Coastal Messenger

Capt. Roy Getman grabbed a napkin and pulled a pen from his shirt pocket at the kitchen table of the Coastal Missions base in Chemainus, British Columbia. He scattered a series of dots and drew various-sized circles around each.

“These dots represent a Christian influence, most likely a church,” Getman explained. “And the circles are the spheres of its outreach in the community.”

Some of the circles touched or overlapped, but there was also lots of space that did not fall within any of them. “Our primary mission is to reach the areas and people outside of the circles,” he said.

The mission field for Getman and the crew of the 52-foot steel-hulled Coastal Messenger extends from Olympia, Wash., to Wrangell, on the Alaskan panhandle. In between are scores of maritime back alleys of inlets, coves and tiny islands that are not only geographically but culturally worlds apart from the interiors of the circles Getman drew on the napkin.

Mission boats have been an institution on the British Columbia coast since 1874, when a Methodist missionary, Rev. Thomas Crosby, started paddling his canoe between Port Simpson and Victoria. A series of five vessels named after Crosby traveled the coast until 1990. That year, the United Church of Canada decided the mission was an expensive anachronism and sold the 80-foot Thomas Crosby V to a cruise operator in the Cayman Islands.

Likewise, the Anglican Church operated ships for the Columbia Coast Mission from early in the 20th century until winding it down in the early 1980s.

At the same time the United and Anglican churches were questioning the viability of marine missions in modern times; the seeds that would grow into the Coastal Missions Society were germinating. On Dec. 11, 1979, 17 people of various missionary backgrounds met in the village of Bamfield to discuss the continuing need for gospel outreach along the coast.

Joan and the late Ron McKee, as well as Getman and his wife, Rachel, were at the first meeting. “Our number-one priority was to go to the people that couldn’t go to church even if they wanted to,” said Joan McKee. “Many of them are stuck right where they are.”

Lighthouse keepers for instance.

“Down through the years, we’ve visited 38 of the light stations,” Roy Getman said.

Getman, a veteran in the marine mission field, got started at age 9 when his parents operated a medical missionary ship. He explained the decline of other marine missions in terms of the economics principle of increasing long-range average costs: “I took note of the other mission vessels. They would start out in the most simple way, with about two or three crew, kind of simple equipment and a direct approach — and it usually worked out very well.

“As they developed, they usually started carrying key supporters, so immediately they needed a bigger boat. When the boats got bigger, a combination of licenses was required, and usually the original people involved didn’t have the skills and certification to maintain or operate the new equipment, so then you’re out hiring people for those skills. No matter how you look at it, there’s a great progression in costs, while the effectiveness as a missionary boat declines.”

“The answer,” he declared, “is to keep your equipment very simple and the crews no more than three or four.”

While the Coastal Missions Society might be a model of economic efficiency, people often ask where the money comes from. Getman and McKee estimated that some 50 churches stood behind the society and started listing from memory churches from assorted denominations.

“Any denomination that sees the validity of the Gospel” supports the society, McKee said. As for individual benefactors, McKee said that some of them might have never entered a church in their lives.

“A lot of people that live on the coast are there because they don’t think they fit into a polished society,” McKee said. “Or they might be independent thinkers,” Getman added. They often refer to themselves and their mission field as “coastal people.”

The term “coastal people” comprises those whose maritime or shore-based occupation — e.g., logging and fishing — requires them to spend long periods away from civilization and affords their only contact with other communities.

This isolation, splendid and otherwise, requires rugged individuality in thought and behavior. “To live on the coast,” McKee said, “you have to be an individual thinker or you’ll never survive the elements. Situations arise where you have to be able to think your way through.”

McKee sketched a small island with several bays. “Let’s say a person or family lives in each of these bays,” she said. “There might not be a lot of social interaction. Being of that kind of personality, you just don’t melt in with anyone that’s around you.” But in the end, she said, in any sort of crisis, coastal people immediately pull together and help each other.

Withstanding the kinds of difficulties a day on the coast can dish out requires resourcefulness and diverse manual skills. A typical work-ing day could bring a broken arm, a broken log boom or a broken net. How adroitly these situations are handled is a leading indicator of status here.

“Coastal people — but I’m convinced that this isn’t just coastal, but often true of everyone else — first test you on the physical competence and then on a mental and emotional level,” McKee said. “If you check out OK, then they will entrust you with their souls.”

This evaluation could take five minutes or five years. However long it takes, the people of Coastal Missions expect to be around for the duration. Already, the organization has visited up to three generations of coastal families.

The group built its second and latest vessel, designed and drafted by Roy Getman, and launched in September 1998, with a projected service life of 50 years. The heart of the first Coastal Messenger, a 1958 Rolls-Royce marine diesel, was transplanted into the new boat. “Anywhere that we go now,” Getman quipped, “this engine has already been there before us.”

Coastal Missions bought its first vessel, originally named D.M. MacKay, from the Canadian Department of Indian Affairs and Northern Development in 1980.

“It seemed like the right boat because it had a history already on the West Coast and was recognized wherever we called in,” said crewmember Tom Maxie.

This wooden boat saw the group through until the launching of the custom-built Coastal Messenger in 1999.

The schedule is divided between two crews, sailing six-week shifts, skippered by either Roy Getman or Brian Burkholder. They schedule the same crews to the same places at the same time each year.

“We’ve been there year after year after year after year,” Maxie said.

Consistency is one of the most important factors that have gained the group respect and attentive listeners, Maxie said. “I’ve often thought that has helped to earn us the right to preach the Gospel on the coast.”

Onboard Coastal Messenger

I met with Burkholder’s crew aboard Coastal Messenger at the commercial fisherman’s harbor in Port Alberni on Vancouver Island on May 4, 2003. The four-person crew comprised Burkholder, his wife, Anne, Maxie and his wife, Debbie. It was a rainy Sunday afternoon typical of the local weather. The rainiest spot in North America, Henderson Lake, was only 15 air miles away. The floats, lined with underemployed fishing boats at their moorings, seem lifeless, with the exception of a surprised crow that scrambled into the air from the roof of a tugboat.

Coastal Messenger was immaculate after coming out of her annual refit a couple weeks earlier. Though she has the same purposeful lines of the nearby workboats, her figure stood out among the aging and shopworn commercial vessels that ply Alberni Inlet.

Inside with the Burkholders and the Maxies were Brian Burkholder’s brother Gerry and sister-in-law Ruby, along with Ricky Garcia, another old home-port mate.

Talk around the galley table recalled the shared lives and times growing up in the village of Bamfield at Barkley Sound, about 30 nm west at the head of the Alberni Inlet. A gravel road wasn’t pushed through from Port Alberni until sometime in the mid-1960s. Consequently the group’s youthful years were spent in a world full of boats and ships but void of trucks and automobiles. They reminisced about some of the memorably fast boats and their crusty old pilots — usually former rumrunners and their skippers — seen in Bamfield Harbour.

Another visitor quietly played hymns on the built-in piano, while others chatted. No hard proselytizing seemed to be going on.

“It’s hard to describe the ministry — you just go out there and rub shoulders with people,” shrugged Tom Maxie.

He explained that their “in” with people is sharing the struggle of existing on the coast. They minister and gain converts through practical and demonstrable ways. He cited a day when Brian Burkholder spent three hours in driving rain at a northern port to help a fisherman clear contaminated fuel from an outboard.

After leaving Port Alberni, they were due to spend about a month visiting villages, mainly Indian settlements, up the west coast of Vancouver Island.

“North of Quatsino, the coast becomes entirely different,” Maxie said.

There the culture is shaped by the isolation that comes with lack of road access. The wide-open Pacific is also much less hospitable to sport fishing and pleasure boating than the sheltered passages and straits.

“People recognize by the maintenance of our equipment that we’re serious about what we do — rather than just being yachters out there.”


The Coastal Missions crew began their work year by returning to the Chemainus base early in January and regrouping. That means Bible study, prayer and planning for the annual voyage. From early March to mid-April, they turned their attention to Coastal Messenger’s annual refit.

Vessel loading took place from April 16 to 24, when Coastal Messenger departed Chemainus on its annual trip. The two crews shared a 4,000-nm route with 170 ports of call in 250 days.

The 2003 schedule included a remarkable diversity of landings, if place names are any indication: May 21 at Friendly Cove, Vancouver Island; July 9 at Hole-in-the-Wall, Alaska; Aug. 24 down to Anger Island on the northern British Columbia coast — where it wouldn’t seem that anyone would be warmly received.

This itinerary has to allow for extraordinary situations and adverse weather. Providence sometimes seems to play a role in altering the schedule. Sometimes they discover that they’ve taken shelter in spots where they just happened to be needed.

They’ve also learned that the boat is almost inseparable from the ministry. One year on the Queen Charlotte Islands, they rented a car to visit the island’s outports. “But the people said, ‘We miss the boat,'” Debbie Maxie recalled.

The familiar Coastal Messenger is something of a safe haven. “It’s really like our home,” Anne Burkholder explained. When the missionaries arrived by car rather than by boat, they had no place to serve meals and coffee as usual. “So that part of the ministry suffered that year — it just wasn’t the same,” Maxie said.

“After all,” said McKee, “the Coastal Missions’ motto is ‘People Reaching People’ — just ordinary people helping ordinary people.”

Roy Getman observed with a laugh, “But I have an idea now that we’re not all that ordinary, but probably very eccentric.”

“Well I suppose that’s another thing about Coastal Missions,” McKee said. “You would find that all the crew is just as eccentric as other coastal people.”

Getman added, “And yet we’re very different from each other.”

“But it’s our diversity that makes us a team,” McKee said.

Evidently, in some ways, the individuals that make up the Coastal Missions Society might be a little outside the circles themselves. Maybe a rethink of their motto is in order. In keeping with the situation, “Coastal People Reaching Coastal People” might be more apt.

By Professional Mariner Staff