Dual paddles keep British Columbia’s Native rollin’ on the river


At 1130, the paddle wheeler Native eased away from the dock with 66 guests and a crew of eight. The 92-by-22-foot boat pushed smoothly against a 3-knot Fraser River current to move up past the New Westminster waterfront. Approaching a railway swing span, Capt. Doug Leaney spun the 6-foot wooden wheel in the pilothouse and the boat angled against the current to line up with the bridge’s narrow opening. 

After 25 years as the owner/operators of Native, this is a routine cruise for Doug and Helga Leaney. Their success is the result of hard work and a dream. The couple had owned a jewelry store, among other careers, and they were longtime recreational boaters.

“It was just by chance that we decided to take a cruise up the Fraser River,” recalled Doug as the steel-hulled Native slid past log booms. “We went all the way up to Fort Langley, but there was no proper moorage and we had to climb up the bank.”

The tour boat churns up the Fraser River.

Once they got into the small town with its restored Hudson Bay Company fort, they were enthralled. “Wouldn’t it be great if we could bring more people here?” mused Helga. 

It was that musing which led the couple to purchase a 40-passenger boat and hire a skipper. Doug began building sea time and studying for his master’s ticket. 

“We made mistakes and learned from them,” he said. “We realized that to be successful we would need a bigger boat that could take more passengers.”

A search of the market led them to Native. The boat had been built with the intent of doing exactly the kind of cruising that the Leaneys were doing. 

Capt. Doug Leaney, in white shirt, welcomes guests aboard Native for a Father’s Day cruise.

In the 1980s, the late Thor Larsen had retired from a lifetime as a commercial towboater but was not ready to leave the waters that had sustained him. He envisioned a floating home that could carry him and his wife in suburban-style comfort up the Fraser and into the tributaries of British Columbia’s lower mainland. He had worked in the past with naval architect William Brown on the design of a tugboat. Now he returned to Brown with the idea of a roomy live-aboard. 

“The reason that I went to a sternwheeler was to gain the most space internally,” he said in a 1992 interview. “We ended up with 1,200 square feet plus the wheelhouse.”

The interior was furnished with all the comforts of home, but in time Larsen’s wife grew tired of climbing up and down from the dock near the mouth of the Fraser and the couple moved ashore. Before he died, Larsen converted a smaller tug for pleasure use. 

Amenities on the 92-foot vessel include a spacious forward lounge.

When the Leaneys bought the paddle wheeler in 1991, they knew they would have to do extensive renovations to the wooden deckhouse to meet Canadian regulations for passenger vessels. They stripped the entire interior down to the studs and outside walls. The household wiring and plumbing were upgraded to a marine grade. The studs, inside walls and both sides of the new paneling were coated with fire-retardant paint. As with so many marine jobs, the cost ballooned to twice the budgeted amount.

“It almost ruined us,” Doug recalled as he conned the boat upriver past the anchored log booms. But that was then. Now, he pointed with delight to a seal and took to the public address system to highlight other sights along the river for the benefit of his passengers — many of whom were experiencing their first water-level view of B.C.’s largest river. 

Leaney keeps Native’s course steady with a 6-foot wheel.

Passengers on this Father’s Day cruise enjoyed a buffet prepared in the roomy galley by chef Johnny Bertok with the assistance of Helga Leaney. Tucked in under the stairs to the upper deck, bartender William Granados mixed drinks that were carried to guests by deck hands Maryruth Davoren, Hailey Freeman and Alex Goldie. Goldie previously worked in a pub near Native’s mooring called The Paddle Wheeler. He prefers doing essentially the same job while actually traveling on the river. Chief steward Louisa Bertok acts as disc jockey in the forward lounge, along with her many other tasks. 

“We all do everything,” she explained, adding that each crewmember is required to complete a Coast Guard fire and safety training course. She and Doug Leaney recalled the day that a fish boat caught fire on the river. Another boat took the husband-and-wife crew off the burning boat, which then drifted down to hang up on a bridge just under the bridge tender’s shack. “We moved in and the crew kept our fire hose on the boat until other vessels arrived. The bridge tender was very appreciative,” she said.

The boat is propelled by twin Isuzu 135-hp diesels driving hydraulic pumps.

It is at times like that when the superior maneuverability of the dual paddle wheels on Native offers additional advantages. Having been a towboater in the era when twin engines and twin propellers became the norm, Larsen wanted the same for his paddle wheeler. Typically paddle wheels are turned by a pitman arm or chain drive arrangement. This involves a lot of moving parts that are subject to wear and breakdown. With dual paddle wheels, this would have been impractically complex. 

Mounted on a pipe framework, each wheel is 18.5 feet in diameter and 8 feet wide. In the engine room at the rear of the deckhouse is a pair of freshwater-cooled, 135-hp Isuzu diesels turning variable-speed Sunstrand hydraulic pumps. The pumps allow speeds to be varied from full ahead to full reverse, although high pressure in the lines makes it advisable to slow the engines between full ahead and astern. The hydraulics turn slow-speed, high-torque Hagland motors mounted on the outboard end of the shafts of each wheel. The system is elegantly simple and, over 25 years and 16,000 hours of service, has proven to be highly reliable. 

Native’s crew consists of, from left, Doug and Helga Leaney, chief steward Louisa Bertok, bartender William Granados, deck hands Alex Goldie, Maryruth Davoren and Hailey Freeman, and chef Johnny Bertok.

When he angled across the 3-knot current, Doug Leaney used the ship’s wheel and the four rudders mounted aft of the paddle wheels. But when he reached the extent of his upriver voyage, he was able to reverse the starboard wheel while going ahead on the port wheel, effectively turning the 92-foot boat in its own length. Another advantage to the dual wheels is that in the event of loss of power on one of the engines, the boat can continue with only one wheel, just as a twin-propeller craft would. 

The paddle wheels draw only about 18 inches of water, while the nearly flat-bottomed steel hull draws only 3.5 feet. This is an important feature when getting into some of the shallower side channels of the river. In some cases the paddles will effectively push the hull over a shallow or, by reversing, pull the hull off. The bow has a fine entry that fends off logs that could damage the paddle wheels if they were to pass under the hull.

The boat has a model bow to help prevent drift logs from passing under the hull.

The Leaneys recently grew their business with the purchase of the 40-passenger catamaran Beta Star, which they had been leasing. They advertise extensively for their wide variety of cruises, including a Saturday dinner cruise, pub nights with a DJ, “Discover the Fraser” luncheons, North Arm tours and special occasion charters. Their signature cruise, for which they started the company, continues to be the daylong tour upriver to historic Fort Langley. 

As Native returned to New Westminster from the Father’s Day cruise, it moored just below the museum boat Sampson V. A snag puller charged with keeping the river free of drift logs, it was among the last of the many steam paddle wheelers that once plied the Fraser River. 

After nearly 30 years on the river, the Leaneys continue to love the Fraser and its history. Doug’s master’s license is coming up for another five-year renewal, however, and “I think this will be the last,” he said. “We also enjoy international travel, so we are considering the sale of the company.”

With a couple of well-proven boats and the reputation that the couple has built, this may be just the ticket for a mariner who wants to sleep in his or her own bed each night.

By Professional Mariner Staff