The First Dominion Lifeboat on the British Columbia Coast

by John MacFarlane 2019

Dominion Lifeboat

The First Dominion Lifeboat in Victoria Harbour Next to the C.G.S. Madge. (Photo f–02889_141 from the British Columbia Archives collection.)

An almost unknown episode in the history of lifesaving on the cost of British Columbia began prior to 1906 with establishment of the Lifesaving Association of British Columbia. The key players were Captain John T. Walbran, Secretary J. Peirson, H.J. Marsh, F.V. Hobbs, W. Hawksby and others. They were concerned about the number of vessels that were wrecked between the entrance to Juan de Fuca Strait and Cape Beale, an area that with increased marine traffic had become one of the most dangerous places to ships in the Pacific.

A lifeboat was built by a Mr. Watt in Vancouver for deployment in Victoria. In 1906 the Marine Agent in Victoria turned it over, on July 08th, to the newly appointed Coxswain. This prototype lifeboat was an experiment. The Coxswain received $7.50 per month and the crew members $3.00 per month in pay, funded by the Marine and Fisheries Department of the Federal Government. It was originally intended that the crew be employed only in the winter months.

The first Coxswain of the Lifeboat was Captain John C. Voss, newly arrived back in Victoria from his world travels in the dugout canoe Tilikum. The first crew consisted of F. Hatcher, E. Jones, W. Hibbs, Charles White, T. Wilson, William Worth, E.T. Laurie, Paul Beygrau, H. Laing, W.H. Spurrier, W.S. Duncan and W.H. Richdale. The choice of Captain Voss as Coxswain was inspired as he had become world famous for his ability to safely manoeuvre small bats in heavy seas and surf conditions.

Captain John C. Voss

The First Coxswain Captain John C. Voss with his Patent Sea Anchor (Photo from the Maritime Museum of British Columbia collection.)

The boat was stored in a navy boathouse in Esquimalt Harbour and the crew practiced on Saturday afternoons for which they were paid 30 cents per hour. Initially there was much enthusiastic support of the lifeboat. Captain Voss was a consummate promoter who understood very well how to generate public interest. Voss organized several public demonstrations. The agreed public signal was four times eight bells rung at City Hall, and the same signal on the whistle at the brewery.

The Lifesaving Association arranged the purchase of a Lyle gun to be carried by the lifeboat. This was an impressive brass mortar used to throw a line using 32 calibre black powder blank shells. Projectiles for the gun were made of iron with an eye bolt screwed into the base to which was attached a messenger line. Once retrieved by the crew of the distressed vessel this line was attached to a larger line intended for lifesaving.

On one occasion, at the Gorge Park, he arranged for a derelict vessel to be moored nearby to act as a vessel in distress. A rocket was launched to signify a shipwreck. The lifeboat was launched, and the crew attended the scene of the ‘wreck’ burning blue lights. They then pulled within the radius of a searchlight where it could be clearly seen. The lifeboat bowmen took lines ashore and the rest of the crew fired the Lyle gun to put a line over the distressed vessel and made fast. The actual lifeline was then passed over and made fast to both the vessel and the shore.

A blue light from shore indicated that all was ready. A block was placed on the line and crew members were transferred to shore in a breeches buoy. The onshore force then hauled the man to shore.

Captain Voss and several of the crew resigned because the wages paid were inadequate. They crew could not live on the wages. Voss was dissatisfied with the location of the lifeboat in Victoria – and that it relied upon chance towing from nearby vessels to be delivered to the scene of any emergency. The decision was made to re–locate the lifeboat to Bamfield. Voss oversaw the installation of spars in the lifeboat at the Point Ellice Bridge while a new Coxswain was sought. The boat was then moved to Bamfield.

To quote from this article please cite:

MacFarlane, John (2019) The First Dominion Lifeboat on the British Columbia Coast. 2019.

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