down to the capstan. We stowed all the gear below to avoid later chaos and slowly winching in the line we developed a strong list of about 20 degrees to starboard. Then we waited as the tide slowly dropped. A large catamaran arrived and anchored nearby. The sea was phosphorescent and salmon jumping caused flashes of light in the water. I could feel the vibrations from the engine of a passing freighter. The sky was clear and filled with stars. Every few minutes the vessel listed more and more, and from time to time gear improperly stowed fell out of cupboards and crashed onto the deck. Otherwise the silence was powerful. We went back to sleep and by morning we were laying on the hull - the bunk forming a bulkhead in a topsy-turvey world. Climbing out onto the deck proved a challenge.

North Star of Herschel Island

At dawn Sven was out at work cleaning the bottom. A passing Helijet saw our vessel laying on its side and reported it to the Coast Guard. Sven was called on the radio to ask if he needed assistance. Hearing the radio report attracted a lot of attention from sightseers who came into the bay to see the spectacle. We were offered assistance to get off the beach and had to assure the would-be good Samaritans that we actually wanted to be aground. It was difficult to convince people. A vessel arrived with some rough characters who wanted to salvage the North Star. "How much is that vessel worth?" they shouted at us. "We can pull you off!" It was difficult to work efficiently with all the unwanted attention. Each passing whale watching vessel pulled into the bay giving a sightseeing spectacle. In spite of his earlier request the Coast Guard arrived to rescue us and had to be dissuaded. Finally Sven was able to get to work on the copper plates. The tide rose all morning and by 2:00 pm we were again afloat.

North Star of Herschel Island
North Star of Herschel Island
North Star of Herschel Island
North Star of Herschel Island

We departed back toward Victoria slipping into a pea soup fogbank. We decided to anchor so we could have a hot meal - the first in 24 hours. Passing the cardinal marker at Mouatt Reef we were well on our way, arriving in the Inner Harbour at 9:00 pm. I was tired - Sven was elated. He never repeated this manoeuvre again and I have confidence in saying that this was the last time a large sailing vessel was careened on the west coast in this traditional style.

She is now lovingly owned and operated by Sheila and Bruce MacDonald. North Star is the home of her present owners and is no longer a commercial ship but is now a private vessel. She is not available for charter. They have a very nice website which is worth visiting that shows the history of the vessel.

To quote from this article please cite:

MacFarlane, John M. (2012) Careening a Sailing Ship in Modern British Columbia. 2012.

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