the voyage of the loch ryan

The Last Voyage of the Loch Ryan

by Andrew Struthers, Tofino

The Tofino Library was one of the oldest buildings in town.

There was a building permit on the wall from 1917, signed by Kevin Arnett. Once there were so many Arnetts in town that Tofino almost ended up as Arnettville. Nowadays you have to go to the graveyard if you want to see a lot of Arnetts. These things go in waves.

the letter 'O'One rainy afternoon I stopped in at the library so my daughter Pasheabel could read some books. The librarian, Linda White, was delighted by Pasheabel's reverence for books, and I sometimes slipped out for a few minutes, certain the kid was in good hands. That afternoon I was ill at ease. My life felt like the deck of a shrimp boat in October, when the wind suddenly blows from the north. I knew something big was about to change but I had no idea what.

Pasheabel was working her way through The Saddle Club. There are a hundred volumes; it would take her weeks. I stepped outside, and when I saw the pale spring sky I felt even worse. Hoping to shake free I walked down the hill to the government docks on Fourth Street.

I decided to visit my friend Peter Schultz. He and his family lived near my pyramid on Poole's land, in a tiny cabin made from the kind of lumber that mills call "three sides good". Photos of Rama Krishna, hand-carved cedar bowls, crystals and chainsaw tools, wood chip carpeting, the scent of sandalwood and gasoline. When the g-men closed in for the kill Peter bought an old fish boat called the Pacific King and started fixing her up as a live-aboard. She was moored at the fifth finger.

By the time I'd walked there, the weather had turned miserable. It made the wheelhouse of the Pacific King seem all the more cheerful—the oil stove blasting, the radio chanting a bad weather mantra. Through the curved front windows the green wall of Meares Island across the inlet suddenly caught a shaft of sunlight.

" Not bad for four grand." "And Betty Crocker's selling that one for three," said Pete, jerking his thumb at a bedraggled tub lashed next to the King. It was the Loch Ryan.

She looked like hell. The wheelhouse was green with mildew, and the engine wasn't running. But I remembered her from better days. She had been real cozy without the mildew. Inside was small, but there was a neat little foc's'le cabin in the bow, an oil stove in the galley, and a table nook in the wheelhouse that folded down into a bed.

" Why so cheap? I thought these boats were fifty grand."

" It's the Mifflin Plan. They're worthless," said Pete. "The skippers just want to get rid of them. Good deals for us."

The Mifflin Plan was a federal initiative aimed at conserving salmon stocks by reducing the size of the fishing fleet. Between 1995 and 1997 the feds bought back half of the fishing licenses on the west coast. The plan looked good on paper, but it worked out badly for wooden boats. Of the 2,000 licenses bought back, 1,800 had wooden hulls. Very few metal and fibreglass vessels were retired because they were newer, the skippers younger, the upkeep easier. Sadly, the remaining fleet fished twice as hard, so not a single salmon was saved. But suddenly the bottom fell out of the wooden fish boat market because you could buy one for a few grand.

Skipper of the Loch Ryan, eh? It was so crazy it might just work.

I asked around and got the skinny on the boat. The owner was Betty Crawczyk, raging grannie and author of Clayoquot: The Sound of my Heart. She owned property up in Cypre River, and rode back and forth in a little tin boat with a nine horse Evinrude. One day she had a close call with a fish boat, and after that she felt unsafe on small craft.

Her daughter Marianne worked at the Schooner Restaurant with Andrea Arnett, whose husband Derek had been trolling with the Loch Ryan for seven years. When the Mifflin Plan surfaced, he jumped at it. Like most fishing families, the Arnetts loved their boat, but with the license gone, it suddenly became a moorage bill. He sold it to Betty for ten thousand.

The wharfinger, Art Clarke, was plenty nervous about the whole deal. He was a practical man. He once fixed the deep-fat fryer at the Pointe Restaurant with a clotheshanger. He had fixed ideas regarding city women at the wheels of fish boats.

" Now, Betty" he told her, "when you're coming in, just phone me, we'll send someone out to help you dock."

But it turned out the boat was moored up at Cypre for months at a time. The first winter there was a problem in the electrical system, the battery drained, the bilge pump shut down, and she took water up to the engine. Three men went up and bailed her with a gas pump and towed her in to the dock. When Pete went to check the oil, water shot out the dipstick hole. That couldn't be good. Rumour was the hull was good, but the engine was hooped.

But that was good for me. I didn't want to run the engine. I'm mechanically inept. Last time I changed the oil in my Datsun it never ran again. It ended up as a hatchback planter in someone's yard, all sorts of greenery uncoiling from under the hood. So the Loch Ryan's engine was worthless? Big deal. All that did was drive down the price. Betty had bought for ten and was asking three and a half.

Back at the pyramid I thought the whole thing over while I lit the woodstove. I was so distracted the fire kept going out. For some reason my heart was pounding like the drum in a slave galley.

I'm no good at making big decisions. The bigger they get, the more confused I become. When it comes to life decisions I become paralysed and my irrational mind does it for me. One thing I'll say on my own behalf: when it comes to where I'm going to live next, I know instantly. Bullet to the brain.

I went to Poole's Land one time just to visit, but when I was up on the hill I saw the house I was going to build. I didn't hallucinate or anything. I suddenly had a flash of memory, a house seen from behind, dark with tar paper, a smoking stove, and happy people inside. Then I realized it wasn't a memory; it was the opposite. I started building that Saturday.

Same with the Loch Ryan. The rain had stopped for a second, and the water around her went smooth and dark. I had the same shock of recognition you do the morning after you shave your beard.

Oh yeah. That's me.

But could I leave the forest? Return to the bread and circuitry of modern life?

Andrew Struthers homesteaded in Clayoquot Sound for ten years, three on the MV Loch Ryan and seven in a hand-hewn pyramid on Poole's Land. He once stalked George Lucas by mistake.

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Andrew Struthers writes about the last voyage of the Loch Ryan, and the history of the boat that was his home in Tofino.

tofino time january 2004

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