Through Black Binoculars: Boat Watching on the Sunshine Coast

by David Sheffield 2015

Vaucroft Beach

Model boat harbour on Vaucroft Beach - the author in centre with brothers 1964 (Photo from the Sheffield Family Collection.)

I learned about boats from my father. I could have learned far more from him, as he would explain in great detail – perhaps excessive detail – about all things practical and mechanical. Somehow, though, boats caught my imagination, whereas pipe fittings, grease nipples and how to properly mix epoxy glues did not. Later in life I was forced by necessity to acquire some of the skills in which I had been unwillingly tutored at an early age, but as an eight–year–old I was inexplicably and genuinely drawn to watercraft of all types.

From the age of five on, I spent every summer on North Thormanby Island, a rare coastal BC sandy atoll lying three kilometers off the entrance to Secret Cove. My parents acquired their slice of island paradise after some early attempts at family summer vacation fun that were anything but. Swimming at the local West Vancouver beach, with its nearby drainage discharge enriched with septic tank leeching, gave my three brothers and me a host of eye and ear infections. Attempts to vacation further afield were thwarted when we stubbornly refused to use the stinky outhouses while trailer camping on Vancouver Island. Clearly we were children who required a more pristine environment in which to thrive.

Thormanby Island offered such an environment with its broad, sandy beaches, dramatic sand cliffs and kilometres of winding forest roads. My father discovered this place during his early excursions up the coast in an impossibly small, open sailboat. We know little of this period in my father’s life, aside from a few black–and–white photos in an old album chronicling what he referred to as his "palmy days". There is one photo of him playfully "rowing" a dinghy beached high on the white sands of Thormanby, and another in the sailboat with a naked companion standing gazing out at the sea ahead, cheekily titled "looking forward at a stern."

Looking north and east from our deck on the Island I could take in a broad panorama extending from Welcome Pass, past Pender Harbour, and all the way to the northern tip of Texada Island. While most people were captivated by the mainland hills receding to the horizon in shades of green, blue and grey, and the evening pyrotechnics as the sun slid behind the forbidding profile of Texada Island, for me this was a giant amphitheater – a stage for a steady procession of boats big and small, working boats, naval vessels and luxury yachts, each with its own story. The period from 1960 to 1980 could be described as the golden age of pleasure boating on the BC coast, at least from the perspective of the boat watcher. Many of the classic wooden boats of the 1920s and 1930s were still going strong, and the post–war prosperity launched a whole fleet of modern aft–wheel–house Chris–Craft yachts: the Roamers, Constellations, Catalinas and Commanders with their frothy wakes, booming engines and California glamour. By the 1960s many naval vessels from the Second World War were seeing a second life as coastal freighters, fish packers or converted to pleasure use. My father could instantly identify which boats began their lives as mine sweepers, sub chasers and Fairmiles, and soon I could, too.

Much of the journey to Thormanby Island was spent on boats – or all too often waiting for boats. With capacities of less than 50 cars, passage to Langdale on the Sunshine Coast via the double–ended Black Ball ferries Smokwa and Bainbridge was far from assured. The Smokwa, built in Nova Scotia in 1946 suffered from frequent breakdowns, there were periods when the vessel was tethered to a tug and hauled back and forth at a glacial pace. On the return trip a single line of cars could stretch all the way from the Langdale terminal to lower Gibsons. On Sunday nights, mothers and kids frequently walked onto the ferry, leaving the husbands to complete the journey in the early hours of Monday morning. Both vessels were acquired as part of the fledgling BC Ferries fleet in 1961, and retired in the mid 1960s to make way for larger vessels. The Bainbridge, renamed Jervis Queen, spent her final days in the mid 1980s rotting at a Fraser River pier.


On the deck of the Sousam headed toward Secret Cove 1962. The author is on the right with his brother and a family friend (Photo from the Sheffield Family Collection.)

Vacations really started on the crossing from the beautiful and many–pronged Secret Cove, just north of Halfmoon Bay, to the government wharf on North Thormanby. The water taxi was a wooden double–ender named Sousam, likely a converted Columbia River gillnetter hull. With a forward pilot cabin, bench seats on either side of the engine box, green canvas decks, two steering stations and an Easthope engine, the Sousam, while less than 30 feet, was a trim little ship. Narrow, low and slow, and with a distinctive putt–putt and steadfast operator Francis Stone at the helm, she was the island’s lifeline, carrying families, pets, stoves and propane cylinders to both Vaucroft Beach and Buccaneer Bay. On fine days, kids were permitted to ride the roof, clinging to the rails between the marker lights and the neatly coiled ropes. Many years later I was astonished to see the Sousam at French Creek Marina near Parksville, horribly converted to a utility boat with an ungainly, homemade plywood and fiberglass cabin.

My father built our cottage himself over a five–year period on weekends and during his two–week annual vacations. Whereas most island cottages of the era were low–pitch, cedar, post-and-beam buildings referred to as McCombie specials after the local island contractor, ours was more traditional, the design predicated by the need for solo construction. To speed up the building process, if only slightly, we kids were assigned weekly projects, ranging from hauling up buckets of gravel from the beach to nailing the plywood gussets on roof trusses, each nail location methodically marked for us with an X. There was cedar paneling to be sanded and always something to be painted or soaked with preservative.

The cottage had a covered porch running two–thirds of the distance along the front, with a dining nook occupying the remaining third. The porch with its broad railing, day bed and big bin of comic books was the perfect place to hang out, drink homemade root beer and watch boats. For my ninth birthday, my father bought me a pair of big black 10x50 Zeiss binoculars and a bound set of Seagraph navigational charts. Soon the paint was worn off the bottom of the binocular casing from constant use on the perpetually sandy porch railing.

Large yachts were the prize of my boat viewing. Anything over 90 feet in length with a proper upper deck and stand-alone wheelhouse, prominent funnel and life boats on davits got my maritime juices flowing. There were still plenty of classic old wooden hulled tugs around with their straight bows, black, gently curved hulls and rows of yellow doors, as well as a myriad of coastal working vessels – freighters, fish packers, seiners and trollers headed to points north – but to me they were bit players compared with the yachts. Their lines suggested miniature ocean liners and they carried with them the aura and exotica of great wealth. They also held the possibility that they would actually visit our sandy islands and ride at anchor in the bay, granting us an opportunity for up–close inspection.

Learning to row

Learning to row in pond on Vaucroft Beach – Author at stern with brothers 1962 (Photo from the Sheffield Family Collection.)

Tattenham Ledge stretches from the northern entrance to Welcome Pass northward about one–and–a–half kilometers, where its end is marked by a large, green bell buoy with a flashing light. Parts of the reef and its then–abundant kelp beds were visible just below the surface at low tide. Larger boats were expected to clear the buoy before turning south into Buccaneer Bay with its sandy beaches and sheltered day moorage. Yachts would emerge from the pass at cruising speed with Smugglers and Secret Cove to starboard, and then with luck suddenly veer sharply south around the buoy, their hulls still side–slipping northward. Slowing down as they passed the Vaucroft wharf, I was able to appreciate them in their close-up glory of polished teak, brass and gleaming white hulls. A visit to Buccaneer Bay was a popular stop-over for Hollywood stars heading north for a Campbell River fishing expedition, or perhaps to a luxury mid–coast lodge or in pursuit of trophy King salmon and halibut on the north coast. Bob Hope, Bing Crosby and John Wayne were all possible sightings, and with the yachts in closer range and a little imagination one might actually spot a celebrity or at least someone who looked like one.

Many of the fabled classic steel and wood cruisers and yachts of the northwest coast regularly cruised the waters of the Sunshine Coast, and Buccaneer Bay was a favourite stop. Serviced at one time by the Union Steamships, the remnants of the old dock and pier are still visible in the bay, and the public wharf at Vaucroft continues to serve the island residents. In the period from 1900 to 1940, shipyards flourished in Vancouver, with many of the fine yachts beginning their lives rolling off the ways in Coal Harbour at shipyards such as Hoffar–Beeching, Menchions, and Fenner and Hood. The Taconite, Fifer, Norsal and Cora Marie were tributes to the exemplary craftsmanship and design of large (100-foot plus) yachts in the period between the first and second world wars. Somewhat smaller yachts such as the Bardick, Meander, Wanderer, Fusilier and Saxony were equally breathtaking with their upright, classic lines, polished teak and gleaming white hulls that sliced through the water with deceptive ease.

Buccaneer Bay

Sailboat Regatta Buccaneer Bay 1990 (Photo from the Sheffield Family Collection.)

The 125–foot Taconite, built in 1930 for the Boeings, was stately and distinctive with its two tall masts, teak wheelhouse and aft radio room on the upper deck. It was the first pleasure craft to be fitted with radar and was a frequent visitor to Buccaneer Bay. As we circled the yacht in our tiny aluminum boat one evening, a very elegant older lady, who we assumed to be Mrs. Boeing, waved us over, went into the saloon and returned with a big bunch of coloured balloons which she tossed down to us with a smile.

Originally built as a company yacht for the Powell River Company, the Norsal was owned by the Gibson family for decades and was a familiar site on the Sunshine Coast in the 1960s and 1970s. Long and low with a classic schooner stern, the Norsal was renamed the Maui Lu for a period, and made the journey across the Pacific to Hawaii. Many years later, I met the final owner of the Norsal who skippered her on a fateful voyage across Hecate Strait from Haida Gwaii in the dead of winter, only to be nearly lost in a sudden gale that claimed the venerable vessel with waves so high they took out the wheelhouse windows.

Fifer was another ‘head–turner’. This 105–foot, steel–hulled luxury yacht was built by Burrard Drydocks in 1939. She was originally commissioned for Captain William Crawford of the Empire Stevedoring Company, but when commandeered into military service as a patrol vessel was outfitted with machine guns and armour–plated windows, and spent the war searching for Japanese submarines. She later served as the yacht of Clarence Wallace, Lieutenant Governor of British Columbia; then as a company yacht of the Powell River Company; and at one point was owned by celebrity San Francisco lawyer, Melvin Belli. A British Columbia coastal fixture for several decades, the Fifer is now based in San Francisco and used for cruises around the Bay.

Today with super yachts ranging up to nearly 600 feet in length, these grand old ladies of the coast would be lost at the yacht harbours of the Mediterranean and Caribbean. In the mid 1960s, however, our little bay was treated to a visit by the yacht Danginn, commissioned and built in 1960 by billionaire ship–owner Daniel K. Ludwig, who pioneered the construction of super tankers in Japan. At a cost of $3,000,000 and with a length of 264 feet, Danginn was reported to have been the largest yacht afloat at the time, hosting the 1960s jet set, with Princess Margaret, the Aga Khan, David Niven, Clark Gable, and Frank Sinatra all regular visitors. Reputed to have been the richest man in the world, Ludwig was noted for his stinginess in business, and when Danginn visited Vancouver, it was reported that the ship had been banned from a number of ports for failing to pay its dues.

Built in Japan, the Danginn had a very classic profile and low superstructure, giving it a modern and sleek appearance. Renamed many times, she is now called Al Diriyah and is owned by Sheik Ahmed Yamani. Our encounter with Danginn came at the wharf in Secret Cove where I had gone with my mother to pick up a few groceries. We were trying to get a spot at the crowded float near the general store when a tender from the Danginn came up behind us, dwarfing our little 12–foot aluminum. A crew member rather haughtily called down to us, "Are you kids staying or playing?" As the 13–year–old operator of my own vessel, I took the term "kids" as a bit of an insult, but expect my mother was quite okay with it. We later overhead them at the store’s phone booth discussing arrangements to have a new sous chef flown in, as the current one was not up to par.

Out of the dozens of classic yachts that cruised the waters of the BC coast in the 1950s and 1960s, the 112–foot Cairdeas with its bright blue hull was the one that generated the most excitement for me. She began her life as SC–1372 in 1943, one of 438 wooden sub–chasers built in the United States during World War II. Today there are just seven of these hulls still afloat, one of which remains the Cairdeas. After active convoy duty through the Hawaiian, Johnson, Marshals, Marianas, and Palau Island chains as well as the Ulithi Atoll southwest of Guam, she was sent to Okinawa and converted to a shallow–water minesweeper in preparation for the invasion of Japan. When the war ended, she emerged as the company yacht Cairdeas (Gaelic for friendship) for the General Construction Company, and served as a live–aboard for the Boyd family. Our neighbour at Thormanby was the daughter of the owner, and her father regularly visited Vaucroft Beach and Savary Island. We could always be sure that the Cairdeas would swing around the buoy and tie up at the Vaucroft wharf. Island residents streamed to the dock where they were invited on board for a tour and ice cream. Although rumoured to have sunk in the Inland Passage in the late 1990s, in fact she suffered extensive interior damage but was refurbished for charter and personal use and is now moored in Bellingham.

Secret Cove

Yacht aground and damaged at mouth of Secret Cove 1972 (Photo from the Sheffield Family Collection.)

Some forty years on, I still have my battered Zeiss binoculars and Seagraphs, and every summer scan the waters between Welcome Pass and Pender Harbour. Large yachts and unusual craft continue to excite me and I run to my old vantage point on the porch. Somehow, though, the big, molded fiberglass and steel creations of recent years, with their purposeful and sometimes sinister look, seem almost like spacecraft invading the timeless ambiance of my coastal vista. Always in a hurry, they only rarely stop at our bay, beckoned at great speed to somewhere beyond.

To quote from this article please cite:

Sheffield, David (2015) Through Black Binoculars: Boat Watching on the Sunshine Coast. 2015. Binoculars.php

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