Wreck of the Uzbekistan

Wreck of the Uzbekistan

This past August I found my­self on the in­cred­i­bly beau­ti­ful and fab­u­lous West Coast Trail which runs along the out­side coast of Vancouver Island.  I was as­signed to Pachena Point light sta­tion for a month-long post­ing work­ing as a re­lief light­keep­er but what was par­tic­u­lar­ly mov­ing was that I was sit­ting right be­side the Graveyard of the Pacific where my fa­ther had been in­volved with a res­cue op­er­a­tion of a ship up on the beach some 77 years earlier.

On April 2, 1943, in the midst of World War II, HMCS Outarde the Royal Canadian Navy minesweep­er which my fa­ther, Dick James, was serv­ing aboard as an Able Seaman, hap­pened to be en­gaged in minesweep­ing op­er­a­tions out in Juan de Fuca Strait. Then they re­ceived or­ders that they were to pro­ceed at full speed to the scene of a strand­ed ship up on the beach just two miles down from Pachena Point. This was the Russian lend-lease freighter S.S. Uzbekistan which had been launched from a ship­yard in St. Nazaire, France in 1937 and mea­sured 326 feet in length and was 3039 reg­is­tered tons.

The freighter slipped her moor­ings in Portland, Oregon, the morn­ing of April 1st, 1943, and was bound for Seattle where she was to load lend-lease sup­plies for Vladivostok. Unfortunately, with a south­east gale blow­ing bring­ing with it lim­it­ed vis­i­bil­i­ty, once up along the out­side coast of the Olympic penin­su­la, they missed see­ing the light of the Umatilla buoy. Then when they did fi­nal­ly see a flash­ing light they mis­took it as that of the Umatilla. They had made a grave error, in­stead, it was that of the Swiftsure buoy sit­ting out off the en­trance to Juan de Fuca Strait. As a re­sult, the cap­tain held his ship on a steady norther­ly course which had them head­ed right into the out­side coast of Vancouver Island. To make mat­ters worse both the lights at Cape Beale and Pachena Point had been shut down fol­low­ing the shelling of the Estevan Point light sta­tion a lit­tle far­ther up the out­side coast by the Japanese sub I‑26 on the 20th of June the year before.

HMCS Outarde, with my fa­ther aboard, ar­rived off­shore at the scene of the strand­ed ves­sel late the af­ter­noon of April 2nd to find her ground­ed some 150 yards off the beach sit­ting broad­side up against a rocky shelf just off the mouth of the Darling River. While there were some U.S. coast guard and Canadian naval pa­trol ves­sels sit­ting off­shore ready to as­sist with a res­cue, it was the Outarde’s whaler car­ry­ing a land­ing party of 11 men that were able to make it in along­side the Uzbekistan. Unfortunately though, as the whaler ap­proached the strand­ed ship and what with a strong sea pound­ing against her hull, she was car­ried around in­side her bow. Here the whaler was caught in the break­ers and hurled for­ward in the surf to be swamped but luck­i­ly was de­posit­ed up­right among the rocks well in­shore. The Russian crew who had all land­ed safe­ly and were camped out just up off the beach went down to lend the whaler’s crew a hand.

After sig­nal­ing be­tween ship and shore, the Outarde’s land­ing party left the beach that evening to head off to Pachena Point where arrange­ments were made to ac­com­mo­date the sailors. Here they re­ceived a good meal and beds for the night. The next morn­ing the Outarde flashed a sig­nal to Pachena in­struct­ing the land­ing party to head out on the trail for Bamfield where they would be picked up to re­join their ship.

So there I was some 77 years later after this major ship loss, out on Pachena Point. Then with some half-de­cent weath­er and a good low tide one af­ter­noon, I hiked down the beau­ti­ful West Coast Trail to her wreck site. It re­quired a bit of search­ing and with some scram­bling out over the rocky shelf, I fi­nal­ly came across what lit­tle was left of the Uzbekistan. There it was, its huge boil­er sit­ting out there with the surf pound­ing over it.
boiler in the sea

Still with us, Johnny Schnaar’s Kitnayakwa

Kitnayakwa Rum Row, Ensenada, early 1930s. Fraser Miles photo.

It was only a short time after my rum run­ning book came out that I began being con­tact­ed by folks with more tales to share and tell. I was par­tic­u­lar­ly in­trigued to hear from Susan Ben – Oliel who re­vealed that she and her hus­band were the cur­rent own­ers of Johnny Schnaar’s fast pur­pose built ‘run­ner Kitnayakwa.

Susan Ben – Oliel said that “there is an in­ter­est­ing story and one word be­hind the ac­qui­si­tion of the Kitnayakwa – my hus­band found it on the Seattle Craigslist! It was ini­tial­ly in bad shape and was partially

The Kitnayakwa
The Kitnayakwa as she was orig­i­nal­ly found. (Photo from the Susan Ben – Oliel collection.)

sub­merged when we had it brought up to Canada in July 2009 (on the back of a flatbed truck)” Over time (and much more slow­ly than they would have hoped) they have been try­ing to re­store it. They later paint­ed the ex­te­ri­or and built a lean – to to cover it and a deck around it. It sits right at the edge of their lake house (on Echo Lake, at Harrison Mills). Susan says “at least close to water if not in it.”

Throughout the U.S. Prohibition years, there were two dif­fer­ent ways that Canadian rum run­ners car­ried out their op­er­a­tions in south­ern British Columbia wa­ters. The bulk of the trade in­volved a va­ri­ety of Canadian small ves­sels de­liv­er­ing up liquor or­ders to American boats. This took place in a gen­er­al­ly safe man­ner with­in B.C. wa­ters such as Haro Strait which the Victoria Daily Colonist of the day de­scribed as filled with small is­lands serv­ing as “Oases of Scotch in a Sea of Saltwater”. The other method en­tailed tak­ing on a high level of risk by de­liv­er­ing up booze di­rect­ly onto Washington State beach­es which was oth­er­wise de­scribed as ‘jump­ing the line.’

One mariner who proved par­tic­u­lar­ly adept at this very lu­cra­tive un­der­tak­ing was Johnny Schnaar. After haul­ing liquor out of Victoria’s Inner Harbour for Fred Kohse in the ini­tial years of the trade, Schnaar soon fig­ured that he’d prob­a­bly do even bet­ter with a boat of his own. Right up until Prohibition fi­nal­ly ended in December 1933, Johnny de­signed and had built five fast wood hull shore boats. The fourth one built in the boat­yard of Tomotaro Yoneda on Chatham Street, Victoria, was the 45 foot 8 inch­es long Kitnayakwa which was pow­ered by two high speed Lee gas en­gines ca­pa­ble of de­liv­er­ing 1,036 horse­pow­er to her twin screws, which were good for up to forty knots. What was amaz­ing is that some 91 years after her launch­ing in Victoria in 1928, the Kitnayawka is still with us.

Courtesy of Brian Kilpatrick collection

Following the end of the pro­hi­bi­tion years in December 1933, the own­ers of the rum trade’s fleet of boats had to look for other pur­suits in order to keep them work­ing or just sell them off. As it hap­pened, a num­ber of fast run­ners were turned into love­ly yachts, one being the Kitnayakwa. Sometime around 1938, Gordon Kilpatrick, who was liv­ing out at Point Grey in Vancouver at the time, bought her and she be­came his family’s yacht “Kitty”.  Then when his son mar­ried in 1945, the young cou­ple lived aboard her for a year until they could have a house built ashore. Mr. Kilpatrick sold her off some­time in the late ‘40s and many years later she fi­nal­ly ended up in the hands of Susan Ben-Oliel and her husband.

Ghost Ships of Royston

Scattered along British Columbia’s in­side coastal wa­ters lay sev­er­al col­lec­tions of bro­ken and rust­ed ships’ hulls. Many of these ves­sels had dis­tin­guished ca­reers as war­ships, steam tugs, and Cape Horn wind­jam­mers.  In a way, it is sad to look out over their bro­ken re­mains and see them all so rot­ted away. Yet it is some con­so­la­tion that they still serve a use­ful role as mon­u­ments to our West Coast’s rich mar­itime her­itage. So how did they end up aban­doned and left to be for­got­ten from as far back as the 1930s?

Here along the BC coast, tim­ber har­vest­ing com­pa­nies usu­al­ly dumped their logs into salt­wa­ter to be sort­ed and bun­dled into booms for tow­ing off to sawmills or pulp and paper mills. Normally the com­pa­nies chose pro­tect­ed coves or in­lets for their log dumps but, on oc­ca­sion, they were forced to op­er­ate in areas ex­posed to foul weath­er and strong winds. Logging out­fits work­ing out of Kelsey Bay and Royston along the in­side wa­ters of Vancouver Island, as well as Powell River over on the B.C. main­land, all used the stripped hulls of re­tired ships for pro­tec­tive breakwaters.

At Royston, lo­cat­ed across the bay from the town of Comox, lies one of the most var­ied and un­usu­al of these sites. It in­cludes craft from the van­ished days of com­mer­cial sail: a five-mast­ed barken­tine, a five-mast­ed aux­il­iary schooner, along with three Cape Horn wind­jam­mers.  Amongst its col­lec­tion of steam and motor ships are four Royal Canadian Navy war­ships that saw ser­vice in the 2nd World War, two whalers, two Canadian Pacific Railway tugs, along with a deep-sea res­cue tug and de­stroy­er of the United States Navy that served in World War I. Together, these hulks rep­re­sent a fas­ci­nat­ing cross-sec­tion of West Coast mar­itime history.

The Ghost Ships of RoystonIn 2004, the Underwater Archaeological Society of British Columbia pub­lished a com­pre­hen­sive his­tor­i­cal re­port on the grave­yard ti­tled The Ghost Ships of Royston in recog­ni­tion of the sig­nif­i­cance of the site ir­re­gard­less that all the ves­sels were ac­tu­al­ly beached hulks. Then in March 2011, a team from the UASBC and the U.S. based Institute of Nautical Archaeology con­duct­ed a se­ries of ex­plorato­ry dives and sur­veyed and mapped the graveyard’s remains.

Soon af­ter­wards, the “Royston Wrecks” were as­signed pro­tec­tion under the British Columbia Heritage Conservation Act there­by de­clar­ing it to be a reg­is­tered ar­chae­o­log­i­cal site.  This makes it il­le­gal for scav­engers to take any sou­venirs from the ships, while at the same time en­sures that the hulks main­tain their in­tegri­ty as best as pos­si­ble, which will allow fur­ther re­search and, more im­por­tant­ly, to con­tin­ue on as an old ship grave­yard to be ad­mired by the public.

To order a copy of Ghost Ships of Royston, as well as other Underwater Archaeological Society of B.C. pub­li­ca­tions, visit their web­site. Also, an­oth­er book of in­ter­est is Hulks: The Breakwater Ships of Powell River which doc­u­ments the his­to­ries of the 19 ships that were used to form a float­ing break­wa­ter to pro­tect Powell River’s big pulp and paper mill’s log pond. This thor­ough­ly re­searched pub­li­ca­tion, writ­ten by John Campbell a third gen­er­a­tion Powell Riverite, can be or­dered through Amazon.

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