Jack Knox: The wreck Vanlene was awash in cars

Jack Knox mugshot genericNow that that Ebola-laden Russian freighter (I might not have that quite right) has been safely towed away from the shores of Haida Gwaii. …

Quite the kerfuffle this weekend as the broken-down container ship Simushir drifted helplessly toward the rocks with 400 tonnes of bunker fuel in its tanks, an environmental and political disaster waiting to happen. (You could just about hear the terrified squealing from Enbridge and Stephen Harper before the Canadian Coast Guard raced to the rescue.)

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The Simushir wouldn’t have been the first ship to crack up on this coast. Note that the coast guard learned valuable disaster-response lessons last winter while overseeing the cleanup of the Brigadier General M.G. Zalinski, a U.S. army transport ship that sank 100 kilometres south of Prince Rupert in 1946 with a cargo that included several unexploded bombs.

History showed the west side of Vancouver Island to be particularly treacherous, with an average of more than one shipwreck per nautical mile of coastline along what was called the Graveyard of the Pacific.

None of the shipwreck stories was odder, though, than that of the Vanlene, the freighter that turned into the gift that kept on giving to the people of Ucluelet and Bamfield 42 years ago.

The Vanlene was bound for Vancouver with a cargo of 300 Japanese-built Dodge Colts when it slammed into a reef near Austin Island at the entrance to Barkley Sound in a thick fog March 14, 1972. (One Austin Stops 300 Dodge Colts was, supposedly, a headline of the day.)

It turned out the vessel had no functioning navigation equipment, and the captain, who had made his way across the Pacific with the aid of a compass alone, thought he was entering Juan de Fuca Strait. Oops.

The 38 Chinese crew members were unharmed, but the ship was a goner, its stern underwater, its bow poking skyward.

Helicopters plucked 131 cars off the ship before giving up. Bamfield’s Bill McDermid and a couple of pals had a plan to cut open the hull, peel it back like a sardine can and use the makeshift ramp to drive 40 of the remaining Colts onto a barge.

“You could drive them around inside the ship,” he recalled Saturday from his Sidney home. “The keys were in them and they were all fuelled up.”

Unfortunately, the salvagers withdrew permission for the scheme.

Never mind. With a nod from the RCMP, scavengers set out from Bamfield, Ucluelet and Port Alberni in fishboats, pleasure craft and even the odd leaky canoe. They swarmed the abandoned ship like ants at a picnic, carting away anything that wasn’t nailed down and much that was. The Daily Colonist reported people hauling away lifeboats, radio gear, toilets, writing paper, a closet full of linen …

A few people popped engines out of the Colts, though their metal parts soon rusted in the coastal air. Plenty of tires got pulled off and hauled away, mostly by people from Ucluelet. (“They had a road,” McDermid says. “We didn’t.”)

You can still go into homes around Barkley Sound and find artifacts. One woman I met used a little table to hold houseplants. Another fellow had a porthole mounted on his wall. You can still find dinnerware bearing the ship’s insignia. “It was on everything, right down to the rice bowls,” McDermid says.

In fact, he still has a couple of Vanlene plates today. The retired commercial fishermen had a life ring, too, but doesn’t know where it got to. Most valuable to him in 1972 were the carpentry tools, kegs of nails and other bits used in building his house.

It was risky business salvaging the stuff, though, with the seas heaving and the deck dangerously slanted. “You had to be quick on your feet to get from the ship to the boat you were on.”

There would be 10, 15 people at a time slipping and sliding around the ship as it creaked and groaned, sometimes shifting suddenly.

Eventually, the Vanlene slipped off the rocks and dropped to the bottom, where it remains a popular spot for divers.

McDermid still has a hint of regret in his voice as he remembers all those brand new cars going to a watery grave. “They went down with the ship.”

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