The Many Lives of the Noble Lady: From Wartime Naval Vessel to Liveaboard

by Caroline Gilbert 2016

Q-070

HMC ML–070 while commissioned for wartime service with the Royal Canadian Navy. (Photo from the John Boyd collection. )

The Noble Lady has been around British Columbia’s coast for more than 75 years, and today sits regally at the Government Dock in Campbell River. Since 2003 she has been the home of John Boyd and his wife Karen. When they first brought her down from Prince Rupert, she was still known as the Lahaina Lady, but as Boyd was to discover, this was only one in a number of previous incarnations of the same small ship.

At 112 feet in length and 18 feet in the beam, she has ample room to move around in, but she wasn’t originally built to be a live–aboard, nor a leisure cruising vessel. Instead, she was purpose built in 1941 by the Royal Canadian Navy (RCN) to serve in the Second World War; to be used as a patrol vessel along British Columbia’s coast. Her origins were uncovered by the Hunts, who Boyd had purchased her from, and the documentation the Hunts left on board gives ample clues to her history up until the time they took ownership.

Noble Lady

The Noble Lady as she appears today in Campbell River BC. (Photo from the Catherine Gilbert collection. )

The Noble Lady is one of eight Fairmile vessels remaining of the original 14 built on the west coast at a cost of about eighty thousand dollars each, although the Q070 is said to have cost $350,000 to build. In her first incarnation, her designation was HMC ML (Motor Launch) followed by the pendant Q–070 (Q070 was painted on the bow). Like the other Fairmiles, so called because they were designed by the Fairmile Marine Company, some of its components were built from a kit. It was assembled and finished by Star Shipyard (Mercer’s) Ltd. in New Westminster, and launched September 17, 1941, and delivered to the navy in March 1942.

The Fairmiles had double planked mahogany wooden hulls. Although designed to be outfitted with three marine diesel engines the scarcity of these engines in wartime meant that they employed American Hall Scott gasoline engines, and only installed two of them. They were outfitted with hydrophoes, radar and radio, and armament including an Oerlikon gun, a machine gun, depth charges and some small arms. The Q–070 carried a complement of 14 crew members and three officers – the officers usually drawn from the RCNR (Royal Canadian Naval Reserve) or RCNVR (Royal Canadian Naval Volunteer Reserve). Naval records show that the Q–070 patrolled out of Esquimalt and into Juan de Fuca Strait and was used for mine sweeping duties, then later was stationed at Yorke Island. Most naval vessels stationed at Yorke Island were used for examination purposes. The ship survived the war with no incident.

When the war ended in 1945, the Q–070 was sold, and it appears that the Marine Manufacturing Construction in Vancouver and Radium Chemical were owners in that same year. She was renamed as Machigonne, and her two original engines were replaced with one 400hp GMC engine. In Bruce Wishart’s article in The Northcoast Waterfront magazine (November 10, 1996), he says "Instead of the clutter of guns and equipment she was given an after house. A rounded tugboat style pilot house replaced the flying bridge." The Gibson Brothers purchased her in 1948 when they took over Sea Bus Lines, and by this time she had been converted into a passenger ferry that could carry up to 140 passengers, serving the Sunshine Coast.

John Boyd

Owner John Boyd on the upper deck. (Photo from the Catherine Gilbert collection. )

John Boyd likes to joke that he and the Noble Lady are the same age, but the kinship he has with her doesn’t end there. While perusing the pages of her history, he came upon a picture of the ship docked at Bliss Landing. He realized that as a child of about 10 years old, he had been a passenger on the Machigonne when it was the ferry that took him to summer camp on Keats Island in Howe Sound.

Interior view

Interior view in the Noble Lady in February 2015. (Photo from the Catherine Gilbert collection. )

When Black Ball Ferries took control of Sea Bus Lines in 1951, the company purchased the Machigonne but since they were building up their car ferry service at the time, they didn’t actually use her. Just one year later, she was purchased by Gulf Lines and renamed as Gulf Ranger. In 1954, W. Clark Gibson owned the boat, and it appears the name was changed again to Gulf Trader. Then in 1957, Johnstone Straits Enterprises purchased her. She was re–named as Coast Ranger. W. Clark Gibson had her again from 1958 to 1960, after which she was sold to Toni Parrot Bothwell and renamed as Saracen III. In 1961, Pacific Cruises of New Westminster purchased the ship for cargo purposes.

Machigonne

Machigonne at Bliss Landing in the late 1940s.(Photo from the John Boyd collection. )

After this hectic decade of being moved from place to place and passed from owner to owner, she seemed to fall into obscurity. She finally resurfaced in 1972 under the ownership of Hal Ohman of Ohman Boatyards in New Westminster. In Wishart’s article, he says that "Ohman tackled the worn patrol boat with enthusiasm. He repaired the hull, built a main deck around the old forward lounge and added a wheelhouse deck."

Machigonne

Machigonne in late 1940s. (Photo from the John Boyd collection. )

In the 1970s, John Boyd relates that Ohman was renting it to some male students to live aboard. Apparently just one side was painted, the side that showed at the dock, and the young men used the boat to lure young ladies aboard with the promise that they would go for a ride out to sea.

Sadly, Ohman himself was never able to take her to sea. Although he had almost transformed the warship come ferry into a comfortable personal yacht, failing health meant he couldn’t complete what he had started. It was Ohman who renamed her the Lahaina Lady.

Gulf Ranger

Gulf Ranger 1952–1953 (Photo from the John Boyd collection. )

Jim and Betty Lou Hunt purchased the Noble Lady in 1993 and continued the refit begun by Ohman. After repairing the electronics and the transom on dry dock, they made her seaworthy and after sitting for 21 years, she finally moved again under her own power.

When Boyd saw the ship for sale in Prince Rupert she had been in an accident. Apparently the engine had been replaced at one point with one that turned the propeller in the opposite direction to how it was designed to turn. The Hunts were piloting the boat, and when they thought they were pushing forward, the propeller was trying to take them back and they crashed into a dock in Vancouver. This didn’t deter Boyd however, who said of his decision to purchase her that "I didn’t think I was ready for the bone yard and I didn’t think she should be either."

Lahaina Lady

Lahaina Lady at Prince Rupert 2003. (Photo from the John Boyd collection. )

One of the first things he did was to remove the Portuguese bridge, which he did before bringing the boat to Campbell River. A marine engineer by trade, Boyd has experience with all kinds of vessels but still had much to learn about a refit of this magnitude. Initially he thought the work on her would be completed in five years, but 12 years later, the work continues.

Early on he stripped everything off the decks and wheelhouse roof, removing all the nails. Using fir plywood, he replaced the deck and used a screw gun normally used in putting in flooring to screw the wood down. He then started painting the deck – a big job considering the upper deck is 80 feet long and 18 feet wide. It took much trial and error before they found a paint that would stick to the deck, and at one point had to re–sheet before trying again, then finally had it fibreglassed. Boyd kept a piece of the original deck, which he explained was cut on a diagonal and is two layered. Calico cloth soaked in linseed oil was placed between the layers of wood which were held together with copper rivets.

In 2005 he had to make an unexpected repair. Karen Boyd was alone with the dog when a storm came up that was so severe, that she got off the ship and went to sleep at their daughter’s house. When she returned to the boat, she could see right through a section of the hull. When her husband saw the damage, he decided to patch up the hull using mahogany, the closest he could get to the Honduras mahogany used when it was originally built, as, he explained, “you can’t mix woods on a wooden hull as they absorb water differently.”

Lahaina Lady

Lahaina Lady when she first arrived in Campbell River BC. (Photo from the John Boydcollection. )

"If I had very deep pockets," says Boyd, "I would use Honduras mahogany throughout the ship." As it was, where they could leave the original deck, they did.

Today, the deck is sealed and waterproof, but still needs railings. Boyd also plans to build a new heating system and upgrade the wiring. The rudder will get replaced, but as for finishing work, Boyd says he can do that anywhere. A trip below decks confirms that Boyd has pretty much everything a person could want in the way of a workshop, with abundant tools and materials, and of course space; the boat just seems to go on and on.

Boyd may still replace the engine but the Noble Lady can cruise as she is. Boyd and his wife look forward to the day when they can take her out to Desolation Sound or cruise to Victoria in the little ship that first saw the coast more than 70 years ago.

Catherine Gilbert is the author of Yorke Island and the Uncertain War, defending British Columbia’s coast during WWII and of numerous articles about BC’s coast. (www.catherinegilbert.ca). A print version of this expanded article was originally published in the Western Mariner Magazine July 2015 – and reprinted with permission.



To quote from this article please cite:

Gilbert, Caroline (2016) The Many Lives of the Noble Lady: From Wartime Naval Vessel to Liveaboard. Nauticapedia.ca 2016. http://nauticapedia.ca/Gallery/Noble-Lady.php

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