Wooden Ship on the Waters
An historic vessel sets the tone for cruising Canada?s culturally rich Gulf Islands
May. 7, 2005 11:00 AM
A classic wooden yacht that resembles a warm cozy lodge provides the perfect refuge when exploring British Columbia’s great outdoors.
Beaches of crushed clam, oyster, and mussel shells line the remote shores of many of British Columbia’s scenic Gulf Islands. They are the sun-bleached remnants of a native society that lived off the land, harvesting shellfish for both sustenance and trade.
Although today’s population is more diverse, many island dwellers still reap the bounties of the fertile environment. While salmon fishing remains popular, specialty vineyards, cheese producers, orchards, bakers, lavender growers, and lamb farmers have set down stakes, giving this region a growing reputation for culinary and wine offerings. Many cottage industries have also sprung up, attracting painters, potters, weavers, and woodworkers. Saltspring Island’s renowned weekly market features only handcrafted items made by residents.
A haven for draft dodgers and hippies in the ’70s, the pastoral Gulf Islands tend to attract those who want a more laid-back lifestyle. Rolling hills, thick rainforests, and marine parks abound throughout the hundreds of islands that lie in the Strait of Georgia, between the BC mainland and Vancouver Island.
When you visit, be prepared to settle in and enjoy the calm waters, the temperate climate, the local foods, the magnificent scenery, the bountiful wildlife, and a variety of watersports, but don’t ever worry about keeping to a schedule. Captain Colin Griffinson made this clear as he picked us up on the dock and headed the tender toward the 120ft Pacific Yellowfin, where we would unwind for the next few days: “Relax, you’re on island time,” he said. “We live according to what the moon is doing, what the tide is doing, and when it’s time to eat. By the time you get off the boat, you won’t remember what day it is.”
We felt instantly at ease as we boarded the waiting yacht in Tsehum Harbor, about 45 minutes from Victoria, on the northeast coast of Vancouver Island. One of 64 wooden ships built for the U.S. Army, the Pacific Yellowfin has a history as rich as the islands through which she sails. Built in Maine and launched in 1943 as a supply vessel for the U.S.?Army Corps of Engineers, she also decommissioned the Aleutian Islands, served as a research vessel for the California Department of Fish and?Game, and even played a role in the Bay of Pigs.
Captain Griffinson fell in love with her at a classic wooden boat show and tried to buy her for several years before the owner finally agreed to sell. When he did, he gave Griffinson only 12 hours to clinch the deal. The call came late at night and Griffinson would have had to catch two ferries in the morning to reach the owner. There was no way. He tried calling the local floatplane operators even though he knew they would be gone for the night. Surprisingly, the phone was answered by a pilot who just happened to be walking through the offices and who agreed to fly the captain to Orcas Island the next morning. The deal was made, and the previous owner’s parting words about the powerful vessel were: “Don’t point her at anything you can’t pay for!”
Griffinson and his wife Marelon sold their home and moved onto the boat with their two daughters. They spent the next couple of years painstakingly refurbishing Pacific Yellowfin. A fifth-generation master painter who has done fine interiors for homes and yachts throughout the world – including over a year working on Buckingham Palace – the captain has plenty of experience renewing grand old ladies.
He created a custom shade of rich creamy yellow (what else!) for her exterior, and graced her funnel with a hand-painted griffin (his family logo). The interior woodwork now gleams, with yellow cedar and fir on the main deck, fir down below, and a good deal of oak and mahogony throughout. There are even several decorative columns in the saloon, turned from large driftwood pieces and refinished by the captain to resemble fine wood. Two leather couches in the saloon flank a wood-burning stove, and the open galley and dining area add to the cozy informality. Original polished brass portholes create instant ambience.