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Rick James – Marine Author and Archaeologist
by John M. MacFarlane 2011
Rick James is a writer, maritime historian, photographer and field archaeologist. Many people recognize him from his role in The Sea Hunters documentary Malahat: Queen of the Rum Runners, which aired on Canada's History channel. He is a compulsive story teller - he has so many of them that one leads into another as he charms all within earshot. The stories are a combination of first-hand experiences and a shared passion for British Columbia's maritime heritage.
He is the son of a naval Chief Petty Officer Gunnery Instructor who led a colourful career in both wartime and peacetime. He recalls that his father may have had the loudest voice out on the parade ground when he was stationed at the recruit training base at HMCS Cornwallis in 1951. Like many navy kids Rick travelled across Canada when his father was transferred back to the west coast and Rick finished high school in Victoria BC.
In 1976 he was living on Malcolm Island working in a tree–planting co–op when he started working as a deckhand and skiffman on commercial fish boats. He says that in those days the industry was booming so much that "they were even grabbing us longhairs off the dock to go fishing." His first seiner was The Millionaires working for "two gargantuan Finn brothers", Les and Dave Lanqvist. "I was a hippy and all the hippies on Malcolm Island who went fishing started out on The Millionaires". Later on, after he had experience, he moved on to other boats. The last boat he was on was the Hard Times with Robert Belveal out of Sointula. Over a period of ten years he experienced the best years on the Johnstone Straits. Now he observes that it is a life that has sadly disappeared. "It breaks my heart to have to go up to Sointula and Alert Bay to see how they have changed into almost sleepy ghost-towns. Life used to be so vibrant there. The bars were full, the wharves were busy handling nets and gear. Now that is gone."
In the final years the patterns of fishing changed. Seine boats started heading out two, three days ahead of the 0600 Sunday evening openings to sit out on ‘the spot’ in order to grab the best beach sets for Fraser River sockeye passing through Johnstone Straits. "Then we’d just drop the hook there and wait," he said, "and I couldn’t stand sitting there for two or three days at a time. Doing some minor net work the first day and then playing cards and drinking coffee for the rest of the time wasn't enough. It bored the crap out of me ... I’ve got too much nervous energy and need to move alot so got out and went back treeplanting full time."
His partner Paula Wild, a writer from Sointula, then got him interested in writing. Then in 1985, he settled in the Comox Valley and began to write - and to get really interested in interpreting West Coast maritime history that characterize his writing output. His partner urged him "Don't just talk about it - do it!" ... advice he followed and marked the start of a new career. His work has been published in numerous periodicals including The Beaver: Canada’s History Magazine, The Sea Chest: Journal of the Puget Sound Maritime Historical Society and the Western Mariner. Many Victorians will remember his work in the Victoria Times Colonist Islander during the 1990s. He is the author or co-author of a number of popular reports published by the Underwater Archaeological Society of British Columbia: Ghost Ships of Royston, Historic Shipwrecks of the Central Coast, Historic Shipwrecks of the Sunshine Coast and Historic Shipwrecks of the Lower Mainland. He also helped out with writing and photography for Harbour Publishing’s coffee table photo book, The Comox Valley.
His early successes in getting published awakened his desire to go back to school to resume an education interrupted by the late 1960s hippy movement and then his tree planting and commercial fishing careers. He studied history and archaeology at Simon Fraser University which opened up yet another path. With the beefing up of the Heritage Conservation Act in the early 1990s every development project required a study of potential for the existence of archaeological resources - and the services of an archaeologist. Previously archaeology was done by academics but the new Act created an industry of consultants. Since graduation in 1997 – at the age of 50 – he has worked with a number of archaeological consulting firms in field investigations.
I first met Rick when I was at the Maritime Museum of British Columbia around 1992. He was beginning his investigation on an old breakwater at Royston BC. For twenty years he has been pursuing a passion (he calls it an obsession) to focus attention on the wrecks that together make up the Royston Breakwater. To some observers the breakwater looks like a lot of rusty junk. But to James they represent a unique collection of the last tangible links to some really historic vessels – where anyone can get close to look at them.
He turned to the Underwater Archaeological Society of British Columbia (a volunteer, non-profit society) – who he claims may be the most active volunteer group of divers doing underwater archaeology to professional standards anywhere in North America. But convincing divers that ships lying on the bottom of the ocean weren’t the only ones that deserved attention was a tough argument ... but once they accepted his argument his support began to grow. And the Royston hulk breakwater was finally recognized as a significant maritime heritage site last Fall and consequently now has formal protection under the Heritage Conservation Act. Still, its a constant battle to thwart the souvenir hunters and looters who attempt to pillage the site.
He is a natural story-teller based on many hours of meticulous research to create the content. His interpretations - a colourful mix of industrial history, marine archaeology, sociology and maritime heritage - brings life to his stories of our fascinating West Coast heritage. His easy-going nature has doubtless opened doors to his many important sources of information. He is justly proud of his many publications and we can see from his passion that he will produce many more publications in the future.
James’ latest book is, West Coast Wrecks and Other Maritime Tales, will be released by Harbour Publishing in September 2011. For those wishing to order it the ISBN is 13: 978-1-55017-545-5 ISBN 10: 1-55017-545-9 Price: $24.95 CAD; Paperback 75 black and white photographs 128 pp. It is available through Amazon and better book sellers (the ones who carry marine history).
The Underwater Archaeological Society of B.C. recently announced that is now going to second print of The Ghost Ships of Royston this Fall since it proved so popular. Check out its availability by going to the Publications link on the UASBC website.
To quote from this article please cite:
MacFarlane, John M. (2011) Rick James – Marine Author and Archaeologist. Nauticapedia.ca 2012. http://nauticapedia.ca/Gallery/Rick_James.php
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