A History of the Canadian Coast Guard and Marine Services
by Thomas E. Appleton

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Shore Based Lifeboats

Following the first phase of marine rescue in Canada, during which the work of the original Humane Stations founded by the Old Province of Nova Scotia had been greatly strengthened through the inspired efforts of Dorothea Dix, a second period of growth and development commenced about 1871. The Department of Marine and Fisheries had then no funded vote for lifesaving other than for the Humane Stations but, in response to needs as they arose, a new metallic lifeboat was established that year at Salmon Point, Prince Edward County, Ontario. When a similar boat was provided at Nottawasaga Island, near Collingwood, about the same time, a definite interest had been aroused and funds for a lifeboat service were provided in 1872.

Meanwhile, a potentially dangerous situation had arisen during freeze-up in the Gulf of St. Lawrence. As we have seen in connection with the Manicouagan lightship, heavy gales and hard weather in the fall of the year caused great difficulties for shipping in the Gulf and in the early seventies a number of wooden sailing ships were sunk or damaged in the ice and their crews were placed in great jeopardy. As a result of this a demand arose that lifesaving facilities should be provided and, in 1875, the Department established ten lifesaving canoe stations, ranging from Father Point to Ste. Anne, where crews were placed in seasonal readiness.

These canoes, which were housed in specially built sheds, were built in Quebec to a traditional design long used by the ferrymen there during the winter and were sheathed with metal as a protection against the ice. With a coxswain and a crew of six they were equipped with twelve paddles and could hold a total of thirty persons if necessary; like the iceboats of Prince Edward Island, the life canoes could make progress in conditions under which no ordinary rowboat could have survived. The men were paid $1.50 for each drill and, in addition, the coxswain received an annual gratuity of $5.00. This lifesaving service was discontinued about 1890 when icebreakers became more effective and shipping was less likely to be imprisoned in the Gulf.

Also in this second phase of rescue activity, a large number of strandings among the schooners and small sailing ships of the Atlantic coast and the Great Lakes gave rise to an expansion of the service. Between 1875 and 1886 the original Humane Stations were reinforced by new lifeboat stations in Nova Scotia and Ontario until, by the end of that time, the number of rescue stations, in addition to the lifesaving canoes of Quebec, had risen to twenty.

The largest boat in use at this period was the 28 foot steel lifeboat at Herring Cove, N.S. But most of the stations were equipped with "Dobbins Pattern", a heavy self-righting lifeboat about 25 feet in length. Fitted with a full set of oars, air tanks at the ends, and outside rudder with yoke and lines, these boats were very similar to the traditional type used in England. Such boats were designed to be sailed as well as rowed and to make passages of some hours duration. On the Canadian Atlantic coast conditions are unfavorable to this concept, distances are immense, and the climate in winter makes it virtually impossible to keep the sea in a boat of this kind. As the Canadian lifesaving stations were situated to provide help for schooners and local craft stranding near the station, the service called for an exceptionally good pulling boat and, although the Dobbin boats were relatively easy to pull in good weather, they were difficult in head winds and sea.

Because of this the Canadian lifesaving stations were gradually equipped with the Beebe-McLellan surfboat, a type developed by the United States Coast Guard which, although not self-righting, was easier to handle under oars and was controlled by a steering oar from the coxswains position. This type was later modified, in some cases, to provide self-righting air tanks. With the advent of the internal combustion motor, design tended to revert to a motorized version of the Dobbin boat but, despite this innovation, most of the stations were provided, until their eclipse, with boats little different in essentials from those originally established by Dorothea Dix. Most of the boats of this period were built in Canada, the Dobbins pattern in Dartmouth and the Beebe-McLellan surfboats by Morrison of Shelburne. In the Upper Lakes both types were built at Goderich.

The typical lifesaving station of the period consisted of a wood building which housed the boat and contained living quarters for the crew. There was usually a watch-tower at one corner and although the men did not live permanently in the house a continuous watch was kept and the accommodation was sufficient to house the whole crew under standby conditions. In most cases the lifeboat was housed in a cradle and was launched and recovered by marine railway and winch or tackle. In some stations on the Lakes the lifeboat was located on a wharf where, by means of davits, it could be launched directly into deep water. The lifeboat crews were engaged under articles of agreement binding them to obey the regulations of the service and the orders of the coxswain, and to turn out when the readiness signal was given by flag or gun. Except for the Humane Stations of Nova Scotia, where the crews manned the boat as part of their normal duty to safeguard life and property, the men of the lifesaving stations were fisher-men who volunteered each year to sign the articles and to engage in fourteen practice drills. For these services the coxswain, who was the only salaried member on the station, received $75 per annum, while both coxswain and crew received $1.50 for each drill of five hours and extra sums at the discretion of the Department for actual rescues.

Photo: A Beebe-McLellan lifeboat on the Pacific coast

A Beebe-McLellan lifeboat on the Pacific coast.

The coxswain, who selected his own crew from able bodied and experienced men residing near the station was in a responsible and somewhat lonely position, the regulations stating that he must be:

". . . . . of good moral character, and sober and correct habits. A coxswain must not be less than twenty-one, nor more than fifty years of age and be able to read and write a fair legible hand, must be able bodied, familiar with the line of the coast embraced within his district, and must possess a thorough knowledge of the management of surf and lifeboats, and of the use of the various apparatus employed in the service."

Photo: The Bamfield motor lifeboat, 1907

The Bamfield motor lifeboat, 1907.

The lifeboat stations were modified from time to time either by new boats, improved equipment or by changes of location to suit local conditions, but a significant change came in 1907 when the first Marine and Fisheries lifesaving station on the Pacific coast was established at Bamfield. At that time the west coast of Vancouver Island was known as "the graveyard of the Pacific" as ships missing the entrance to the Strait of Juan de Fuca were liable to be wrecked on a lonely coast far from help or communications.

Bamfield was equipped with the first motor lifeboat to be stationed in Canada, a thirty-six foot self-righting and self-bailing craft of a type then in use in the United States Coast Guard. Built at Bayonne, N.J. the Bamfield life boat cost $12,000, by far the biggest and most costly craft to enter the service up to that time, and was fitted with auxiliary sails to steady her in heavy weather.

By 1914, the lifesaving service had a total of 40 stations of which there were 4 in New Brunswick, 16 in Nova Scotia, 5 in Prince Edward Island, 11 on the Great Lakes and 4 in British Columbia.

Following the introduction of the Bamfield motor lifeboat, a similar craft was provided at Bayview, N.S. in 1911, while Little Wood Island and Cheticamp Stations in Nova Scotia were equipped with twin-screw motorized versions of the Beebe-McLellan surfboat. By 1915 the Toronto lifesaving station, which was then on Wards Island, and which was specially equipped to deal with the rising number of pleasure boats, was provided with two high-speed motor launches which could exceed twenty knots.

Numerically, the high point of the old lifesaving service had now been reached, Operationally, the effectiveness of the scheme, in the limited state of communications at the time, was strictly local and varied with conditions. On the Pacific coast an ancillary aid to shipwrecked mariners was provided by the West Coast Trail by which survivors who might be fortunate enough to struggle ashore through heavy breakers and outlying reefs might make their way to civilization. The West Coast Trail, which was completed in 1912, comprised a clear path, six feet wide and thirty-two miles long, running from Bamfield to Port Renfrew by way of Pachena Point and Carmannah. There were foot bridges over the rivers and this track through tangled bush was provided with survival huts and telegraph stations. Elsewhere, between Nootka and Quatsino, five shelter huts were provided and stocked with emergency provisions. In modern times when aircraft surveillance and radio communication has come to the aid of marine rescue, survivors from disaster are more readily found by remaining in the vicinity of the wreck and, with such techniques, the necessity for the West Coast Trail has largely disappeared.

After the first world war, when schooners started to decline in numbers and practically all the inshore fishing boats were fitted with motors, the old pulling lifeboats, and even the surfboats, were unable to cope with trouble unless, quite literally, it happened on their doorstep; the service began to deteriorate. There was a system of annual inspection and, although this was stepped up with the transfer of the lifesaving stations to the Naval Service in 1914, reports show that the boats and gear were allowed to decay. In the years of industrial and economic depression after the war there was little money to be spared and correspondence between headquarters and some of the lifeboat coxswains provides a pitiful reflection of the spirit of the times when small items such as cans of paint were in dispute with Ottawa and, in some cases, coxswains complained that deterioration of the station and slipways had reached a point where they were no longer able to launch.

Photo: A gallant rescue at Saint John in 1872

A gallant rescue at Saint John in 1872.

Volunteers launched an abandoned lifeboat and rescued two survivors of the crew of seven from the schooner Reward which had driven ashore on Partridge Island. Among those swept to their deaths from the rigging were Captain Hill and his son. The rescuers were: John Thomas, Charles Bridges, George Doody, Robert Murray, Timothy Collins, and James O'Neil, all of Saint John, N.B.

(Webster Collection, New Brunswick Museum)

The fact was that changing conditions of shipping had all but ended the usefulness of the old lifeboat service and the second world war, when many of the men volunteered for service, provided the coup de grâce.

Nevertheless, in the early years of the second wave of inshore lifesaving stations, the system was effective and many lives were saved from stranded ships, awards being made by Government to the life-boat crews concerned. An illustration of 1872, showing a locally owned lifeboat at Saint John, N.B. rescuing the survivors of the schooner Reward, is typical of the casualties which gave rise to the establishment of the Marine and Fisheries lifesaving stations.

After the third phase, the period of stagnation and depression, the fourth and present stage began to develop in 1951 when new boats were built at Isle d'Orleans, Que. These boats, which were sent to re-equip the stations at Bayview, N.S. and Tofino and Bamfield in British Columbia, were essentially the same as the early motor craft in that the design was that of a double ended self-righting lifeboat of slow speed. Slightly smaller than the boats they replaced, the Canadian version of the heavy motor lifeboat was 32 feet in length and had a diesel engine. Since then, progress in powerboat design has permitted an increase of speed without sacrifice in sea keeping qualities. The latest generation of shore-based lifeboats for exposed stations has a top speed of 15 knots.

The first of the new type, a 44-foot steel lifeboat capable of operation in any state of sea and weather, was stationed at Clarks Harbour, N.S in 1966. This vessel, one of a class designed and built by the United States Coast Guard, is self-righting and is subdivided by bulkheads to provide a high degree of watertight protection. It is fitted with radar and carries a crew of three. Boats of this type have aroused considerable international interest and some are in service with the Royal National Lifeboat Institution in England. The Clarks Harbour lifeboat will serve as a prototype for evaluation and further development.

Photo: CCG 101

CCG 101

First of a new class, this 44-foot steel lifeboat is stationed at Clarks Harbour, N.S. Twin diesels achieve 15 knots, the boat is self-righting, and it carries a crew of three. The hull is protected internally by bulkheads with quick-acting watertight doors, and externally by heavy duty rubber fenders. A self-draining cockpit mid-ships facilitates rescue from the water. Survivor space is cushioned to prevent injury in bad weather, is fitted with seat belts, and can take stretcher cases. The boat is fitted for towing and carries salvage pumps and fire-fighting gear. Note the inflatable dinghy on the fore-deck.

At some stations, where a high density of pleasure craft exists in relatively sheltered waters, conditions permit the use of high speed rescue boats which, although seaworthy and capable, are unsuitable for the extreme conditions to be found on the Canadian Atlantic Coast. The Mallard and Moorhen, two 32 foot 20 knot rescue launches are stationed at Vancouver for work of this nature.