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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