Me and My Beachcomb Boats/Partners in Crime

I made some far less than optimal choices in the boats I put together at the start of my venture into beachcombing, log salvage as we called it.  Aversion to the chains of debt was part of it. Wariness as to my own hubris, as well, in venturing into a field about which so much was unknown to me.

Odd, in retrospect: I was working twelve-hour-days and longer with few off, making better than union wages.  I had proven adept as a sidewinder operator sorting logs in various booming grounds. For some time I had been operating a heavily-fibreglassed twenty-three-foot boat pulling deadheads from the sorting grounds in Howe Sound before they sank to join the thousands of others lying in the silt up to two-hundred eighty-five metres below.  I’d had no prior experience that most people would consider relevant to any of that.

I was going to have to deal with engines, transmissions, cooling and hydraulic systems and to make a long line of decisions as to how to integrate what I learned of them into a viable enterprise.  There was nothing in my upbringing to prepare me for any of it.

But the reason I was getting a beachcomb license and building a couple of boats was so that I and my lady could get back to living at least somewhat off the land, as we had so loved doing on the west coast of Vancouver Island a few years earlier. In this instance we would be accompanied by our two daughters, one about two-and-a-half, the other six-months old.  We were going to be living by the water.  The boats were to provide us with transportation and a get-by level of income.  The latter was to evolve into something else altogether.

My first move was to buy a 35-foot-long steel hull constructed by an acquaintance of ours who had intended to use it water-taxiing folks back and forth between Tofino and Ahousat on the west coast of the Island. It sat and it sat underneath the trees on the acreage we rented just outside Gibsons.  Everything about it was too big for me, particularly the costs of rendering it impervious to rust and of powering it, not to mention finishing the inside.

With the cabin at the back as you can see, it was not a design that would have worked well.  We finally sold it for about what we had payed to buy and trailer it.  In its place I bought two fibreglass over plywood hulls, fifteen and twenty-three feet in length. I added many layers of glass, repowered them with inboard-outboard units, put towposts in and rebuilt the cabin on the larger one, putting a steering station on the roof of it.












I suppose, given my complete lack of experience with tools, or the methods I needed to employ, that putting them together at all was an accomplishment of some sort.  But, my, they were ugly. Maybe that is why I was moved to christen them so minimally Step One and Step Two.  While the small Step Two was to prove serviceable and remain in use longest, it was a grand thing to finally get together the wherewithal to replace them both.

But they got us and a thirty-five-foot steel barge I purchased cheap and mounted a small bundling winch on up to Nelson Island and at least started at beachcombing.

It was might slow on the earning side to begin with.  Slow enough that I put my name in at Fielding’s booming grounds and got back to sorting, feeding the bundler and stowing flat-booms. That morphed into a contract doing the latter and left me free to keep looking for logs.

Between that and a general upturn in the log market I ventured into having my first aluminum boat built…and gave it a decent name.  It was a less than optimal decision to make it a virtual duplicate of the Step Two.  I put a 318 Chrysler gas engine in it pushing about a 16″ square wheel (propeller) through a v-drive.  For working in Agamemnon and in Jervis and pushing logs around in my little sorting grounds in Green Bay it was pretty good, very quick with all that power relative to its size.  Fact is, I grew fond of it.

The Harrier in Agamemnon Channel

But for the waters of Georgia Strait it was simply too small.  A couple of years after having it built at in Vancouver, and with the money it had made I went back to Argo Marine Boat Builders and commissioned the Stray: One of Argo’s standard twenty-seven footers, with a nine-foot beam and a three-hundred-thirty horsepower Chevy 454 in it, steering stations inside and on the back wall of the cabin as well as on the roof.  The sides were of 3/16″ aluminum, the bottom fully a 1/4″. It was the real thing and would last me for the remaining decade or so spent beachcombing. I would work many a log spill with it and come to appreciate the way it empowered me to be effective at that, at the odd salvage job and more than a few rescue efforts.


Stray working the attempted salvage of the Grime-South Thormanby I.

With the Stray in hand I was well into the swing of the beachcombing game. I could work spills in pretty much any weather and did. I could usually get a towline on a bundle of logs in thirty-five or forty-knot winds, perhaps higher.  If not, it frequently proved possible to jam the bow-teeth into the side of a bundle and angle it through the swells into enough shelter that I could.

She would tow four-hundred logs on doglines, make headway in calm waters pulling a sunken thirty-five-foot fishing vessel fully awash and pull a fifty-foot aluminum seiner, bows riding high and catching like a sail every one of the thirty-five knots of wind we were fighting.

She would get close enough to a fishing vessel with its own net floating all around it (what wasn’t wrapped around its propeller) so that I could toss the skipper a long bow-line and pull him away from a rocky shore. She would effect the night-time rescue of a dismasted trimaran being blown towards the beach at Roberts Creek in a southeast gale, and pull a tugboat with a barge behind it, transporting a house up-coast, from where it was foundering in behind the big boulders off of Wakefield Creek in West Sechelt.

She could rear and settle patiently for half-an hour in five-foot-high shoreline swells, a long towline out over the stern to a high-point on the mast of a grounded fifty-foot sailboat, waiting for the tide to rise to where it could be pulled over onto its side and away from where it bumped and ground, to come lateraling away from shore in water now high enough for her to clear the reefs hiding to the windward in the roiling white water.

Over nine years that we lived on N. Trail Island, the mainland beaches opposite ever a target for swells from the southeast, there was never a time when I could not drive her up on the beach to let someone jump off or pull themselves or be pulled on to the deck at the bow. The receding water could leave her high and dry, exhaust rumbling in the wind, skeg buried and grinding in the gravel.  And then she’d power off the beach in reverse when the next wave slid beneath her.

So many things to love her for, really. But she was not my only love when it came to my boats.  Hard to entirely satisfy I was. Something with a little more swish in its tail still fired my imagination. Not to replace the Stray, you understand:  To complement her; to do what she could not quite, recognizing that it would not do all that she could.

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So off I went again to Argo and six months later came home with the Stranger.  The ‘Stranger’, for I had often felt myself to be something of one, as I did indeed a ‘stray’.  Romantic I suppose.  But would I have come to live as I did were I not so?

She had the same three-hundred-and-thirty horsepower heart as the Stray but hers was far and away the smoother bottom with no propeller or shaft or skeg to spoil its line. (After a few years it had a nick or two and the odd shallow dent in it, but it was ever one of her finer features).

She was a jetboat you see, perhaps better than any at this work in these waters. Not for her the multiple impellers, one behind the other, pitchier and pitchier as the water progressed through them, exiting as an ultra-high-speed, thin stream, propelling the hulls to which they were married at great speed.  But that thin stream had nothing like the torque of the ten-inch-broad stream of water that the single impeller of the Hamilton 10-31 jet expelled from the Stranger.

Hamilton 10-31 jet.....which was mounted entirely within the hull at the stern

She was not so fast as her predecessors in the log salvage game, but she could dead-pull a sixty-six-foot long boomstick, fourteen inches through at the top, down a long beach; and still she had enough zip to reach a respectable thirty-knots over the water without emptying her fuel tanks precipitously.  No need to blast off the beach at high speed at the end of a long towline to get the work done. And she could handle: not for her the endless burble, burble, backing like a turtle in to a beach with no steerage to speak of.  No….you could maneuver backwards in between rocks with some dispatch, step like a gentleman off her swim grid on to a beach of sand or rock, dig beneath a log, throw a chain under it, fetch it up the other side, hook it into itself and, often as not, idle away in forward gear with the log sliding into the water behind you to lie quietly while you drove a dog into the head end of it and spun it out to where the Stray lay, at anchor or idling with a daughter or a deckhand at the wheel.

Dogline--the dog driven into a log to be towed by the 10'-15' poly or nylon line

So that’s the story of the boats. Of my boats. Boats that did not cause the heart to palpitate at the grind of rock against bottom or side; boats that could rise in a swell and fall repeatedly at the chine onto a massive boomstick while you buttoned the head-end of a log tow back together, with no harm done; boats requiring only a strong forearm applying the head of a six-pound sledgehammer to the inside of a hull and perhaps some new windows to remove all but the merest hint of a pounding that might have been suffered on surf-swept rocks.

After all, a man’s tools should be able to do the job.



  • mike Pearson

    Hi John…I tripped over your blog and music while on the search for other goodies “Coast” oriented. I lived up there for 47 of my 52 years. You likely knew Harold and Barry Pearson ( my uncle and cousin )….I like your music…sounds like it has soundtrack potential.

    I wrote a bit about my time on the coast in my blog…the Davis Bay Sea Serpent, Mexican Billionaires Yacht …and my introduction to the drilling and blasting business…and transition to working on the Sea to Sky project. There are photos…up close and personal of the Ft Mac area tailings ponds…after a stint up there.
    Have a peek…maybe send me your email address

    Mike Pearson
    Vancouver BC

    • Hey Mike,

      Aint it a shame we didn’t quite comprehend just how much of a movie our working lives were. Mind you, it would be a lucky camera of those days that survived a day in the working woods or a good tossing-around courtesy of gale winds. Still, some nice shots on your site. And the dearth of pics does make writers of us.

      I’m using a PC these days, replacing an old Mac. I’m finding the free Irfanview software effective at reducing pixel count and sometimes improving my old pics at the same time, even after I’ve run them through Picasas editing process…..just in case that’s of use to you.


  • mike Pearson

    Thanks John…you know it’s amazing even now when I know better, how many times I walk out of the house without my camera.
    And yes..about the work. Number one, we didn’t know how good we had it…and
    second, that what we were doing in our simple lives would be memorable and worthy of re-telling to the people who weren’t there.
    It’s important to record all these tales before they are forgotten.
    I hope that someone writes down at least half of the Ted Donley stories that make the rounds on the Coast over tailgates and beers….not that anyone who wears a suit and tie would ever believe the tales of explosives,booze and women

    Did you get a chance to work that huge alder bundle spill in Davis Bay and the surrounding area…that happened  years ago?

    • No I didn’t work it but I sure wrote about it, a nice long expose in a broadsheet called The Slant that published for a few years around here. I’d pulled the Stray out of the water, might have even passed it on by then.
      That spill was a symphony of sheer incompetence with the head of BC Log spill wielding the baton. Don’t know if I can dig up the text….a lot of files failed to come over nicely from my Mac. I may have to take another crack at recovering them and writing about that spill again, after I get through writing about the ones I did work and about the time I put in salvaging deadheads with Archie Haleta. So much to write about, so easy to get distracted.

      As for the alder in particular, most of that ended up coming off the beach and departing up the Strait through Welcome Pass bound for beaches unknown and the saws of wood-burning shoreside residents. I’ve got some pictures of the mass of mostly the hemlock that went up on the flats by Wilson Creek.


      • Chris

        Just one question John. Why haven’t you written a book?  I’ve lived here for 35 years, been coming here since the mid-sixties, this is the kind of stuff I, and many of my old-timer friends love to read. Do us a favour, talk to Howard White.
        Cheers,  Chris Staples.

        • jm

          Thanks for the implied compliment Chris.

          Compliments have been transformatively motivational for me on a number of occasions. All it took get me focused on my guitar playing was to have one acquaintance say how much she liked it…in a way that made me see that she actually did. Somewhere around age fifty. Still needy as can be.

          Among the things I thought this site might be was a way to get into dots and zeroes a life I look back on and frequently think “Hmm, that was so cool.” If I can inject a little of my well-matured perspective into such a narrative, folks might enjoy it….. pick up a little affirmation for themselves.

          It all depends on whether or not I die before getting enough down for it to function as a book. I have multiple gratifying focuses and the fortunate freedom, generally, to go eenie-meeny-minie-mo.

          I might need to feel sufficiently obliged to my fellow humans and sufficiently encouraged by them to overcome a certain skepticism about the net sanity of undertaking to create a book…..vis a vis just playing in my reality.  I just wouldn’t want to have to handle the hassles, any of them, that I imagine might come along with fame.

          I don’t even want to have to think, for example, about handling renewed interest from women. For one thing I’d have to agonize over what might be an appropriate age group to draw from. That could take up a lot of head time. I don’t get enough sleep as it.

          So your comment fits nicely on the encouragement side of things


          Oh man.  It must be the…sky…sky…sky.

  • Rod

    hi john i am trying to find a small beachcombing boat i want somthing small with a little fiberglass cabin im 19 trying to start beach combing by my self instead of with somone eles and idvice

    • I’ve been out of it a long time and have no direct knowledge of where you might look. Given the price of fuel the economics are undoubtedly different these days.

      Googling beachcomb boat would be a start, one you might already have made. A walk around Mosquito Creek marina in N. Van might be worthwhile. What might work for you will depend on where you plan to operate and marinas in those areas might have something on their bulletin boards.


  • Rod

    i will take a look around the marina i do work there some times on windy days pushing the docks away from the boat sheds i would be work around point grey

  • Greydawn

    hi john
    the stray is still going strong. herb

    • JM

       Hey Herb

      That is gratifying to know. She deserves a long life. Glad you found the site.

      If you happen to have a digital pic of her I’ll look for some text to float it in

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