The boat who wouldn’t sink

Thirty years ago this month an unlikely RCMP patrol boat wrote the final chapter in the saga of the Northwest Passage

SANDRA GWYN October 1 1974

The boat who wouldn’t sink

Thirty years ago this month an unlikely RCMP patrol boat wrote the final chapter in the saga of the Northwest Passage

SANDRA GWYN October 1 1974

The boat who wouldn’t sink

Thirty years ago this month an unlikely RCMP patrol boat wrote the final chapter in the saga of the Northwest Passage


Monday, October 16, 1944. The week that General MacArthur returned to the Philippines, and Shirley Temple was in Toronto to launch the Seventh Victory Loan. Warm for mid-autumn, and so foggy that the North Vancouver ferry grazed the stern of a freighter and, on shore, two streetcars collided at Hastings and Main. Toward dusk, a tubby, weatherbeaten RCMP patrol -ship ghosted down Burrard Inlet, dressed stem to stern in flags, with a pennant bearing the device of a green polar bear lashed to her bridge.

No one saw the St. Roch coming. No one was waiting for her. “Canada was at war,” her skipper, Staff-Sergeant Henry Larsen, wrote long afterward, “and had no time for frivolous things.” That frivolity was an 86-day, 7,295-mile passage east-to-west across the top of the continent and the charting of a new northerly deepwater route that the supertanker Manhattan would follow' a quarter of a century later.

“We’re policemen, not explorers,” an RCMP commissioner had told Larsen back in the Thirties, w'hen he first suggested trying to squeeze his 104-foot ship through the Northwest Passage.

In those days, few Canadians knew or cared about our far north. Officially, we’d been masters there since 1880, when Britain ceded control of the old Hudson’s Bay Company lands. In practice, until the 1950s when the discovery of Eskimo art and culture made us proud to own a vastness we’d once thought empty, our only presence in the Arctic was a handful of missionaries, most of them from Britain and Europe, and a few RCMP detachments. Somehow the northern mystique — its keystone the quest for a northwest passage — had never become part of our national drama.

Today, we know ourselves better. It’s easier now to recognize the heroic, almost mythic, quality of Larsen and the St. Roch. The last of the wooden ships; the last chapter, the only Canadian one, in a saga that begins with Martin Frobisher in the Gabriel and Henry Hudson

in the Discovery. On October 16. the thirtieth anniversary of her return to Vancouver, the St. Roch will be formally unveiled as a National Historic Site. She has been restored to the precise condition in which she completed her 1944 voyage.

Among the invited guests of honor are the five living members of the 11-man crew'. The oldest of these turned 60 last March; the youngest is still only 47. Listening to them takes you close to the nerve ends of history', as if men w'ho sailed on the Santa Maria or the Mat-

thew''were still around to say w'hat it was like, really. But in this case, the reality is far from the spit and polish, stiflf-upperheart-of-oak undertaking that hindsight makes it seem.

There was a wonky engine, for a start. Tw'o crew members pushing 70; two others still in their teens. A wireless operator w'ho had never before sent or received a message. “I was just 19,” recalls Jim Diplock of St. Catharines, Ontario, now a sergeant with the Niagara Regional Police. “I was having a ball. But if you asked me now, I wouldn’t sail up in

Larsen said the lumbering St. Roch was the “most uncomfortable ship I ever sailed in ”

that country in that size of a ship for all the tea in China.”

The point was, they went because Henry Larsen asked them. Only someone with a magnificent obsession and an instinctive grasp of human nature could have shaped that grab-bag crew into an instrument capable of doing something no crew had ever done before. “A true Viking,” is the phrase that Pat Hunt, the shipmate who was closest to Larsen and is now an administrator with the Manitoba Department of Highways, uses to describe him.

Larsen died in 1964. When you study his photograph and subtract the RCMP uniform, there’s no question that the stance, the leathery face, the sharp blue eyes, the permanent squint to keep out the weather, belong to a man at the helm of a ship with a great curved prow shaped like a dragon, not the lumbering little St. Roch. Still, a Viking ship would have been smithereens in the ice. Larsen called St. Roch “the most uncomfortable ship I ever sailed in.” But the saucer-shaped hull, which wallowed in the open sea but could ride up over floes without being crushed, was the reason she endured.

High romance and a touch of the mystic drew Larsen to his “ugly duckling.” as he liked to call her. He was born in

1899 in southern Norway, a few miles from the birthplace of Roald Amundsen, the great explorer best remembered for having beaten Scott to the South Pole. When Larsen was starting school, Amundsen was in the midst of his first great exploit: wriggling the 75-foot herring boat Gjoa through the Northwest Passage, the first ship in history to do it. From east to west, the journey took nearly three years, two of them spent hunkered down in the ice of King William Island.

At 15, Larsen was off to sea in a square-rigger; at 23, he was mate of a Norwegian freighter. One afternoon on the Seattle waterfront he chanced to meet Amundsen face to face. “I had to get North,” he wrote later.

Larsen learned that the Mounties planned to build a schooner to patrol the western Arctic. So he came to Canada. In the spring of 1928, the St. Roch (named for the favorite Quebec parish of Justice Minister Ernest Lapointe) was commissioned in Vancouver. Larsen, by now a rookie constable, was posted mate. Within six months he was skipper and for the next dozen years “Hanorie Umiarjuaq” (Henry with the Big Ship), as the Eskimos called him, plied between Vancouver and Cambridge Bay, sometimes spending as many as four

The ship was trapped for nearly a month

consecutive winters locked in ice.

All this while, Larsen nursed the dream of sailing the passage. The chance came with World War II. Mounties were not supposed to be explorers. but in Ottawa a clutch of old Arctic hands, including the new RCMP Commissioner, S. T. Wood, used the right bureaucratic and political language — the magic phrase was “Arctic sovereignty.” Early in 1940, Larsen was given the order: take her to Halifax, over the top. The St. Roch slipped under the new Lion’s Gate bridge on the morning of June 21, 1940.

Ice conditions were among the worst in memory. For 10 months, the ship was beset at Walker Bay, on the west coast of Victoria Island. Next season was worse, she only reached Pasley Bay, the way still blocked by the Boothia Peninsula, the massive ice-and-granite barrier that divides western and eastern Arctic. At last, on August 29, 1942, after drifting helplessly in the polar pack for nearly a month, and then battering through almost solid ice in Bellot Strait, the narrow, 18-mile canyon that splits Boothia in two, the St. Roch broke through. She docked in Halifax on October 11.

Larsen found himself a hero. He had made history’s first w'est-east passage, roughly following Amundsen’s route going the other way. He had shown the passage could be made, but only in small boats. With little to do in Halifax, he dreamed of going back, but this time farther north, through “the real Northwest Passage,” as he wrote, “free of reefs and shallow spots, that would be suitable for ships of any size.”

Early in 1944, Larsen w'as called to Ottawa. His instructions were explicit. “With a view to maintaining sovereignty over Arctic Islands ... to make the Northwest Passage via Lancaster Sound, Barrow Strait, Prince of Wales Strait and Beaufort Sea.” This was the uncharted northerly route.

The St. Roch was in no shape for it. After 16 years continuous duty, the top speed of her engine was less than six knots, nowhere near enough to battle the polar pack. Her rig, patterned after that of an auxiliary schooner of the Twenties, was outdated and unsuitable for high Arctic conditions. Battling wartime priorities, Larsen chivvied RCN Dockyard officials into rerigging her as a ketch, installing a 300-horsepower union diesel engine, and building a new' deckhouse with five spartan cabins and a closed-in wheelhouse.

Collecting a crew' in wartime Halifax

The first time out the engine broke down

was much harder. Except for the engineer, Corporal Bill Peters, the veterans of the first run had all dispersed. Larsen’s first move was to place a long distance call to Edmonton, to Constable Pat Hunt, a shipmate who, Larsen knew, had his own touch of the poet. Hunt was reluctant. “I felt I couldn’t afford to waste years sitting in the Arctic again.” Eventually he agreed. “When I got to Halifax, Henry took me aboard and pointed out the new deckhouse and the new engine. Then he took me into his cabin for a drink. And it was quiet. We looked at each other. And like two darn kids we started blubbering. Grown men. Police officers. Tears.”

A couple of days later, on the HalifaxDartmouth ferry, Larsen met two husky Newfoundland seamen: Frank Matthews and Stan McKenzie. “We got talking,” McKenzie, who’s now an engineer on the CN ferry Bluenose, recalls, “and we went to Dartmouth and we got so interested the ferry had docked and left again and we were on our way back to Halifax. So we went back to Dartmouth, and aboard St. Roch and Larsen talked us into going.”

The next pair of recruits, G. B. Dickens, cook, and Lloyd Russill, who became radio operator, were RCAF men frustrated at sitting on the ground. “I’d taken Morse Code,” says Russill, who now works aboard an oceanographic rig out of San Diego, “but I’d never ever sent or received a message. First one I sent we were out near Newfoundland and we were lost. Henry asked me to call up the shore station and get a bearing.” In Ottawa, Constable Jim Diplock, in the midst of a riding course, was also yearning for adventure. But none of these three were seamen. From his headquarters desk, Commissioner Wood rounded up a pair of Scandinavian-born old Arctic hands. Old ones. Thirty years earlier. Ole Andreasen, who became mate, had been in Vilhjalmur Stefannson’s party on his epic sled trek across the ice of the Beaufort Sea. Rudolph Johnsen, who became second engineer, was also in his late sixties. And finally, Larsen signed aboard Billy Cashin, an apprentice at Halifax Shipyards and now a construction worker in the Yukon. At 16, Cashin was legally too young to take such a step, so Larsen made him his ward.

The first time out. the new engine, rushed into service without proper trials, overheated and nearly set fire to the deck. “Never,” wrote Larsen, “had anyone prepared so badly for an Arctic voyage.” The St. Roch finally steamed out

Larsen picked up an Eskimo to serve as guide and hunter. He brought his wife, his mother, five children and 17 dogs

of Halifax on July 22, 1944, a sunny midsummer day. This was dangerously late in the season but for the first couple of weeks, up the coast of Labrador, all was smooth. By early August, with Baffin Island in sight, ice began to appear in quantities. “One night Frank Matthews was on watch,” McKenzie recalls. “The Old Man was asleep and there was this big berg ahead of us. Frank looked at it, took it for a low cloud, and Jeez, he hit that thing dead on.”

At Pond Inlet, Larsen picked up an Eskimo, Joe Panipakuttuk, to serve as guide and hunter through the winter they half expected to spend locked in ice. With Pani came his wife, his mother, five children — and 17 sled dogs. The family pitched a tent on top of the deckhouse; the dogs were lodged in the cargo scow. “These were real mean dogs,” says McKenzie. “One day I slipped and a dog took me by the ass of the pants and took a piece out of me. I picked up a big piece of rope that was froze and I gave it to that dog. Old Larsen came up behind me. He had his mouth open about two feet. While he was hollering at me, the dog grabbed ahold of him. ¿Then I turned round and had the laugh.”

The Eskimos had their own problems of adjustment. The strange ship was carrying them hundreds of miles from home. There was strange food to eat. “Every once in a while, in some greasy spoon restaurant I smell the same smells,” says Mary Panegoosho Cousins, who was eight then and is now a teaching consultant in Buffalo Narrows, Saskatchewan. “And I still can’t bring myself to eat spaghetti sauce.” Only Larsen, constantly joking and cajoling, made the journey bearable. “I really loved him. I never met a man like him again.” The older woman sewed parkas for everyone. Pani’s skills as a hunter provided walrus to feed the dogs and polar-bearburgers for the crew. Out of soapstone, Mary’s 14-year-old brother Arreak carved a superb figure of Larsen; this spring I saw it in the Vancouver apartment of Larsen’s widow, full of sun and memories.

Andreasen kept his own log in a beguiling muddle of poetry and broken English. “A lot more Sea girls,” he wrote on August 21 — not mermaids but seagulls. The day before, at Beechey Island, the St. Roch had kept a rendezvous with history. As Pani wrote later, “It is said that in the old days some white men got lost and the head of the expedition was never found though many ships called here searching for him. The name of that man was Franklin. On the island I

saw some stone markers and the graves of white men.” Ashore, the crew left records of their own passing in brass cylinders. Larsen posed for a photograph by the Franklin Monument, erected in 1858 at Lady Franklin’s behest. “I fancied I could see his tall majestic ships, wintering here 99 years before.”

Each day now, as the St. Roch shoved

through Lancaster and Melville Sounds, was an endless procession of fog, snow and ice. Larsen and his crew spent hours in the crow’s nest atop the 67-foot-high foremast, squinting for leads in the ice. Without sonar or radar equipment there were endless depth-soundings to be taken, by a crewman standing in a kind of pulpit chained to the starboard bow.

The captain loved the North so much he risked being trapped there all winter

Occasionally, they stopped to leave more brass cylinders in hastily constructed stone cairns. From a 19th-century cache on Dealey Island, they liberated a couple of cans of ox cheek soup dated 1850. At Parry Rock, they came upon a plaque left by Captain Joseph Bernier in the Canadian government ship Arctic on July 1, 1909, “to commemorate taking possession for the Dominion of Canada of the whole Arctic archipelago.”

Onward, north and west, into uncharted seas. Thirty miles from Parry Rock, moving slowly in thick fog and heavy ice, the St. Roch entered waters never before navigated by any ship. On August 31, she headed south into the guts of the passage; the 125-mile-long Prince of Wales Strait. In a minor miracle, the sun came out strong and there were only a few random floes. Everyone was strangely subdued. Through mostly open water, they chugged to Holman Island, a tiny Hudson’s Bay post. Boatloads of Eskimos clambered aboard. Larsen got out his movie camera and made a record of history. “We opened up a few quarts,” remembers McKenzie, “and we had a few drinks. We’d gotten through a part of the passage that nobody else had, ever.”

The only threat now was time, to reach the Bering Strait and the open Pacific before the ice fields, already rapidly edging south, could trap them for a

winter against the northern coast. The real trouble was Larsen. “He loved the North. He didn’t like it outside,” recalls Diplock. “Whenever the Old Man wasn’t around,” adds McKenzie, “it would be full speed ahead.” At Herschel Island, the old Yankee whaling post on the Beaufort Sea, most of the supplies were unloaded. The Eskimos, their services no longer needed, were settled into an abandoned warehouse. They were on the other side of their world, amid Eskimos who spoke a different language. In Pani, the experience and the culture shock catalyzed a talent that started him collecting the legends of his own people.

Lighter now, the St. Roch raced on to Point Barrow, the continent’s most northerly point, before the coastline falls off toward the Bering Strait. To port, treacherous reefs; to starboard, thickening ice. On September 24, Larsen was at the wheel, McKenzie taking soundings. “It was darker than the devil. I shouted, ‘We’ve lost the bottom.’ The Old Man shouted, ‘We’re around.’ ”

Three weeks later, after a rest stop at a U.S. naval base in the Aleutians, where the crew made a small killing peddling Newfoundland’s unique pre-Confederation 20-cent pieces for five dollars each, the St. Roch docked in Vancouver. “Now that we were back outside,” recalls Diplock, “we began to think Larsen was maybe right. Civilization didn’t look that good to us, either.”