The History and Rebuilding of the Aix / Nan Lea

by Ron Drinkwater 2013

Nan Lea

The Nan Lea in her restored glory. (Photo from the Drinkwater collection.)

Most work boats must be altered for a new use in order to survive, This article chronicles some of the changes that have allowed the Aix to endure for more than 100 years.

Early History

The Aix was built on the Skeena River in 1908 by Captain H.J. Anderson. She was a ‘monkey boat’ or cannery tender and acted as a tug to the cannery fish boats and to collect the catch for the cannery. She was 30 feet and powered by a 9hp two cycle Easthope engine. Captain Anderson worked for the ABC Canning Company. I believe that the Aix was one of the first gas powered cannery tenders to be constructed.

Aix Half Hull

The Half Hull Model of the Aix crafted by Captain H.J. Anderson (Photo from the Drinkwater collection.)

In 1910 the Aix was moved to the Fraser River and supported the ABC Cannery until she was sold in 1916. She was purchased by Harry E. Troop and employed towing brick barges from Gabriola Island to Nanaimo BC.


The Aix at Gabriola Island BC. Harry E. Troop of Nanaimo BC (who had lost his right hand in an accident) stands on deck c1917. (Photo from Drinkwater collection.)


In 1920 she went through a major re-build and was lengthened by 10 feet. Here she is at Musgrave Landing with Mrs. Newman and Walmis Jr. on the aft deck. At that time an English Bellis steam engine was installed. (Photo from Drinwater collection.)


The Aix towing under steam. (Photo from Drinkwater collection.)

In 1923 she was purchased by Walmis Newman who owned her continuously for 24 years. He made a number of changes to the wheelhouse and installed an Albion Iron Works steam engine (which is now in the collection of the Maritime Museum of British Columbia). In 1947 the steam engine was removed and the vessel sold to Hugh L. Rodd who owned the Canoe Cove Boat Yard in Sidney BC.

Hugh Rodd installed a gas engine and used the boat for his honeymoon to the Sunshine Coast. The Aix was then sold to Alexander S. Dodds of Sidney BC who used it as a work boat for logging on Sidney Island and James Island. After that the Aix was owned by Ernie Tingstad and she was deleted from the Canadian Shipping Register. In 1953 she was purchased by Ernie Kay as a yacht and then converted to a troller. She was sold again to Art Humphries and Sandy McKeller in Colwood BC and fished the west coast for several years.

In 1965 she was purchased by Robert Richardson who planned to use her in a charter business. In 1966 she was sold again to Alfred Quigley of Brentwood Bay BC. He made changes and installed a Ford Tunney Queen diesel engine. In 1975 he sold the Aix to Fraser Rose who upgraded the wheelhouse.

The Drinkwater Years

In the Fall of 1982 I purchased her from Ivor Cook and had her hauled to Jenkins Marine where we began a major reconstruction and restoration. She was renamed as the Nan Lea. Since 1983 we made upgrades continuously with hull work, new power plant, new tanks converting her to a comfortable cruiser. Grant and Melody Blundell at Cowichan Shipyard Ltd. undertook much of the work and kept her in good condition.

For us the story of the Nan Lea starts in the early 1960s when we had several power boats on the Shuswap Lake. We called each one after my wife Nancy Lea Drinkwater hence the name Nan Lea. The most significant boat was a 24 foot fiberglass cruiser built by Skagit Boat Works of Washington State. We had the boat for several years and made two memorable trips to Desolation Sound after trailering to Vancouver to start our trip. I remember us being at Refuge Cove and a lady on another boat examined our port of registry and inquired if we had travelled all the way down the Thompson and Fraser Rivers. I had to confess that riding through the Hell’s Gate might have given us some problems but I was tempted to tell her a tale of great adventure and seamanship that she could use at the next happy hour.

In 1980 I moved to Victoria and promptly purchased a small boat for fishing, gradually trading up to a 21 foot Brandlmayer-designed yacht with an inboard–outboard drive engine. When my wife Nancy arrived we named the boat Nan Lea and we started to explore the Gulf Islands and hone our fishing and crabbing skills.

We made several trips to Desolation Sound and got as far as Loughborough Inlet. On each trip I would see displacement cruisers gliding along in a stately manner and I was green with envy. Our little pocket cruiser was quite comfortable for two and it had a very neat layout but no room for guests and we had to keep an eye out for weather. We had some great times on that little boat but soon the call for a larger vessel took over. We kept our boat at Westport Marina in Sidney and there was an old displacement cruiser siting at the dock not far from our moorage spot.

I had watched her travelling down Sidney Channel one time and she had a good turn of speed and almost no wake or wash, she wasn’t pretty but looked to have potential. I went over and had a closer look and she was in poor condition and was rarely out of her slip. As it turned out she had been up for sale but with no takers so I contacted the broker who had listed her and was told she had a 57hp Tunney Queen diesel engine that was reported to be in good condition. I talked to the owner and he was interested in any deal just to get rid of the boat, I figured the engine and gear was worth a few thousand dollars so I offered him my Brandlmayer and one thousand dollars and we had a deal. I had got my Brandlmayer in a trade for an old car so I thought I was well ahead on the deal and if the hull was no good I had an engine that I could sell.

I had made a deal with my son Ian that I would buy the boat if he would help me with the project, and that was the best deal I ever made. Not only was he talented in ways I never appreciated but we had the best bonding time of our lives. I contacted John Jenkins of Jenkins Marine and arranged to haul the boat to their yard and we would decide to either junk the hull and save the engine or start to rebuild the boat and make a comfortable cruiser out of her. I had no survey and one surveyor said I was crazy to buy her and spend any money on a lost cause. That was not the last time I heard that comment. John Jenkins had two shipwrights working for him who were from Portugal and between all of us we decided that she was worth saving as the hull was in surprisingly good condition and it was the aft cabin that was the big negative. The side decks had tipped inward and fresh water had damaged a few of the ribs and the planks above the water line.

Out came the chain saws and we eliminated the aft cabin and the fore deck. Now we had everything open we decided to sister any ribs that looked poor, replace all of the damaged planks and replace the foredeck. A good friend from Nanaimo arrived on the scene and looked in the hole where the aft cabin used to be and declared us totally insane. In following years he would sit in that very cabin with a drink in his hand and marvel at our vision. A new aft cabin enclosure was built with more headroom and the whole area was strengthened with a new clamps and beams.

Ian and I worked almost every evening cleaning up after the day’s work by the shipwrights. We also worked in the evenings and weekends to replace the water tanks, wiring and a bunch of other stuff, and we did most of the interior finishing and painting. The shipwrights fibreglassed all of the new cabin and deck areas, built a dodger above the wheel house to give her better lines and finally we refastened her with over 3000 new screws. It only takes a few minutes to describe this refit but in fact it was over a three month project and we filled a large dumpster with rotten lumber, tanks, wiring, piping and a bunch of other junk from a strange electric throttle control made from an aircraft flap motor to parts of a bizarre steering system to the upper deck.

Our bill at Jenkins Marine was just over twenty thousand dollars, and that was a lot of money in 1984 and it still is today but we had a nice boat, although far from finished – but then what boat ever is? In the years after the original refit we took the Nan Lea up to Grant and Melody Blundell’s Cowichan Shipyard. For almost the next twenty years she often went up twice a year, in the spring for bottom paint and in the winter for repairs such as keel cooler pipes, keel bolts, planks, stem replacement, a new keel shoe and the list goes on. Keeping ahead of her every year kept her sound and we were never faced with a major expense other than the re–powering. That was a big bill but included new fuel tanks, batteries, keel bolts under the engine and the fabricating of a steel structure to secure the engine to the engine beds.

In 1984 we started our cruising adventures with a trip to Friday Harbour, on our return trip the wind picked up and as we were passing Pearl Island just outside Roach Harbour we witnessed an aircraft crash while attempting a takeoff, the aircraft flipped, the pilot and passenger escaped and we towed the inverted plane into Roach Harbour. The balance of the trip was in gale force winds coming from the stern and we found the old boat rode just like a big rocking chair that was until we had a few on the beam. In the following twenty three years we had annual trips to Desolation Sound, Blackfish Sound and beyond and more good times than anyone can imagine. We had a few exciting adventures but many more wonderful evenings alone, or with friends or our kids sitting on the upper deck at happy hour with the barbecue grilling steaks or fresh caught prawns or salmon.

Gathering the History

When we purchased the boat in 1982 she had no name or official number just a 14K series licence number so I became interested in finding out about her history. I contacted several of the licensed owners but without any luck until I called the widow of Ernie Kay, who told me that her daughter Bonnie often sailed with her dad in the boat and that she might know the name. By this time it had been converted to commercial fishing and re-named the Bonnie Kay. Bonnie finally got back to me and she could only remember it as A1x or as Ajx, I checked with ships registry and nothing matched so I was stumped. As fate would have it Bob Spearing an amateur maritime historian called me about twenty minutes after that and asked if I had had any luck finding a name. I told him about the names I had and they were not a match at the registry and he said, "Hell that boat is the Aix and the Maritime Museum of British Columbia just acquired the Albion Iron Works steam engine from Walmis Newman for their collection!"

Bonnie Kay

The Nan Lea when she was sailing as the fishing vessel Bonnie Kay. (Photo from the Drinkwater collection.)

From that day forward I was able to piece together her history and through a letter in Westcoast Mariner magazine I was able to get in touch with the family of the original builder Captain H.J.F. Anderson. I met the Anderson brothers in Pender Harbour BC and they gave me as a gift the original builders ½ model of the Aix. George Anderson worked on the boat when his father was hired by the ABC Canning Company to collect fish for their cannery at Steveston. I was able to contact Anita Troop a granddaughter of Harry Troop the second owner and received a picture of the Aix in her original configuration complete with fish hold forward and some of her family history, they were Nova Scotia mariners of considerable fame.

Nan Lea

The Nan Lea Passing Burial Island (Photo from the Drinkwater collection.)

Next I was able to spend an afternoon with Walmis Newman of Birdseye Cove, Maple Bay and he told me about his years with the Aix, the engine changes, the cabin changes and gave me several pictures. One of his stories was when, as a shipwright, he got a job up the Fraser River, the Aix was under steam at that time and they used wood picked up on the beach to keep her running, he told me he had to buy two sacks of coal to get across the straight and they cost seventy five cents each, that was big purchase for him.

Their son, Walmis Jr. was born at the Resthaven Hospital in Tsehum Harbour and he lived on board with his family for many years, he came aboard the Nan Lea at the Cowichan Bay Wooden Boat Show, he stepped into the aft cabin and said, "If only my mother could see it now!". Walmis Jr. never saw a picture of the Aix in her original configuration. I was on my way to Cowichan Bay to show him the photo I had received from Anita Troop but unfortunately he had a stroke and died the night before.

I spent about seven years researching the history of the Aix, dozens of phone calls and letters to people who were amazed that the old boat was still afloat. I now had her original registered numbers and I applied to Ottawa to have them re-assigned to the Nan Lea, I was able to get copies of the original registration documents from the Archives in Ottawa and have them change the date of build from 1910 to 1908.

I would say that the Nan Lea / Aix is one of the best researched boats on the coast. I have the pictures from her start until I sold her in 2005. I have the official documents and a list of the previous owners and some notes from previous owners, information on the Albion Iron Works steam engine, magazines and several articles that have been written about her.

I guess you could call all of this a labor of love and it was a sad day to see her go but I sold her to people who have the resources to keep her in good condition. I left them with her history and an album of photos and their promise to keep her shipshape. That’s all I could do.

The Reconstruction Process In Pictures

Nan Lea

The Sea Rose on her way to Jenkins Marine by trailer. Ian Drinkwater is directing traffic. (Photo from the Drinkwater collection.)

Nan Lea

She is missing her foredeck – the magic of a chain saw! (Photo from the Drinkwater collection.)

Nan Lea

She is now missing her aft cabin – what came to be known as ’The Black Hole‘ – We were certified as ‘crazy’ down on the waterfront! (Photo from the Drinkwater collection.)

Nan Lea

The former aft cabin – sistering ribs. (Photo from the Drinkwater collection.)

Nan Lea

New planking. (Photo from the Drinkwater collection.)

Nan Lea

From Black Hole to Aft Cabin – Some great parties were held there and we went from crazy to visionaries (Photo from the Drinkwater collection.)

Nan Lea

Three months later and 3,000 new screws she was ready for launch. (Photo from the Drinkwater collection.)

Nan Lea

New stem project for Master Shipwright Grant Blundell (Cowichan Shipyard) (Photo from the Drinkwater collection.)

Nan Lea

New engine and pre-lubricator – she never started without full oil pressure (Cowichan Shipyard) (Photo from the Drinkwater collection.)

Nan Lea

Sistered ribs and new planks. (Photo from the Drinkwater collection.)

Nan Lea

Almost finished the planking (Westport Marina) (Photo from the Drinkwater collection.)

Nan Lea

Looking forward. (Photo from the Drinkwater collection.)

Nan Lea

A spacious new Galley looking forward to the wheelhouse (Photo from the Drinkwater collection.)

Nan Lea at 101

Author’s note: She was spotted in 2009 at anchor on Cortes Island and in good condition, her age at that time would be 101.

To quote from this article please cite:

Drinkwater, Ron (2013) The Restoration of the Aix / Nan Lea. 2013.

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