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The Rescue Of A Lifeboat

Her given name is Bison, but I feel like Im looking down at the Spirit of Fulford Harbour.

Standing at the rail on the walkway leading down to the public floats, I wonder again where she came from, this skookum little vessel with the sweet lines and fresh paint.  And it's difficult to say which is the finer image:  the lifeboat itself with her deep Jakoba rails, inlaid deck and satisfying sheer, or the perfect reflection she rides on in the shallow waters of Fulford's most inner harbour.  There is also a bite of deja-vu in the air - a presence- as if she had been under my nose all the time.

If you have a minute, Bison has a tale to tell.

For over a quarter century - or for at least as long as many Fulfordites and middle aged wharf rats can remember- there has been a phantom haunting the village's shallow waters; the derelict hulk of a ship's boat submerged in the backwater bay.

She surfaces from time to time over the years, makes friends.  But these are the fleeting relationships with dreamers, the kind of affairs you might have while on parole.  With the exception of the late Brian Cooper, who actually fits her out with a small Briggs And Stratton engine and gets her out of the harbour, these flirtations don't go anywhere but back to the bottom again.

And then Fate walks down the dock and takes over.  He comes in the form of an old man; and to a young lady on the wharf he speaks of a time lost in marine antiquity; of a Steam Tug working the icy storm-ridden waters off the Skeena River 125 years before and an orphaned lifeboat now stranded in a bay.  He doesn't say much...just enough to get things moving, and he's never seen again.


It isn't the first time 18 year old Haley and her husband Chad have pulled the Zodiac in the harbour and drifted to this spot, but for some reason on this particular day in March 2000 the couple lingers.  The old boat is still there, half buried in the the bottom just off the shore, and as they study the battered shell the urge to do something crests like a building wave, and breaks.

To hear Bruce Bott tell the story, he was the innocent bystander.  Bott is, among many other things, the caretaker of Russell Island, a driftwood artist, a public speaker and harmonica buff (loves to play those blues), a whale ecologist, filmmaker, fish leather entrepreneur and a self taught shipwright.

When his daughter comes to him with her plan, Dad has to laugh.  "It's underwater, what can I tell you?"  But Haley insists and Bott agrees to help get the thing out of the muck and clean it up.  He'll also offer some pointers while they're fixing it up.  And so, without a lot of fuss or forethought, Bott the innocent bystander is run down by a rapidly accelerating fate.

They haul the boat, little more than a filthy receptacle for old rags, slime, broken glass, garbage and rust, first by hand and then with a length of warp tied to a truck.  Up and out of the ooze she rises into a protected nook at the foot of the walkway, the very spot where generations before natives built and worked on their canoes.

After cleaning her up, Bott goes ahead and replaces the rotted out stem, knowing that his daughter and Chad can't do the job...it's the least he can do.  But the next time he looks, Dad is alone on the beach, stranded by reality - the spoilsport cousin of fate who, with a twist of his own, visits full time jobs and a baby-in-waiting on his young partners.

Bott perseveres.  "With Bison, it was like doing something again for the first time - I'd never worked on a lifeboat before and there were no plans to go by.  Sometimes you can't just measure and cut; you have to be able to look at things and go with your intuition."

Our beached shipwright also brings over 20 years of ship restoration experience to the task.  Bruce discovered the now familiar local yawl Four Winds in a barn in Sooke in 1971.  After chasing off the chickens, he rebuilt her completely.

There is another great old boat that Bruce Bott worked on that is important to our story:  the 80 foot ketch Virginia Hope, a sleek rumrunner that out ran the authorities in the '20s and '30s, is now in Alert Bay.  Daughter Haley was born on Virginia Hope.  

"I learned from the old-timers," Bott says.  " I don't do the work to resell the boats; it's just something I love to do."

This is how you do it without a VISA card; how some of the great enduring ships and boats on the coast were created.  This is the Allan Farrel - Brian Walker school of boat building.  A bit of driftwood here, a bit of luck there - a whole lot of help and encouragement everywhere.  A rudder materializes from a slab of Fir found on the beach; someone has a pump that will fit in perfectly - someone else has yellow cedar and yet another will trade materials for a bit of boat work in return.  Marine Exchanges and abandoned boats are scoured for parts and fittings.

The scrounger finds some real "beauts".  The boat needs a tiller, preferably an Arbutus one with just the right double curve - Bott is walking a beach in Vancouver and trips over the perfect piece. The steel keel he has fabricated has warped and the only way to adapt it is to use a 2 3/8 inch section of heavy steel iron pipe exactly 31 inches long, the kind of hardware you might find in a place like the oil fields of Fort MacMurray...if you're lucky.

Bott walks down to the end of the public wharf and again stumbles on the part he needs.

Scrounging also leads to the Vancouver Maritime Museum where, thanks to the words of Haley's mystery old-timer and the boats's distinct Mediterranean sheer, a photograph of the ancient Steam Tug Alexander reveals a lifeboat stowed on deck;  if it's not Bison, it is clearly her twin.

During the summer of 2000 Bott is rarely alone as Fulford responds enthusiastically to the reincarnation taking place on its shoreline.  For some who gather at the rail it is a rare opportunity to watch first hand the reenactment of a disappearing trade.   Knees are cut, sanded and fitted; ribs are steamed and bent into place; rails and king plank and deck appear as if grown on the spot.

For many others the little lifeboat opens a vein and the simple joy of kibitzing, trading, yarning and just plain helping out pours forth freely.  "You can do things in this community that you can't do anywhere else," Bott tells a friend.  "Bison just reflected how appreciative and helpful people can be."


It's a curious spot, this backwater bay, this haven, this workplace, this on-again off-again birthplace and graveyard of boats.

But come here if the spirit moves you. Lean on the rail of the walkway and let the sun soak through your jacket and drench you to the bone; and let your eyes drift and skip over the shallows from skiff to troller to houseboat to sloop - to the castaway hulk buried rib deep in the tidal flat and the tarped workboat perched on the central shoal like a mantlepiece model.

In a blink the calamity of ferry and terminal and the crash of loading cars and trucks vanishes and all you can do is watch that single oar and that one gumboot float by, dancing together in the eddy off the stern of that perfect little boat.

You turn and walk away.  After all, it is just a boat and that was just a moment of reflection.


plc 2002 Gulf Islands Driftwood


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