Preserving St. Roch

A small horde of second- and third-graders swarms down onto the blood-red deck like so many giggling pirates. But the "blood" on the deck is really red-oxide paint. And the children - from Parkcrest Elementary School in Burnaby, B.C. - have come to Vancouver to board and briefly take possession of a uniquely tangible heritage. They are scrambling over the former RCMP Arctic patrol vessel St. Roch, now preserved in the building that also houses the Vancouver Maritime Museum, overlooking English Bay. Eyes widen at a stuffed walrus lying on the foredeck, supposedly food for several huskies - also stuffed - perched on drums of spare fuel. Braver children climb eight feet up a vertical ladder to stand behind the big wooden ship's wheel. Anthony Bruni, 8, and his friend Alex D'Angelo, 9, agree that the idea of spending the winter on the St. Roch, in arctic ice, is "scary." Alex adds: "I'd want an axe in my hand the whole time. You'd never know what might happen next."

That was certainly true enough when the St. Roch was afloat. In 1942, at the end of a hazardous 28-month voyage under the command of Sgt. Henry Larsen, the little wooden ship became only the second vessel in history to navigate the Northwest Passage across the top of Canada, and the first to do so from west to east. (Roald Amundsen's Gjöa had made the only other passage, east-to-west, nearly 40 years earlier.) The St. Roch did not return for two years, when a more powerful engine got it back through across the Arctic in only 86 days. In 1950, after sailing from Vancouver to Halifax again - this time via the Panama Canal - the St. Roch became the first ship to circumnavigate North America.

Perhaps more importantly, for two decades the St. Roch was emblematic of Canadian sovereignty in the Arctic. In addition to delivering supplies to scattered RCMP detachments, the ship carried mail, ferried Inuit from place to place, transported the sick to hospital and served as a mobile police detachment. Those decades of service appeared finally to be repaid with honorable retirement when the vessel was hauled ashore and turned into a museum, 40 years ago last month.

But retirement has proven hazardous. In 1995, Parks Canada, which had maintained the vessel for more than 20 years, cut her loose - a victim of Ottawa's battle against the deficit. At the end of last year, 24 months of temporary funding from Ottawa and the city of Vancouver (which holds legal title to the ship) also came to an end, leaving the St. Roch' s future in doubt. But now a new plan has surfaced to save the sturdy vessel - a high-profile re-enactment of her historic voyage. If the maritime museum - whose staff cares for the ship - has its way, the RCMP will provide a modern patrol boat for the project in two years' time. Museum executive director James Delgado hopes the venture will attract enough corporate sponsors to raise the millions of dollars he says are needed to guarantee the St. Roch's future.

The rigors of her past voyages seem remote in the ship's present home. She dwells now under an A-frame shelter, her grey paint and black trim looking fresh, her accommodations cluttered with the accoutrements of the voyage, as though the crew has just stepped off on patrol. In the galley are bottles of lime cordial (to stave off scurvy) and packages of Sunlight soap (which had a second use, to seal the primitive bottle-bombs Larsen fabricated to blast through ice-jams). In a tiny lounge, books and magazines (including the March 1, 1943, issue of Maclean's) lie ready to relieve the tedium of the arctic winter. But despite the appearance of good repair, the 70-year-old ship is failing. Dry rot has attacked her stern. The wear-and-tear of 88,000 visitors a year requires expensive repairs. "We've funded the St. Roch as best we can," says Delgado. "But we're about at the end of our rope."

The American-born Delgado, however, has some ideas about where to find more rope. One, already under way, is to sell ownership of one-inch squares of a panoramic portrait of the Arctic donated by artist Ken Kirkby, to raise a hoped-for $2.6 million (the 45-m-long painting itself would eventually provide a fitting backdrop for the St. Roch). More daring is Delgado's scheme to re-enact the St. Roch's famous voyage. The idea is to send one of the high-speed aluminum catamarans the RCMP now uses for coastal patrols through the Northwest Passage in the summer of 2000, largely following Larsen's 1940-1942 course.

At top speeds of more than 30 knots, the contemporary vessel should be able to make the passage in less than a month, says Delgado. He hopes Canadian corporations will be willing to pay a total of $5 million to be associated with the venture. Of that, $1 million would be spent to cover costs; another $1 million would go towards an RCMP charity. The remaining $3 million would be used to preserve the St. Roch.

Shoals lie ahead for the undertaking. The RCMP remains cautious, for one thing. "Is this truly a re-enactment?" wonders RCMP Insp. Don Saigle, responsible for marine operations in British Columbia, "or is it a commercial enterprise utilizing RCMP resources?" If it appears to be the latter, he hints, the force may pull out. A more practical concern is whether a lightly built catamaran could safely navigate seas prone to ice. And Delgado faces a more immediate challenge: later this month, Vancouver city council will weigh the museum's request that it continue funding the St. Roch for two more years, until proceeds from a re-enactment begin to flow into a trust fund for the ship. "Without their involvement," Delgado says, "we can't afford to keep the vessel."

Delgado argues passionately that the goal of preserving the St. Roch is worth the effort. "This boat, small and frail, with just a few people on board, took the worst that the world could dish out in the most gruelling environment imaginable, and survived," he says. "And they didn't just hang on, they did amazing things. They went places no one else had gone. They lived an adventure. The ship is an inspiration. It tells anybody, young or old, 'You can do it.' "

That may explain why the sturdy little ship, in her dry dock overlooking English Bay, seems so untouched by the shadow hanging over her future. Municipal politics and corporate image-marketing can surely hold no greater terrors than the grinding ice of the Arctic. Asked what he will remember about the St. Roch, Anthony Bruni answers: "She didn't sink." No. With luck and a little help, she never will.

Maclean's May 11, 1998