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Table of Contents and Tom Henry's Preface

William Irving
Princess Maquinna
Lady Alexandra
BCP No. 45
Pisces I



In the morning of Thursday, December 16, 1791, an officer of the Royal Navy stepped from a horse-drawn carriage onto the wharves at Deptford, on the south bank of the River Thames. Deptford was home to the Victualling Board, the provisioning centre for the navy's great voyages, and as the officer strode along the docks, he noted the coiled hawsers, fine spars, and barrels of sauerkraut and salt pork. The air carried its own inventory too: sweet tars and bitter oakum and the must of wet canvas. Though there were many fine vessels at the dock, the officer did not pause until he was alongside an inglorious three-masted ship. One hundred feet long, barge-like in its dimensions, it was the type of craft that is generously described as sturdy. The officer, a pudgy man with a religious bearing and grey, yellow-flecked eyes, appraised the ship for a moment, then, without ceremony, marched up the gangplank.

I say this is where BC history begins. Not West Coast history, for that is rooted in the tidal shifts of glaciers; nor is it Native history, traceable, depending on your belief, to the existence of a land bridge linking Asia to Alaska 12,000 years ago, or to a raven's playfulness. No; it is the seed of BC - that writhing, ill-named burgoo of Natives, non-Natives, logged-off valleys, timbered cities, beautiful, stinky pulp mills, seaweed poets, freaky politicians and big mountains that Jack Hodgins called "the Ragged Green Edge of the World."

And it begins on a creaky gangplank two hundred years ago.

The man was Captain George Vancouver. The ship was the Discovery. The two were about to set off from England on a journey of exploration to the northwest coast of North America that would last four and a half years. The trip changed the region forever. Prior to the Discovery's journey, the coast was a Native domain; to Europeans, it was a mystery, a blank on the globe where armchair geographers doodled ancient fancies, such as the passage to China. The Discovery slaughtered the dream and replaced it with a map. With Vancouver's intricate charts in hand, European empire builders could draw lines through the land, rename, reallocate, give and take-all the things that define a country, as opposed to a land. Awkward and resilient, the Discovery marked both the end of Native dominance of the Northwest, and the ascendance of European-style notions of geography, property and politics.

Nor was the Discovery the only important ship in BC history. it was succeeded by the Beaver, a black and dirty little steamer that played so many roles in nineteenth-century coastal history that it is best understood as a fleet rather than an individual ship. The Beaver was followed by the William Irving, a Fraser River sternwheeler as grand as the family that ran it; the Dunsmuirs' trend-setting tug Lorne; the glorious Victoria-based clipper Thermopylae; and the humble, seemingly indestructible ship-of-all-trades, the Beatrice. The first three decades of the twentieth century are synonymous with some amazing ships, too, including the "Bible barge" Columbia, the Canadian Pacific Railway's adored Princess Maquinna, pioneer rurnrunner-cum-log carrier the Malahat, and the Union Steamships' premier "Daddy boat," the fine Lady Alexandra. No account of modern BC could omit the deep-sea salvage tug Sudbury, the less glamorous but equally important classic wooden-hulled seiner the BCP No. 45, or the Pisces, an improbable 1960s-era submersible that fixed Vancouver at the centre of the underwater high-technology world. And finally, the book closes with a chapter on Bill Reid's quest-inspired dugout Lootaas, whose magnificent hull is a powerful symbol in the long, often-troubled, often-heroic rise of Native culture from the deprivations instigated by European newcomers in the era of the Discovery.

Fourteen boats, in some ways as subjective as my choice of shirts. But I'll trust the list to stand on a simple explanation: while it would be as easy as falling off a yardarm to add a dozen worthy ships to this account, you'd be bucking the current to argue any of the mentioned boats out. Each of these vessels helped define the coast, gave it some of the shape, character, sound, humanity that distinguish it today. Take away just one and the story springs a plank, takes on water, founders. From sloop to canoe, the careers of these ships overlap, like the planks on a lapstrake hull, so it is possible to read the province's history through their stories. Call them westcoasters; they are ships that built BC.