by Wm. L. Loeppky
Thousands of miles of open Pacific aided and abettted by fierce winter westerlies frequently over sixty miles an hour, nurture the swells as they grow to heights of fifty, sixty feet, and higher.
The deep sea tug Redoubtable, steaming slowly in a sheltered inlet, awaiting the end of such a winter storm, is a stout wooden vessel of a hundred and fifty feet. She saw duty as a U.S. Army tug during world war two. After the war, she and many of her sister ships were put to auction as surplus. Redoubtable now did service plying a route between Howe Sound, near Vancouver, Canada and Mahatta River, on the north west corner of Vancouver Island. A converted South American tanker, stripped of super-structure and rigged with cranes, is her charge. Redoubtable tows the empty barge to Mahatta River where it is loaded with a million board feet of logs....logs to satisfy the hungry maws of lumber and pulp mills on the banks of Howe Sound, Fraser River and Vancouver's False Creek.
Tonight, the Redoubtable, with crew of six awaits word announcing the end of the storm. Skipper Steve Fairbourne, a veteran of these waters, will make haste when winds subside. There will be little time before the next storm arrives. The skipper, mate Alan Willson, and engineer George MacCauley are in the wheelhouse, listening for the weather broadcast on the ship's single side-band radio. Cook Alex Gorski, deckhands Johal Gill Singh and Luther Bell are in the galley playing hearts.
The Redoubtable is at Alert Bay, on the north east end of Vancouver Island, a hundred and twenty miles from it's destination of Mahatta River in Quatsino Sound.
Weather radio relays lighthouse information and forecasts from Weather Ship St. Catharines at Station Papa, a thousand miles to the west. Winds are subsiding. Good weather is in store for two or three days. Enough time to make it in and out of Mahatta River before the next winter storm.
Redoubtable Steams out of Hardy Bay late on the skipper's watch, just before midnight of December 10th, 1953. The course to Cape Scott is due west. The wind has died, the sea remains high. The sturdy tug pitches as it digs itself in and out of huge westerly swells. Every foot of the huge steel towline is reeled off the winch, the weight of the line allowing it to sink deeply and act as a shock absorber as tug and barge fight each other for freedom. Good time is made in spite of the heavy seas. By noon, Redoubtable is well past Cape Scott, alters course in a wide sweep to south-east. She will stay this heading for the next couple of hours, but now wallows in the trough of a following sea on her starboard quarter.
In weather like this, clear, calm but with a high following sea, cook Alex Gorski enjoys sitting on the afterdeck smoking his daily cigar. Lunch is over, the skipper is catching forty winks, deckhand Luther Bell is sleeping in the fo'c'sle and Johal Gill Singh is doing what no seaman likes to do, he's below cleaning and painting in the chain locker. Engineer MacCauley is in the bowels of the ship,polishing brass while the scream of the big engine deafens his unprotected ears. Alex sits on the after hatch cover, enjoying his cigar. All is well in Alex's world.
In the wheelhouse, mate Alan Willson makes a few notes after finishing his regular two p.m. conference with the office in Vancouver.Alan notices Johal climb out of the chain locker, stomping his feet, shaking, trying to get the paint chips and dust off his clothing.Johal heads after. Alan figures he's off to the galley for a cup of coffee. Alan opens a window, shouts down to the deckhand, "If it's coffee you're after, bring one for me." Johal looks up to Alan. He says, "Coffee! You know I don't drink the stuff!. Want some apple juice? It's heal their for you."
Alan can't resist teasing Johal about dietary habits. "You drink juice, I'll drink coffee." he says. Johal grins and heads for the galley. A minute or two later, he's back in the wheelhouse, coffee and juice in hand. Johal just gets started telling Alan he's used the last of the red lead paint in the chain locker, and will have to quit that job until they get more of it. Alan says, "Lotsa red lead, my boy....four gallons in the after hold."
"Shit!" says Johal.
Willson, coffee in hand, turns to Johal, "Each time I come around Cape Scott after a storm, in weather like this, I'm reminded of Gordon Cummin." Gordon Cummin was an old time tug captain. His story was known and told by anyone who sailed or had sailed the west coast of Vancouver Island.
Captain Cummin had left the deckhand alone in the wheelhouse. He would get a breath of fresh air on the way to the galley for a cup of coffee. An hour later, the deckhand called the skipper on the ship's intercom. There was no response. The captain had not reached the galley, nor was he ever seen again. It's thought he had been caught off balance when his ship rolled and had gone over the side.Dozens of tugboaters swear they've seen the ghost of Gordon Cummin as they neared Cape Parkins, just at the entrance to Quatsino Sound.
A few moments of silence in the wheelhouse is broken when cook Alex Gorski, white with fright, stumbles in. Alex screams, arms flailing and pointing, about a man in a hat, sitting on the tug's after bulwark. He grabs the mate's arm, coaxing him to go aft to see the man. Alex continues to scream, but now in his native European tongue.
"Calm down Alex, " says the mate, "take it easy." The mate gives the wheel to Johal and accompanies the terrified Alex to the afterdeck. No one in sight. "What the hell are you talking about? Get hold of yourself." Alex resumes his screaming and flailing, with fire in his eyes, lunges at the mate. Meantime, MacCauley crawls out of the after engine room hatch, just in time to witness Willson let Sam have one between the horns.
"What the hell you doin'?" shouts MacCauley, rushing over to give the glassy-eyed cook a hand. Willson is quick to explain what's happening. "It's old Gordon again, ain't it?"says the engineer. Alan nods.
MacCauley and the mate man-handle Alex forward to his room. Alex, still mightily agitated won't settle down. "Hang on to him George," says the mate. "I'll get some lashing." In a few minutes, Alex is tied to his bunk, hands and feet immobilized. By now, the skipper's awake and wants to know what happened.
Captain Fairbourne says, "We'll be in Quatsino Sound soon. We'll be tied up before dark. Radio Vancouver. Tell 'em what's happened. We'll send Alex back to town on a float plane. Tell 'em to send out another cook."
The log barge is hung onto a bouy in the harbor at Mahatta River.The tug steams to the dock. The super-cargo greets the skipper before a line's heaved ashore, "Office says to tell you a Beaver will leave Vancouver at daybreak. They're sending a medic. How's Alex?"
"He's out of it. I gave him a shot of morphine from the emergency kit. He's asleep.He'll be okay till the plane gets here. I'll keep a man with him tonight."
The Beaver float plane, bearing medic and replacement cook arrived at ten o'clock in the morning. Alex is shipped back to Vancouver. It takes a full day to load the barge. The old man figures on leaving Mahatta River first thing the next morning. All goes according to plan. The Redoubtable hooks on to the loaded barge and steams away the following morning. Weather radio has said fine weather will hold. They'll be back around Cape Scott before the next westerly hits.
Redoubtable passes Parkins Bay, heads north west. She'll maintain the bearing for a couple of hours before altering one-eighty to get around Cape Scott and head home. The mate answers the afternoon conference, tells the office they're just passing Parkins Bay.
That evening, tugs tune in to the regular conference and hear Vancouver call, "Redoubtable, this is Ocean Towing, go ahead please." There is no response. Again, "Redoubtable.... Ocean Towing, go ahead Steve."......
Salvage boats are advised of a log spill west of Parkins Bay. The little tugs can't round them up. The furious westerly winter gale struck too suddenly. Alex Gorski recovers. He doesn't go back to sea.