Story and photos by Alan Haig-Brown
Small marine companies in both the United States and Canada benefit mightily from the billions of dollars that have been spent building military boats. Even large companies like Foss Maritime and Crowley filled out their fleets in the 1950s and ’60s with World War II surplus Miki and YTB tugs. On the British Columbia coast, surplus landing craft hauled heavy equipment up the inlets for the logging camps. A good many of these boats still earn their keep working for smaller owner-operators out of ports around the world.
Young Life, a Christian group that operates youth camps, has a property near the head of Jervis Inlet on the British Columbia coast. Accessible by water only, the Malibu camp owns a significant fleet of boats ranging from kayaks up to the 126-foot, 200-passenger Malibu Princess. The kayaks are for the fun of the campers, but Malibu Princess, together with several smaller crew boats, brings campers and their gear in and out of the lodge located at the base of huge mountains 32 nautical miles up the inlet from the nearest road at Egmont.
The largest of these water taxis, Malibu Papoose, started life as a U.S. Navy “utility boat.” These utility boats were carried on destroyers and other larger craft and served a function similar to that of the old whalers on earlier navy craft. Built at the Uniflite factory in Bellingham, Wash., the boat’s role was more mundane than that of its cousins from the same plant, the 31-foot PBRs that gained fame as Vietnam era gunboats and in the film Apocalypse Now.
At 50 feet in length with a beam of 14 feet, 9 inches, utility boats are heavily built with over an inch of fiberglass in their hull thickness. In their original configuration, they were open boats with a helm amidships over the engine compartment. Malibu Papoose has undergone extensive modifications since being brought into Canada in 1976, just a year after it was built. Currently it is powered by a 300-hp Volvo TAMD 61A with a 3:1 Twin Disc gear turning a big prop that pushes it along at a steady 12 knots. A raised wheelhouse, set well forward over a forecastle storage area gives excellent visibility while leaving space for 46 passengers seated in the waist of the vessel. The Volvo is below the deck in the passenger area.
It is a pragmatic layout well suited to the sort of three-hour trips up Jervis Inlet that Capt. Ron Fearn and deck hand Dave Howell take it on as required by the owners. For Fearn, who previously operated a U.S. Navy surplus landing craft carrying loaded cement trucks to a small hydro site up the inlet for the same owners, this is a much more relaxing command. Fearn also had a long-term career as a schoolteacher, so he enjoys time on the boat with the young campers. But at the end of April this year, he began the season with a full load of 46 adult passengers on their way up to the Malibu camp. During this “tool and tackle” week, participants work mornings to ready the facility for the summer campers and fish in the afternoon for their dinner. Egmont, the point of departure, is a logging and fishing community just beginning to suffer the weight of urban escapees and rising land prices. But the laid-back nature of the place is expressed in Howell’s safety lecture. Punctuated with jokes, it drew a round of applause.
On the way up the inlet, many of the passengers who knew Fearn from previous trips came up to the wheelhouse to exchange stories and marvel at the beauty of the snow on the mountaintops and the soft green of the newly budding trees along the shore. In places, snow-fed waterfalls burst straight into the sea from the steep rock of the shore that is only occasionally punctuated with any sign of human habitation. It is picture-postcard scenery, but it can also present some real dangers for mariners. In winter, winds spill out of the cold interior, blowing freezing spray onto the upper works of boats that cannot find shelter or anchorage along the steep inlet shores.
As Papoose neared the Malibu camp, Fearn advised people to get their cameras ready and slowed for the requisite photos of what is really a grand lodge with numerous outbuildings set on one shore of the Malibu Rapids. The rapids and the rocky ledges on either side are notorious among West Coast yachters, as they guard the entrance to Princess Louisa Inlet, one of their favorite anchorages.
This little side inlet of the larger Jervis Inlet is only about four miles long, but it is surrounded by spectacular mountains rising from 5,000 to over 8,000 feet within a short distance of the shore. The camp’s main dock is just inside the Malibu Rapids from Jervis Inlet. The tide runs at about 9 knots through the narrows on both the flood and the ebb, although freshets up the inlet can add force to the ebb at times.
As Fearn brought Malibu Papoose up to the Narrows this day, the tide had already turned and was beginning to flood back into the inlet. After asking his deck hand to get the passengers to take their seats so that the boat would ride on an even keel, Fearn entered the rapids with the first of the flood lending the boat 2 or 3 extra knots of speed.
Going to the left of the small islet that sits in the middle of the narrows, Fearn kept his speed up to put ample water over the rudder as he followed the current through the chute. Black rock walls, on which low tide had exposed purple starfish and barnacles, swept past the wheelhouse windows. As the channel widened on the inside of the narrows, the camp dock came in sight to port. But Fearn very deliberately did not turn to it right away. He took the boat and his 46 passengers on down the current until he reached a point where the rip between the moving and still water was not so pronounced. Only then did he turn the boat toward the people waiting on the dock.
“Some of the yacht people cut across that rip and get in trouble,” he noted while he calmly turned his boat and set it tidily alongside the float.
The passengers, some expressing appreciation for the fine boat handling they had just witnessed, disembarked to the float and began getting their assignments for cabins and dinner. Fearn gently urged his passengers to get their gear off the boat while he declined an invitation to stay for dinner. “The tide is getting stronger in the rapids,” he observed, “We should get back out before it gets too strong.”
Running the boat up to its full rpm, he easily made his way back out into the main inlet and began to retrace his course back down the inlet to Egmont. On the way he stopped to show a friend an eagle sitting on her nest, some First Nation rock paintings and a particularly beautiful waterfall. Life on a surplus U.S. Navy utility boat in Jervis Inlet definitely has its perks.