Recognizing and Preserving Floating Heritage in British Columbia

by John M. MacFarlane 2017


A vessel (the Ricochet) undergoing restoration at Shelter Island Marina. (Photo from the John MacFarlane collection.)

Floating Heritage

As vessels age, there is a natural attrition to the inventory that results from the reluctance of owners to sink money into reconstructions or refits. Vessels are discarded because scrapping entails less risk and less bother than simply re–building anew. Yet reconstructing, updating, and repairing a vessel can extend its useful life by several decades.

Sentimental people sometimes regret the passing of a vessel from the scene and try to extend its life – sometimes as a museum exhibit. The emotional appeal of some vessels can generate some critical mass among the public who wish that someone (other than themselves) should invest the time and money necessary to do the preservation or conservation.

The conservation of vessels is best carried out by their owners – people who have a vested interest in their longevity. A grassroots movement that exemplifies the benefits of extending the lives of vessels is the best way to keep them afloat. Over reliance on government programs or statutes is less likely to stimulate the longevity of our heritage fleet.

Nitinat Chief

The Nitinat Chief Adapted to New Uses and Still Going Strong (Photo from the John MacFarlane collection.)

Heritage Designations & Preservation

The British Columbia Vintage Vessel Registry (1990) was one of the first formal heritage designation programs in existence in the World. Designation was voluntary in the sense that it could be conferred only after application by the owner. A number of vessels that met rigorous criteria were chosen to be documented by the Maritime Museum of British Columbia.

An annual catalogue of vessels in the year’s uptake was published to showcase the new designations and to share their pedigrees. Unfortunately after about six years, the volunteer drive to keep the program going was insufficient to sustain it. The program is currently dormant – but it could be revitalized when the Museum considers it appropriate to do so.

A commitment to designating heritage vessels is slowly growing in other countries. In the United States, the federal government has designated 133 National Historic Landmarks that are ships, shipwrecks, and shipyards. They represent five percent of the total of all sites carrying that designation and can be found in 31 US States. Ireland’s Heritage Act (1995) defines floating heritage by statute as "any vessel more than 25 years old of significance because of intrinsic construction, or association with commercial, cultural, economic, industrial, military, political, social or other history of the country."

The Barcelona Charter (2002), based on the Charter of Venice (1964), established criteria for the recovery and safeguarding of active traditional vessels and articulated the need to preserve them as monuments. The European Union celebrates European Maritime Day on May 20th each year.

In Canada, some "heritage vessels" are preserved by government institutions or by not–for–profit organizations. This work is not carried out as part of a wider national strategy; instead it represents the fruit of hard labour by volunteers and donors. Several of these vessels exist in every province and territory of Canada, and their ongoing management and conservation is dependent on the vagaries of funding programs, on shrinking budgets, and on the ability of public donors to fund their continued existence.

As much as it is a great joy, it is equally a great burden for any organization to preserve and restore floating heritage. Some dry–berthed vessels stored inside buildings fare better than those afloat, but without water, they lose their context and become lifeless artifacts on display rather than living vessels. Even dry–berthed they are valuable heritage assets.

HMCS Oriole

HMCS Oriole – a rare example of Federal Government maintained floating heritage. (Photo from the Nauticapedia collection.)

Definitions of Vessel Classifications

There are no ‘official’ definitions of the labels that apply to ships and boats but there are six terms that are frequently used. They are not necessarily interchangeable – and each one carries value–loaded attitudes from the people who use them.

The definitions employed by the Antique and Classic Boat Society Inc. are good ones and could be extended to describe all classes of floating heritage (such as working boats, not just yachts or vessels constructed of wood). Their definitions shift annually in their criteria (advancing by a year per annum).

Antique Boat: a generic collective term which refers to old boats generally, but tends to focus on yachts and working vessels with charisma. They tend to be wooden vessels which have been restored to a high degree of integrity or have large amounts of original fabric. The Antique and Classic Boat Society Inc. defines this as a boat built between 1919 and 1943.

Classic Boat: a term that tends to be used in association with old yachts and working boats which have been restored or maintained in a high level of quality. The Antique and Classic Boat Society Inc. defines this as a boat built between 1943 and 1968.

Floating Heritage: this is the most generic of all the terms and refers to any vessel, of any size, function, material or level of maintenance.

Heritage Vessel: this term is often applied to vessels that have been officially recognized by government agencies or NGOs as having particular heritage values. Sometimes the designation comes with an explicit or implicit requirement to maintain the vessel at a high level of preservation.

Historic Vessel: In some jurisdictions this term is used to describe a vessel that has links to historic events, personalities, and technologies. The Antique and Classic Boat Society Inc. defines this class as vessels built before 1919.

Contemporary Vessel: The Antique and Classic Boat Society Inc. says that there two sub–classes: early contemporary are wooden boats built between 1976 and 25 years ago. For 2017, the end of the early contemporary period is boats built in 1993. Late Contemporary is wooden boats built in the most recent 25 years. For 2014, that period begins with boats built in 1990.

Replica Vessel: The Antique and Classic Boat Society Inc. defines this class as those that are reproduction or copy of any of the above.

Vintage Vessel: this term was used by the Maritime Museum of British Columbia to describe vessels that are 40 years old or older, and exist in a floating condition (or are dry berthed by a heritage organization). These vessels were catalogued in an official registry. This scheme has been idle now for more than 20 years.

Delta plaque

Plaque designating the Delta as the oldest vessel afloat in British Columbia. (Photo from the John MacFarlane collection.)

British Columbia&rsquos Floating Heritage

We are in the fortunate position in British Columbia to have a detailed inventory of the floating heritage (by any definition). Almost every vessel has been documented by volunteers and many have photographic documentation. This is all publicly available on the internet with costs covered by private donors. This documentation did not exist at the time of the British Columbia Vintage Vessel Registry which was a barrier to progress.

Curiously today (2017) there are more old vessels afloat than in 1990 and this is probably due to a growing sensitive public awareness of the value of older craft. Almost all of these vessels are privately owned and maintained.

Dorothy I

The Dorothy I is probably the oldest vessel still afloat in British Columbia in 2017. (Photo from The John MacFarlane collection.)

Issues in Preservation

Funding and budgets

Obtaining floating heritage is not difficult. Many owners would gladly turn over their vessels (either for a nominal sum or for an income tax charitable donation receipt). But without a solid business plan in place – for each vessel this is usually a costly mistake. The capital cost of restoration is only the beginning. It is the annual moorage, maintenance and periodic rebuilds that cause huge problems later on the ownership cycle. An endowment for each vessel might provide the long term confidence needed to assure that assuming ownership is sustainable.

Designating and determining significance

Not every old vessel is worth preserving. Age alone, while significant, does not merit preservation. Additional factors such as significance of design, builder, amount of original fabric still in place, the association to former owners or historic events are examples of "value–added" attributes which help to separate the interesting vessels from ones that are truly significant. A set of criteria that is recognized throughout the nautical heritage community would go a long way toward coordinating and confirming assessments of significance.

Private vs public efforts

Many people seem to hold the conviction that preservation of nautical heritage is something that should be done by governments. While it is true that the federal government contributes significant operational funding to some institutions in eastern Canada for this purpose, there does not appear to be any appetite to assume this responsibility in Western Canada. The Provincial Government has signalled long ago that this is not a priority.

It can be argued that private efforts would be the most successful. Preservation of privately held vessels which are regularly in use is likely the most successful model. An owner who actively participates in the maintenance and operation of a vessel will ensure that it is kept in good shape.

The Role of Museums

Some museums own examples of floating heritage which are still afloat or are dry–berthed. It is potentially possible for more vessels to be included in museum collections but generally speaking none have this capacity. Storage space, maintenance, and restoration costs are such that for most institutions this is not realistic. The truth is that no museum can successfully maintain floating heritage over the long term and still carry out its other obligations the three–dimensional and two-dimensional artifact collections. Where success is obvious is in dry–berthing heritage. The vessels then become large artifacts stored in better conditions which, ideally, can be controlled.


The Solander is an example of another vessel kept afloat by re–purposing. (Photo from the John MacFarlane collection.)

Potential Future Strategies

I recommend that action be taken by an ad hoc group of concerned marine heritage enthusiasts to address specific issues on an on–going basis. The main issues to be addressed initially would be:

  • 1. Adoption of a terminology and classification structure that would be used commonly to describe old vessels;
  • 2. Investigate the feasibility of the re–formation of a recognition program to highlight old vessels, particularly ones being kept active and maintained;
  • 3. Investigate programs that might be recommended to industry and/or government that give support to owners of old vessels (as for example, the concessions that antique automobile collectors have negotiated for their preservation activities);
  • 4. Investigate approaches to raise the profile of floating heritage in British Columbia to a wider public audience;
  • 5. Initiate efforts to extend the reach of these programs to freshwater floating heritage;
  • 6. Ensure that working vessels are accorded the same respect as those renewed or restored by owners as yachts are accorded;
  • 7. Investigate the feasibility of tax relief for work in keeping the oldest vessels maintained and afloat.


  • - Brower, Norman (1985) International Register of Historic Ships. Annapolis MD: Naval Institute Press.
  • - Delgado, James P. (1985) Nominating Historic Vessels and Shipwrecks to the National Register of Historic Places. National Register Bulletin. Washington DC: US Department of the Interior.
  • - MacFarlane, John M. (1989) Recognition Planned for British Columbia Heritage vessels. The Resolution: (Quarterly Journal of the Maritime Museum of British Columbia). Victoria BC
  • - MacFarlane, John M. (1990) Vintage Vessel Registry Program Proposal. Maritime Museum of British Columbia, Victoria BC.
  • - MacFarlane, John M. (1990) British Columbia’s Floating Heritage. Maritime Museum of British Columbia, Victoria BC.

To quote from this article please cite:

MacFarlane, John M. (2017) Recognizing and Preserving Floating Heritage in British Columbia. 2017.


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