Workers at Canadian Maritime Engineering’s shipyard in Nanaimo are dealing with the unenviable task of scrapping B.C.’s oldest wooden tugboat.
The MV Sea Lion was built in 1905 by Charles E. Robertson in Vancouver and, with a length of 130 feet and a 22-foot beam, was at one time the largest tug operating in B.C. waters, according to the Nauticapedia, an online maritime museum. The Sea Lion was originally powered by an oil-burning, 600-brake-horsepower steam engine that gave the boat a speed of 10 knots, and was refitted with an 800hp Enterprise diesel engine in 1952.
Scrapping the 116-year-old tug is a sad experience for the workers at the shipyard on Stewart Avenue, said Jim Drummond, project manager.
“It feels horrible,” he said. “I grew up on an old wooden tugboat that was built in 1917 … The Sea Lion showed up regularly in my life. It’s a big old majestic tug that you just couldn’t help but look at when you went by.”
The tug had numerous owners over the years. It was bought and sold as a yacht and was briefly a live-aboard in the mid 1980s. The tug was owned by a Calgary-based company until 2013 before it was sold again and was finally berthed at Maple Bay.
The MV Sea Lion was part of history in 1914 when 376 people from South Asia arrived in English Bay aboard the cargo ship the SS Komagata Maru to challenge Canada’s immigration policies. The Sea Lion carried a complement of 25 immigration officers and 125 police officers armed with rifles in an attempt to board the Komagata Maru, which resulted in violence between the passengers and officers attempting to board. The passengers repelled the boarding attempt by throwing chunks of coal and bricks onto the Sea Lion below, breaking windows aboard the tug and causing a number of injuries among the officers, according to the Vancouver Sun. The Komagata Maru was later escorted out of Canadian waters by the HMCS Rainbow and Sea Lion.
The Komagata Maru Heritage Foundation briefly owned the Sea Lion in the mid 2000s. The foundation says the tugboat was the first in B.C. to have ship-to-shore radio and a searchlight, made the first tow of Davis Raft type log boom and its whistle had a sliding scale its crew could play songs on.
Drummond said a former deckhand and second mate of the MV Sea Lion in the 1950s came by the shipyard this fall and shared stories with two dozen staff members about his time on the tugboat and what it was like to work on tugs on B.C.’s coast in those years.
“We presented him with [a piece of the tug] on behalf of the crew, because historically that’s where it needed to go, and then he took 15 or 20 minutes and graciously shared some stories. So the people that were here that day got to see a little bit of the heart and soul that went into that boat … one of the coolest things that I’ve been able to do during the job was that,” Drummond said.
He said the Sea Lion had become a vessel of concern for the government during the time it was moored at Maple Bay. Rainwater was leaking into the ship and it had a five-degree list. Its condition caused worries it could sink, release pollutants and create expensive recovery costs.
The ship could have been restored, Drummond said.
“Now, here’s the caveat. It was going to have to be a new owner with deep pockets and somebody who didn’t care about throwing money away, because it is a 116-year-old wood boat,” he said. “Was it salvageable realistically? Sure. Practically? No.”
Drummond said he is heartbroken to see the boat be scrapped, but some parts of the tugboat will be preserved. The wheelhouse will go to a private owner on the Lower Mainland who will preserve that portion of the tug.
“Every time I look at it and go, I don’t want to be doing this, I’m also thankful that I’m doing it instead of somebody else,” he said.