The Busted Tow Below Young Pt.

The View From the Front Porch………North Trail Island

April 28th 1985. An ideal, warm, spring day to put your feet up and share with friends the view spanning the west from North Trail Island: The beach at Sargents Bay, a boulder-strewn shore reaching out, around and away to Reception Point; Merry Island with its lighthouse, the Thormanbies behind it. Off and to the west, Texada, Sangster and Vancouver Islands.

There is the occasional burst of chatter from the VHF radio, scanning channels sixteen and six and a couple of others that the towboats like to use. The Swiftsure VII and the Hamilton Bailey, bound for the Vancouver Island side with log tows are running slow below Young Point on Lasqueti Island, waiting to see if that darkening water we can see over there on the other side of the Strait is going to turn into something nasty enough to chase them back to shelter through Bull Passage.

The two skippers mull it over a bit on the radio then decide to make the jump to Ballinas Island. They set out the Bailey leading the way. But are only a few miles upon their way when the Swiftsure VII radios ahead to say that a bundle has popped out of the back of the Bailey’s tow.

I make my living from the recovery and return of such, but don’t really want to disturb our bit of socializing to cross the Strait and run up big gas bill for the small cheque that recovering one bundle would generate.

Still, while it remains balmy on our side, the darkening water where those towboats are hints at twenty-five knots of wind from the southeast, a certain ominous quality to the sky over it suggesting it could quickly get worse. Then the VII reports a second bundle has opted to follow the first.

I decide that I’m going to have to head over that way and Eric, one of our guests, accepts an invitation to come along for the ride. It was a chance for him to get what I thought would be a little taste of the log salvage game, about which so little is really known. We get under way and it soon becomes apparent from the radio-chatter that the Bailey’s tow is in considerable trouble. It was a mere taste of what was to come.

It takes, at a guess, about forty minutes to cross the calm side, get our noses into the black water and come up alongside the imperiled log tow. At pretty close to precisely at that point the whole tow comes apart. The Bailey simply pulls away from it with nothing but a rag-tag string of randomly-linked and criss-crossed boomsticks behind him.

It was stunning, on a lot of levels. I’d not seen or heard of such a thing happening. I’m in a twenty-seven-foot-long aluminum boat with one big V-8 gas engine driving it looking at at least a couple of hundred bundles of logs and innumerable loose ones, tangled up with boomsticks now, to all appearances, randomly chained together, all rocking, rolling and jumping about in a four-to-five-foot swell. What the hell was I going to do with that?

To complicate matters, the whole array, driven by wind and tide, was heading up the Strait at what looked to be a knot or two, toward Stevens Passage, a very unhelpful direction.

So I was mighty relieved to hear Halfmoon Bay salvor John Houghton come on the radio to announce that he was heading our way in The Vulture.  It had a diesel in it, pushing a good sized ‘wheel.’ that would pretty-well triple our joint towing power. He’d be a while en route and, meanwhile, I set about making something that could be towed out of the mess in front of me.

Clearly, I was going to have to put my future as a guitar-picker on the line. The heavy, clanking chains joining the boomsticks were going to have to be tripped, the tight, double-toggled connections undone, all by hand and in the split-second intervals when they slackened before snapping tight again in the swell. Add to that the movement of the Stray and the rolling of the logs underfoot when I had to step on one to get to where it was chained to another.

I could give myself a little extra time by dropping my yarding chain down between the boat and a boomstick about half-way down its length, reaching over and down with a pike pole, hauling up the end and hooking it into itself, running the one-inch yarding-line over the side ahead of the davit and pulling ahead on it with enough throttle to generate slack in the chains ahead of the boat. There was still the swell to contend with, the movement of logs and bundles around you and nothing to say that a chain wouldn’t snap tight regardless, but it helped.

This had to be done at connection after connection until, finally, I’d be looking at a great, broad, heaving, groaning and banging mass of free-floating logs, bundles and boomsticks and consider what new form I could impose on it that would let me, and Houghton, when he arrived with the Vulture, get it to someplace where it could once again be rendered towable by one of the big tugs.

My friend Eric? You know, I have no idea what he was doing. Probably up on the cabin roof just trying to hang on to the railings and take it all in. I wouldn’t have asked him to help. It wasn’t a teaching environment.

The most stable elements to work with in this situation were the bundles of logs. Some had broken apart, but they were well made, generally of good-sized logs and for the most part pretty solid, about eight-foot across and forty-feet long. From both a financial and an operational point of view they were the prime targets for recovery. I decided to use them as substitutes for boomsticks.

I’d thrown lots of gear on board before leaving the dock, including a good number of what I called ‘connector lines,’ three-quarter-inch poly, ninety feet long. Starting at the southeast end I worked along the side of the spill, using those lines to connect bundles end-to-end, gaps of maybe twenty feet between them, in a long chain. I think I ended up with about seventeen of them, as many as I could hope to move in any controlled way with the power I had available.

Still, I and my train of bundles were soon stretched alongside a good length of the strung-out mass of logs, so I cut across and through them, weaving the nose of the Stray so as to trap as many bundles and logs as possible, bring the lead end around and connected it to the last bundle in the line, forming a big bag.

Somewhere towards the end of that process the wind drops right off and the Vulture arrives. Imagining myself drifting around for ever with a bonanza in salvaged timber that I couldn’t hope to move by myself, I suggest to John that we work the whole affair on equal shares.

That’s what we did. With the Vulture at the end of his towline in the lead and the Stray pushing on the back of the bag, we managed to get the whole collection into Northwest Bay on the Vancouver Island side just around nightfall. The next day a number of other salvors showed up and gathered the still considerable number of logs and odd bundle adrift or on the Lasqueti Island shore.

I did not join them. I spent much of that day pumping fuel out of my two gas tanks after a an attendant assumed from it’s appearance and application that it took diesel. Perhaps I’d walked away while it was being pumped in and only caught the smell of it when I returned. Perhaps I actually tried to start the engine up with the predictable lack of success and realized only then what had happened. It’s a detail I don’t recall, repressed perhaps, out of chagrin or embarassment. It was an unfortunate end to my substantive participation in the cleanup operation. But all in all, how could I complain. There would be a very big cheque coming my way.

The Hamilton Bailey on a Better Day

  • Mike Pearson

    A great story, well told, John. Too bad about the fuel mix up…still must have been a fantastic pay day.

    • Hi Mike,

      Thanks for the kind remarks. Good material always helps. And you are right. It was the best payday I’ve ever had.

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