rudder piece

Recovered fragment from the wreck of the Zephyr (Louis Vallee photo)

The Wreck of the Zephyr

by Lynn Salmon 2012

A winter's gale in 1872 saw the loss of the barque Zephyr on the east coast of Mayne Island in the Belle Isle Chain group among the treacherous reefs that lie just below the surface of the water. The vessel was loaded with sandstone slabs and columns destined for the US Mint under construction in San Francisco. When Zephyr departed the quarry at Newcastle Island (in Nanaimo harbour) on the morning of February 12th her Master was E.D. Hipson, the Chief Mate George Lusk, the Second Mate John Johnson, the crewmen were Moses Maudeville, John Aylward, James Stewart, Robert Wilson, Philip Gough, a Mr. Robertson and the Cook, Francis Sauler.


Chronometer recovered by divers (Louis Vallee photo)

The Zephyr was a typical vessel of her kind; three–masted with full sails on the forward masts and a fore and aft arrangement on the main. She was approximately 200 feet in length and was capable of carrying a large and heavy cargo of building stone. The large slabs - roughly 3 feet by 4 feet - weighed upwards of 3,500 pounds each and the columns of 90 feet long and 3 feet in diameter weighed closer to 40 tons.

The weather on departure was cold and clear but by the time the vessel had reached abeam Active Pass night had fallen and with it a storm with blinding snow and driving wind and seas. The vessel and crew "proceeded on their voyage with a fresh wind from the southeast but at about eight PM that night the wind veered from the southeast to the northeast and about one o'clock Tuesday moring the 13th ... a heavy snow storm set in during which ... from the period of sailing the best lookout was constantly kept on board, the Straits being narrow but owing to the snow storm it was impossible to distinguish the land ...".

This excerpt was taken from a deposition by George Lusk given to Victoria Notary Public Robert Bishop on February 19th after enduring a harrowing ordeal of shipwreck and survival. His story reveals all the elements of hardship and risk that was very much a part of the seafarers lot.

The Zephyr was badly mauled in the storm and was in constant danger of being thrown into the reefs that lie along Mayne Island’s Strait–side shore. Attempts were made to avoid collision with land when sighted, deploying the bowser anchor "... which failed to hold the vessel with a heavy sea running at the hull". Zephyr struck the rocks: " ... she was injured on the starboard bilge". The pumps were started and initially kept up but after an hour four feet of water was in the hold and levels were rising. The ship was doomed. Hipson wanted the men to remain on the ship for as long as they could; he did not want to risk lives by abandoning in the darkness and he made a plan to have the ship's boat ready to depart with all the crew at first light. Hipson told his crew to " ... get baggage ready to leave at daylight". But the storm continued to work on the grounded vessel and at just before 0630 am," she suddenly heeled over and turned from starboard to the port side off shore and the crew made a rush for the boat ... " All but the captain, cook and two crewmen managed to make the boat and pull it away from the ship's side. An attempt was made to remain nearby to get anyone that had ended up in the water. The cook was found clinging to the forward part of the wreckage and he was pulled from the water before the ship disappeared beneath the waves.

Lusk and his crew made it to nearby David Cove, beaching the boat and then walking approximately a half mile back along the shoreline to where they could see the Top Gallant and Royal Mast showing above the waterline as the Zephyr settled in 4 fathoms of water. One last crewman, Philip Gough, was recovered on the beach alive but there was no sign of the captain or crewman J. Stewart. The men remained on the beach in sight of Zephyr until three in the afternoon hoping to see some sign of the two missing men. But the cold and lack of food finally prompted them to make their way to some shelter, taking refuge with a fisherman and staying the night in his house on Plumper Pass (now known as Active Pass).

It was arranged, after a final fruitless visit to the wreck site with hopes that Hipson or Stewart might have made it to shore, that some of the crew should proceed to Victoria and report the loss of Zephyr. Second mate Johnson and crewman Gough remained behind to see about salvage while the others took passage to Victoria with the fisherman in his boat. They arrived on the 18th; Lusk reported first to the US Consulate representative David Eckstein, where he and his mates received "clothes and accessories". Lusk, the crewmen and the unnamed fisherman then proceeded to the notary public's office where their story of shipwreck was recorded in the flowing handwriting of Robert Bishop. The deposition took eight pages to fully record all the particulars including the recent visit to the US Consulate. By the 20th of February the story of the foundering appeared on page 3 of The Colonist newspaper. What became of the men of the Zephyr is since lost to us; presumably they continued to earn their living from the sea and it could be hoped that was their last encounter with shipwreck.

But that was not the last to be heard from Zephyr. Knowledge of the wreck had been local lore on Mayne Island for years but a chance discovery of Bishop's records - now housed in the British Columbia Archives - renewed interest in locating the wreck. It had lain undisturbed for over a century before being located by Island locals in 1976. Rosalie McPherson, Gary Le Tour and Bob Sauerberg made several dives and finally found Zephyr in 40 feet of water covered with a foot of sand resting on a sloping ledge surrounded by piles of ballast rocks.

Tug and barge

The tug and barge supporting the expedition (Louis Vallee photo)

The winter was spent diving on the remains of the ship with the recovery of the capstan, chronometer and other pieces destined for donation to the Plumper Pass Lockup - the 1898 Gaol Museum in Miner's Bay on Mayne Island. Winter diving afforded clearer water conditions with less murk and silt stirred up; choosing the right tide and current conditions was essential to success in those treacherous waters.

Column being lifted

Lifting one of the Zephyr’s sandstone columns (Louis Vallee photo)

Column being lifted

A specially made nylon sling was fabricated to lift the columns (Louis Vallee photo)

Eventually the wreck’s remains came to wider attention and in 1987 the Nanaimo Harbour Commission donated a large sum of money to the Underwater Archaeological Society of British Columbia (UASBC) to dive on the wreck with the view to recovering some of the sandstone pieces for the waterfront park in Nanaimo and a column to return to Newcastle Island where the pieces had been quarried. The UASBC commenced the ‘mapping’ and inventory of the wreck as well as helping to establish provincial heritage designation for its continued protection. Planning for the recovery of the two columns stowed in the bow section of the wreck as well as a number of the smaller sandstone slabs was also carried out. One of the columns was intended for display at the Vancouver Maritime Museum while the other was returned to Newcastle Island. Four sandstone blocks were destined for the waterfront park in Nanaimo while a fifth slab was also recovered for display at the Mayne Island Museum.

Recovered slab

Gary LeTour (left) and Louis Vallee with a recovered slab (Louis Vallee photo)

Local divers were involved with the day long procedure on October 17th 1987 working alongside the tug and barge crew (tug Manson and barge MacKenzie) and UASBC divers. Louis Vallee was one of a few divers who had explored the wreck before wider notice was taken of it and became involved with the UASBC in the column recovery exercise. While not permitted to dive on the site during recovery, he was on hand due to his knowledge of the currents, tides and location of the scattered remains. The hull and decks were heavily buried in silt and muck with only a few pieces of sizeable machinery - such as the winches - showing through.


On board the barge MacKenzie (Louis Vallee photo)

A pump was used to blow the debris away and unstick the columns and slabs from the bottom. Divers secured each piece with special nylon straps while on the surface the barge with a heavy-duty crane was used to carefully lift the pieces from the sea floor. The initial work called for two columns and four slabs to be retrieved but Vallee and Gary LeTour had previously asked that a fifth be brought up for the local museum. The UASBC divers made no promises but did encourage the two men to mark a slab with a "yellow ribbon and if we have time we'll pull one up for you". Nearing the end of the day it was looking unlikely as the divers were reaching their dive limits but as the sun began to go down a fifth slab was brought to the surface.

Eight 45 gallon drums were used to help float and support the sandstone slab as it was towed to David Cove where it was loaded onto a Department of Highways front end loader and taken to it's specially made cradle in front of the museum. It was power-washed of over a hundred years worth of marine growth and set in cement for permanent display in front of the Mayne Island Museum where it remains to this day.

Recovered Spike

Recovered spike (Louis Vallee photo)

A bronze plaque fixed to it records the brief details of the Zephyr while inside the museum some of the recovered artifacts are on display including the chronometer, rudder brace and various spikes and pins. There is no record of what the Zephyr looked like beyond the basic description of barque which Vallee refers to as being 'as common as muck' in those early days. When asked how they finally found the wreck after so many years and without any real precise location information, Vallee said he was told "to look for something that didn’t belong". The piles of ballast rock and the heavy anchor chain disappearing into the murk were instant give–aways for the vessel’s final resting place.

bronze plaque

Bronze plaque affixed to the sandstone slab at the Mayne Island Museum (Lynn Salmon photo)

Today the Zephyr continues to be part of Mayne Island’s rich and interesting history. The Museum is open summer months on weekends with the recovered slab on year-round display in the front yard.

Louis Vallee

Louis Vallee and recovered slab (Lynn Salmon photo)

Note: The author thanks Louis Vallee for his recollections of the recovery day and to the Mayne Island Museum for generously allowing photography of the artifacts and access to related research material.

Research Sources used for this article:

  • British Columbia Archives - call number MS-0966 textual records
  • Gulf Islands Driftwood newspaper article - October 21, 1987 (Page 17)

To quote from this article please cite:

Salmon, Lynn (2012) The Wreck of the Zephyr. 2012.


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