History of SALTS

Page Highlights:

  • Robertson II purchased in 1974, sailed to Victoria; innovative sail training programs started
  • Robertson II put up for auction in 1980 but purchased and donated back
  • Robertson II receives major rebuild from 1980-1984
  • Spirit of Chemainus constructed in 1984-85; later sold
  • Pacific Swift constructed as working exhibit at Expo '86 in Vancouver
  • Pacific Grace, a replica of the Robertson II, constructed from 1995-2001

1974-1980: The Early Years aboard the Robertson II

In the early 1970s, a Victoria physician, Dr. Philip Ney ran an adventure program for young people aboard the ex-troller Nipentuck on the west coast. As the program expanded, the need for a larger vessel became obvious and Dr. Ney started a search which led him ultimately to Nova Scotia and the Robertson II. “The Robbie,” as it affectionately became known, was a Grand Banks fishing schooner in active service since its construction in 1940. Under Dr. Ney’s pioneering leadership, a company was formed in 1974 to own the ship – Pilot Programs Ltd. – and a non-profit society was created to run the program – Quest Star Life Discovery Society.

Robertson IIA bowsprit was added to the Robertson II’s shapely profile and with a volunteer crew comprised of family members and friends and a collection of second-hand sails, the intrepid doctor set out for the Panama Canal. Her crew was reminded from time to time of her long service in the fisheries as the rank odor of former cargoes drifted up from her bilges with each ocean swell. While stopping in Barbados, a minor mix-up of hoses when taking on fuel and water meant that the crew also had to suffer the indignity of diesel fumes in their tea. After a pleasant trip through the Panama Canal, where the Robertson was used as a pilot training ship, Dr. Ney left the schooner in Acapulco and Robert Hirschfield brought her safely to her new home port of Victoria. It had become apparent on the 8000-mile voyage from Nova Scotia that the Robertson II was under-rigged, she was given a three-masted rig with a suit of new sails made in Hong Kong.

From 1974 to 1980 sail training programs aboard the Robertson were developed that ranged from 2 days to 20 days and saw as many as 800 young people a year participate. Voyages took them to the Gulf Islands, the Strait of Georgia and the spectacular fjords of British Columbia such as Jervis Inlet and Princess Louisa. A particularly innovative program called “West Trek” combined seven days of hiking the West Coast Trail of Vancouver Island with five days of sailing and exploring in Barkley Sound.

Operating costs could usually be met by revenue from trainees’ fees but ongoing maintenance and restoration expenses were a constant drain on resources and energy. On a windy night, the Robertson’s aging “Jimmy” diesel packed it in, proving the last straw in the mounting financial burden for owners and operators. Dr. Ney had accepted a new posting in Christchurch, New Zealand and so in the fall of 1980 the Robertson II was put up for sale.
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1980-84: Re-Birth of the Robbie

Robertson II AfterIt was a Saturday in early September 1980, that the Robertson II lay tied to Ship Point Wharf awaiting the auctioneer’s hammer. However, there was a real surprise in store for everyone. When the bids were opened, the successful tenderer was Mr. Alan Graham of Calgary. He promptly donated the vessel back to the Society with the provisos that there be some new faces on the board of directors and that a second society, the Friends of the Robertson II be formed to help specifically with fundraising. Alan Graham’s involvement was largely the work of local Victoria Businessman, Jim Hartshorne, who had explained the plight of the Robertson II the day before the auction as they gazed at her spars from a nearby restaurant window. Hartshorne was to become one of the members of the new board under the chairmanship of Dr. Wally Eggert.

The winter of 1980 saw the engine removed and rebuilt and some major repair work carried out in the stern area. In the spring of ’81 the Board, despite the fiscal balance that hardly made it worth the bank’s while to send out a monthly statement, hired a new Executive Director, Martyn Clark. This position called for him to skipper the Robertson II, raise funds and develop sail training programs. He assembled a team and began a major restoration effort which would see the Robertson II restored to her historic two-masted gaff rig. The work could only take place in the winter months as the ship would still need to sail from May to October. The total restoration was scheduled to cover three years and to cost $350,000. Work included replacing the old wheelhouse with a traditional deckhouse, replacing the spars, diesel tanks, sails, rigging, steering box, wheel, hatch coamings, skylights, generator, steering, crew’s quarters, and chart table. Builders who were instrumental in the restoration included Gerry Fossum, Jeff Mitchell, David Roycroft, Lars Junker, Derek Cash, Geoff Munday, Gerry Boy, Real Fournier, Chris Maloney, and Tony Anderson.

A vigorous advertising campaign, new brochures, and mailings to B.C. schools had resulted in healthy bookings for spring and summer, but the dockside loafers and armchair sailors became increasingly skeptical that the schooner would be ready in time. On the appointed day the decks were scrubbed clean and the Robertson II took on board another group of eager school children. Her suit of new white sails, cut in the tradition of the true Grand Banks fisherman, were an inspiring sight but the crew eyed her massive boom and mainsail, larger than 2000 square feet, with more than a little apprehension.

And so another winter rolled around, and the crew devoted themselves to gutting the interior and installing new water tanks, cabin soles, tables, bunks, heads and galley. The final phase of the restoration – new decking and bulwark caps – was completed in the winter of ‘84-’85. The Robertson II had already won the award for the best restored sailing vessel at the Victoria Real Estate Board Classic Boat Show in ’82. Her programs were fully booked almost a year in advance with long waiting lists for the summer trips.

SALTS sailed the Robertson II from 1974 to 1995 when she was retired. The ship served as a floating museum in Victoria’s Harbour, available for public tours, until she was sold to a private owner in 2003.
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1984-1985 Spirit of Chemainus

Spirit of Chemainus During ConstructionIn April, 1984, SALTS received a donation of a partially completed hull and undertook to complete the vessel construction. Symbolic of the ships sailed by our forefathers, this new vessel was rigged as a brigantine (with four squaresails on the foremast), as was the historic Cadboro, the first such rig to enter Victoria Harbour in 1837 under the command of Captain Brotchie.

The hull design was based on a Gloucester fishing sloop, with lines taken off and recorded by Howard Chapelle. Alex Spiller, formerly of Dodge Cove near Prince Rupert, had already lofted the vessel and prepared the moulds at his shop in Dodge Cove, when it was decided to transport them and many of his shipyard tools to Chemainus.

The first phase – construction of the hull – was supervised by Spiller aided by shipwrights Paul McLennan, John Leekie, John Knowles, Wayne Loiselle, Andrew Remple, Grant Urton, Tom Ellis, Don Corfield and Tom Spiller. The second phase – fitting out of the interior – was undertaken by Bob Down, assisted by David Keeble, John Homer, George Weeks, Barry Coombs and Bill McAnn.

The Spirit of Chemainus was launched on the 14th September 1985. Built entirely of wood, primarily mahogany and Douglas fir planking on steamed oak frames and yellow cedar beams. Deck houses, hatches, bulwark caps, transom and trim of mahogany and gumwood. Her sparred length:- 92’ (28m), length on deck:- 65' (20m), beam:- 18' (5.5m), and draught:- 9' 6" (3m). Sail plan was by Robert Lally and Associates, after typical 19th century practice, with sails by Shay and Greg Foster of Whaler Bay Boatyard.

Spirit of Chemainus AfterAfter launching, the hull was delivered to Victoria for final fitting out and rigging. This last phase was supervised by then executive director, Martyn Clark and involved Gerry Fossum (Spirit of Chemainus first skipper), Tony Anderson, Mark Wallace, Ron Polmear, Chris Maloney, Lars Junker, Harry Leeder, Fred Rempel, Bert Haupt, Gerry Boy and others. Sail plan was by Robert R. Lally and Associates after typical 19th century practice with sails by Shay and Greg Foster of Whaler Bay Boatyard.

The Chemainus represented her birthplace, the Chemainus Valley, as official "Tall Ship of Vancouver Island" in 1986. She then served as a sail training vessel for young people for several years before being sold. She was sold for several reasons, the primary one being that she could not accommodate enough trainees to pay for the maintenance and crew necessary to keep it sailing as a sail training vessel. Nevertheless, she proved an excellent training ship for SALTS crews to learn the handling of a square rigged vessel, and was instrumental in Expo officials inviting SALTS to build the Pacific Swift at the Expo ‘86 world’s fair in Vancouver.
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1986 Pacific Swift

Pacific Swift ConstructionIn early 1985, Expo 86 officials were invited to Chemainus to observe the construction of the SALTS brigantine Spirit of Chemainus. Shortly thereafter they invited SALTS to prepare a proposal to construct a similar vessel as a working exhibit at the Expo ‘86 site on the north bank of Vancouver's False Creek. The Old SALTS Shipyard became a highlight of the Worlds Fair as an ever-changing exhibit, witnessed by local and international visitors, and one of the few to receive funding from the Expo organization. With only a limited six month time frame to build and launch the vessel at Expo, it was decided to prepare the keel and frames beforehand. This was accomplished at the Whaler Bay Shipyard near the south end of Galiano Island under the direction of Greg Foster and a crew of experienced and trainee shipwrights.

The building of the Swift at Expo ’86 allowed SALTS to reach back 200 years in time to recreate a symbol of Canadian maritime excellence. Vessels like the Swift carried Loyalists to the Maritimes and across the Great Lakes to settle Upper Canada. Millions of visitors watched as the hull was planked and decked in Douglas Fir, and over 30,000 people (reputed to be the largest audience at a ship launch in Canadian history) were there for the launching of the vessel on the 11th of October, a few days before Expo closed. Over the next two years, the interior of the Swift was finished, engine and rigging installed. The course sails were finished in the first week of her first offshore voyage, July 1988, with trainees and crew still sewing the final stitches en route to Hawaii. She then traveled through the South Pacific and on to New Zealand after reaching Australia in time for Expo ’88.

The Swift design, a square topsail schooner based on the brig of 1778, had been under consideration by SALTS for several years, as a small to medium-sized vessel for sail training. The date of the original is significant, as it placed this design within the time period generally recognized by maritime historians as the zenith of traditional sailing vessel development. Speed is apparent in the Swift's lines, but is not emphasized to the exclusion of safety as in so many vessels of later date.

Her marked dead-rise, rake of stem, and basic proportions, identify the Swift as a distinctive forerunner of the Baltimore Clipper type. Safety was her legacy from the past, characterized by buoyant ends, straight floors and low working rig on raked masts. But she also looks forward to an age obsessed with speed, seen in her light displacement and build, raked ends, extreme dead-rise and over-sparring. That she was in fact considered a radical design for the time, is supported by the alterations made following her capture and purchase into the Royal Navy... ballast was increased and rig reduced.
This conservative approach is the one taken with the new vessel, increasing the ratio of ballast to displacement within the context of well-fastened softwood construction, and shortening the rig.

Photo by James Mead MayaAnother reason, therefore, for choosing this design, was first of all because the Swift is a moderate example from this important period (1770-1840) in maritime history, when small schooners of the Swift type were being built by the hundreds all along the eastern seaboard and on the Great Lakes, whether for packet or fast merchant service (as was the Swift) or privateering, pilotage, and fishing. She has all the romance of the justifiably famous Baltimore Clipper, and retains the elegant bow- and stern-works of an earlier age.

The Swift design was also judged well suited to sail training owing to her type, rig and size. As a light-displacement merchant schooner, she offers adequate space for accommodation without the onerous ballasting of a more full-bodied shape. This favourably affected her construction cost as well, by way of lighter build, and resulted in more easily worked gear on deck and aloft.

She has proven to be a show-stopper wherever she goes. The Swift has successfully completed four offshore voyages between 1988 and 1995. Since then she has hosted coastal trainees on voyages up the B.C. coast and around Vancouver Island.
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1995-2001 Pacific Grace, a Robertson II Replica

The launch of the new schooner, Pacific Grace, was just about the most moving and inspiring occasion I’ve experienced in five years as editor of Pacific Yachting.
Duart Snow, Editor, Pacific Yachting Dec. 1999 Issue
On Saturday, October 9, 1999, to the sound or a lone fiddler, ships’ horns, gun salutes, and the cheers of 4,000 spectators, Pacific Grace glided slowly into Victoria’s harbour. For SALTS, the launch marked the culmination of five years’ work. This sleek new ship with brilliant red bottom paint, a sweeping white boot top on a glossy black hull, and green-and-gold trim—is a replica of the Robertson II, in the line of classic Grand Bankers, including the world-famous Bluenose. The new schooner was constructed in the SALTS Heritage Shipyard in Victoria, BC. The construction was led by Tony Anderson with capable assistance from David Eggert, Lars Junker, Thomas Shienfluge, Pat Woodland, Ian MacKenzie, Brendan Dickinson, Jim Sepkawski, Mark Wallace, Fred Rempel, Glen Peterson, Leach Machine Works, & countless others.

Boat BuildingBecause the drawings for the Robbie had been lost, Sidney naval architect Paul Gartside took the lines off the schooner and drew up detailed construction plans. SALTS appointed Tony Anderson, who had joined the organization as a volunteer in 1982 at the age of 18, to serve as project manager and head shipwright. Anderson merged his life with SALTS. His love of connecting young people with our maritime heritage motivated him to obtain his master’s ticket, help build two ships, skipper sail training cruises during the summer, and captain offshore voyages to the Galapagos, Pitcairn Island, French Polynesia and Hawaii and Expo ’92 in Seville Spain. The burly shipwright and father of six sports an ample, biblical looking red beard. Five days before launch day, and despite numerous last-minute tasks, he appeared calm and relaxed. But there was no mistaking his passion for SALTS’ mission and for Pacific Grace.

The Grace is built of Nimpkish Valley Douglas fir. The 8” square deck-support beams are yellow cedar. The caprails and sole (flooring below deck) is hard-wearing purple heart from South America. SALTS built Pacific Grace for longevity. Grand Banks schooners were once built to last only 10-20 years, but the Robbie had lasted 67 years. Volunteer Bill Cox, who helped build the Robbie in 1940, explained “The reason the Robbie lasted longer is that, during construction the military pulled the crew off the job and during their absence, the schooner’s green wood had a chance to dry.”

Pacific Grace DuringBuilding Pacific Grace required careful planning and years of painstaking work. In the boatshed, a team of four shipwrights built a 90' x 30' white lofting floor and laser-leveled it to within 1/16". Next, they scaled up Gartside's line drawings to make full-size drawings on the lofting floor. After the lofting floor was dismantled, the backbone---two pieces of fir 40' long, 13" deep and 11' wide---was laid first. Anderson used modern "technology" to make patterns for the 63 double frames. Instead of wood, he used a clear mylar sheet to trace the construction drawings with coloured felt pens. The mylar patterns were then lain on huge billets of timber. "We used cranes and rollers to move the wood." explained Anderson.

Pacific Grace"The mylar patterns worked very well. They saved us lots of time, were exact and lightweight. It's amazing that all the frame patterns can be stored in a four foot box." The team used a ship's head saw to bevel each frame to fit the hull curvature. Next, a mirror image of each frame was made; the "doubles" were bolted together, resulting in a thickness of 8", and these were secured to the backbone. After all the standing ribs were installed, they were faired lightly, and hull planks were fastened to the frames with galvanized lag bolts. The lag holes were plugged, and the hull faired again with electric hand planers, followed by board sanding above the waterline. The crew caulked the seams with cotton & oakum sealed with red lead paint. Seam compound finished the job. Pacific Grace's 3" hull and deck planks are prime Douglas fir, seasoned, knot-free and supplied by TF Specialty Sawmill, a company that also provides Japanese temple builders with timber. Anderson was pleased to have secured such long timbers that the 108' deck needed only 15 butts. The whole deck is bolted stem to stern through the carlins to keep it in compression and prevent sagging.

Some statistics: 80,000 board feet make up the hull; the old-growth deck timbers have up to 45 grains per inch; the internal ballast consists of 42 tonnes of lead encased in concrete; the bowsprit is 30' long and 16" in diameter; the 18" diameter masts rise 120' above the waterline. Fully rigged, Pacific Grace carries about six miles of cordage. Steel strapping reinforces the hull, and diagonal wooden strapping stiffens the deck around the masts. Unlike the Robbie, the decking and stanchions of Pacific Grace cover the tops of the frames, protecting them from standing freshwater and preventing rot." From restoring Robbie, we learned all the things that can damage a ship over time."

It's a unique experience to be aboard our schooners. We attract youngsters from wealthy homes as well as from the streets. They cooperate and learn teamwork. The boat only goes if they work together. Yet they have freedom to be themselves. They learn that people will like them when they are themselves. These kids are away from all their usual things and habits. Instead, we expose them to a new world, a natural environment and new ideas.
Tony Anderson, Head Shipwright
Following her launch in 1999, Pacific Grace was completed and commissioned in 2001 at a total cost of $2.1 million CDN. The project was entirely funded by donors and was built as the money came in. The Grace operates in our coastal sailing program each year except when conducting offshore voyages such as those in 2003/04 and 2007/08.

The "kids" are the raison d'etre for all this activity: the motivation for a crew of shipwrights to work five winters on a craft which some think represents obsolete technology; the reason 1,000 volunteers have donated countless hours; and the incentive for many more thousands to donate money. The SALTS ships provide "training, by the sea, for life"!  

Pacific Grace section based on updated extracts from Pacific Yachting feature article: The Birth of Pacific Grace, January 2000, by Marianne Scott
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See also: Past Offshore Voyages