Reviews from BC Bookworld, The Delta Optimist, The Islander and The North Shore News
Tom Henry is almost as content running a chainsaw as he is chipping away on a book project. The former newspaper reporter, radio columnist and historian was an independent logger and cut a mountain of shake bolts before getting serious about writing. "Nothing gives me greater pleasure
than having a pickup and a chainsaw," Tom says "I can always take care of myself.
Tom was reared on a grain farm at Groundbirch, "just 12 miles west of Progress" in the Peace River district. He was 12 when his family moved to the Cowichan Valley to work in sawmilling. Later the UVic Creative Writing Co-op program, paired with a history degree, took him to newspapers at 100 Mile House and Cranbrook. An important lesson dawned on him: time for writing was a luxury.
"Writers tend to be precious about their words, and doing up to five stories a day taught me there's something valuable and immediate about getting a story and blasting it out."
At Monday magazine he wrote cover stories for two years. "I was fired" he deadpans. Still in possession of cork boots, he ran for the woods, landing with his young family seaside in rural Metchosin.
While working a neighbour's sheep and poultry farm he penned a newspaper column that kicked a few bucolic myths in the teeth. Life in the country wasn't exactly pastoral and serene; hell, it could be tedious - and beheading chickens was downright ugly. His devilish humour caught the eye of a CBC radio producer and a three-year radio gig ensued.
Tom traces this naturally contrary disposition to his father. "Dad was real suspicious of power and counseled us not to believe what the teacher said ...he wanted us to know Sir John A. MacDonald was actually a drunk and did some not-so-nice things to Louis Riel. He told us to question things and was always tossing a book at us."
While working on a towboat he started quizzing crewmates about the genealogy of famous old ships. This became Westcoasters: Boats that Built BC (Harbour $34.95) which profiles 14 vessels - starting with Captain Vancouver's Discovery (a sluggish "armed bus"). Often he tells stories from the crew's point of view - calling it "an alternative history." There's the legendary tug Sudbury that rescued a Greek freighter on a 40-day mission to the stormy North Pacific, and the elegant Lady Alexandra's moonlight `booze' cruises to Bowen Island. "Back in Vancouver, crew members had to lug drunks off the ship and stack them, like cordwood, on freight dollies."
The story of the Pisces submersible is here, too. Assembled by three divers in the mid-60s, in the back of a Vancouver mushroom cannery, it ushered in the high-tech era. The eccentric trio were over-budget and competing for military contracts against heavyweights like Westinghouse and General Dynamics.
If they failed to reach 1,970-feet (600 m) below the surface-as most experts predicted-"one of them would likely be steak tartare at the bottom of the sea and the other two would be commercial diving for the next twenty years to pay off their debts."
In a truly bizarre test launch, pilot Mack Thompson began his descent as a US navy ship was test-firing torpedoes nearby. Then Thompson lost all communication with the surface, followed by an on-board explosion that sent the Pisces plunging out of control deep into Jervis Inlet. Henry's sense of timing and story telling makes this read like a scene from Das Boat, claustrophobic sweat and all.
Tom Henry's previous book The Good Company: An Affectionate History of The Union Steamships has been through two press runs, earning the BC Historical Federation's Lieutenant Governor's Award. He is now writing a local history of Duncan, B.C. He continues to pursue his other passion: living in the country, raising chickens and keeping the chainsaw filed ...just in case.
-Mark Forsythe, BC Bookworld
The Delta Optimist
Still have some blanks on you Christmas list? How about one of these new books about British Columbia, published by Harbou Publishing of Madeira Park.
Westcoasters: Boats That Built B.C., by Tom Henry, begins in 1871 when George Vancouver set sail to survey the coast of North America. Then the author moves into the 19th century with the legendary Thermopylae and ends the journey through maritime history in 1989 when Haida artist Bill Reid voyaged up the Seine in a traditionally carved native dugout.
Henry's research brings to light forgotten log book entries, scandalous stories and amusing anecdotes. Part of the book deals with the so-called rum running period of this province's history and provides some information but not many names. Westcoasters will achieve notoriety among lovers of maritime history for its vivid presentation of 14 lives - 14 ships that made history on the coast of our province.
-Edgar Dunning, The Delta Optimist
To think, a British Columbia high-tech industry was the brainchild of a man who would hurl off his toupee while dancing at Vancouver's fabled Cave nightclub and dye his three poodles rose, blue and yellow; another man known to "bounce" dive, going dangerously down 100 metres and straight back up; and yet another - a nudist with a homemade dry ,suit constructed by gluing and stitching together metres of the material used to protect baby mattresses.
Metchosin writer Tom Henry is drawn to historical gossip and in his latest book Westcoasters Boats that Built B.C. (Harbour, 192 pages, $34.95) the reader discovers those three men, Don Sorte Al Trice and Mack Thomson, had to be slightly off their rockers to launch International Hydrodynamics, the "kindergarten" of underwater research firms.
Thomson piloted the submersible, Pisces I, on its first manned deepwater dive at Jervis Inlet in 1966. The Vancouver-built craft established B.C. as a world leader in underwater technology. The Pisces I joins 13 other vessels, such as Captain George Vancouver's ship Discovery, the ubiquitous steamer Beaver, Victoria-based clipper ship Thermopylae, the stalwart Beatrice, the rum-running Malahat and Bill Reid's Haida dugout canoe Lootaas, on the pages of Westcoasters as boats that helped define B.C.'s coast.
And as befits a good story, all but one of the main characters are "dead."
Henry pauses and runs through the list of boats.. The seiner BCP No. 45, handsomely portrayed on our five-dollar bill, was donated to the Vancouver Maritime Museum.
"Oh no, the Lootaas is very much alive too," Henry says. Last spring, Reid's ashes were brought to a final resting place by the Lootaas, now housed in a longhouse in Skidegate, Queen Charlotte Islands. .
"Pisces is gone, Sudbury is gone, Lady Alex, the Beatrice is gone but not by much, Lorne... yeah, only two left. BCP No. 45 and the Lootaas; and neither of them real working boats."
The century-old workhorse Beatrice rolled into the water near Masset in 1993 and was and was swept away.
"The burden, of having sunk a legend..." Henry shakes his head. "David Francis (the last owner and skipper) still feels bad about that."
But the writer is philosophical. "I don't mind the boats sinking or disappearing. Somebody says progress depends on death and fire and the marine world relies on something similar. A lot of these vessels go out of service for good reason: they're inefficient, in some cases they are unseaworthy; just because they last along time or were important, it doesn't necessarily mean they were a great craft."
All this from a farmboy: The author of the best-selling Dogless in Metchosin radio gig and a previous gig with CBC chatting about B.C. rural life, Henry may have grown up in a farm in Groundbirch, northern B.C. population not much much more than 50 - but he can hold his own in the water. When not writing part-time the author works on a 14-metre wooden-hulled towboat the Frazer Isle. At first the work was for money, now it's mostly for fun and it gave his fifth book, Henry's second maritime history, a deckhand's view-point.
From his previous award-winning book The Good Company: An Affectionate History of the Union Steamships, and spending eight months researching and writing Westcoasters, Henry noticed a 'bias for the captain or boat owner's point-of-view.
"If you look at it from the eyes of an average person, you can use a lot of information not used before," he says. "Some of the material on the Beaver didn't fit in with the idealized version of the Beaver that's been told. It has been published but rarely, and sometimes not published at all."
For all its mythical qualities the Beaver was an awful little boat; one passenger proclaimed it the worst ride he ever experienced.
The Discovery, so idealized that the Royal B.C. Museum's replica looks stately, was filled with a decidedly unstately and impudent crew. Henry almost sounds weary when he says he worked "really, really hard" on that chapter. "We always think of that era as being one of great discipline," Henry says. "But if you're being lashed it's for a reason."
Imagine men like Sorte, Trice and Thomson on the Discovery's crew.
Publisher Howard White tells a funny story about Sorte and Trice.
When White was a little boy, a truck belonging to his dad slid and lurched its way off the Horseshoe-Bay-to-Langdale ferry in 1956. Divers Sorte and Trice were hired to salvage the vehicle.
"Watching those divers, we came to think they were total reprobates," White says.
"So later on we were very amazed that this same rather seedy-looking group of bottomfeeder-type salvage divers were making great headlines. I was pretty small then but I remember Sorte looking like a Wild West outlaw."
An appropriate look for a West Coast legend.
-Judith Isabella, Islander
North Shore News
In Westcoasters author Tom Henry examines 14 boats that influenced the course of British Columbia's maritime history.
George Vancouver's ship the Discovery and the Bill Reid-designed Haida dugout canoe the Lootaas bookend the study which also includes the remarkable story of the Beatrice, on the water for more than a century, and the mothership of all rumrunners the Malahat.
Several boats will be of interest to North Shore readers: the Bowen Island ferry Lady Alexandra and the experimental sub Pisces in particular. The chapter on the the latter is classic storytelling and would make the basis for a great movie.
The News spoke to Henry recently about his work.
JG: Did anything surprise you while you were researching the book?
TH: The greatest surprise was the role of misinformed audacity in the success of B.C. maritime endeavors.
For example - Gordon Gibson buys the laid-up rumrunner the Malahat, hacks the deck open and creates the world's first self-loading, self-dumping, self-propelled barge which changes everything on the coast. It meant we could take timber from the west coast of Vancouver Island, the central coast, the Queen Charlottes, all three of which are exposed areas. A nightmare to try and tow log booms in. They couldn't log those areas successfully until they could figure out a reliable way of getting- the wood from the inlets to the mills on the Fraser River.
The same thing with the Pisces story. Two Vancouver hardhat divers and a hippy inventor from Seattle get together and if they had known what they were doing - if they had been educated in engineering at university they would never even thought of doing it.
They went ahead and built a submersible and it became hugely successful and led to the big underwater research industry that we see in the Lower Mainland and southern Vancouver Island which put Canada on the world map in underwater research.
JG: You mention the Titanic salvage operation in the piece on Pisces.
TH: The Russians had agreed to buy a couple of extremely advanced versions of Pisces called the Taurus. A Russian, Tolen Saolavatch, came over and
lived in Vancouver for a couple of years. (He later became involved on the
One of Pisces showcase workplaces was the maritime experimental range at Nanoose Bay on Vancouver Island where the Americans often tested new torpedoes. Pisces had a contract to retrieve the torpedoes that sank.
They took Saolavatch down with them to the site. If the Americans had ever found out they would have had a hemorrhage.
JG: The Malahat looks like it would have cost a lot of money to keep in operation as a rumrunner.
TH: Most of its rumrunning was pretty sedate in that it steamed up from San Francisco and threw out the anchor and sat there off the international limits.
Sure it was an expensive boat to maintain but don't forget: A) it wasn't using up a lot of fuel, and b) rumrunning was hugely profitable. Just incredible amounts of money.
Although it's a small chapter in B.C. history it is important in that it kept a lot of seamen and shipyards busy when the economy was truly bust.
You had guys running the high speedboats out of Victoria and Vancouver.
down into Puget Sound and they were regularly running into deadheads at night. They did all their work at night. I'm not speaking specifically of the Malahat, just the general business.
JG: The era of the Lady Alexandra travelling to Bowen Island seems like it was from a different world.
TH: There's a funny thing about ships - we often remember the journey to somewhere more than the actual experience when we get there. That's very much the case with the Lady Alex and Bowen.
The Lady Alex during the '30s and '40s was the ticket to their pleasure during an era when there wasn't that much pleasure.
You could leave your house in Kerrisdale get on a trolley car, ride down to the foot of Carroll St., get off the trolley car onto the steamer, steam to Bowen Island, have a lovely day there, and then steam back with music being played and a buffet. It was just a lovely experience.
No automobiles involved. The steamships were quiet, quiet; quiet. A very elegant little craft. The Lady Alex really insinuated itself into the heart of the people of Vancouver.
The Lady Alex's captain is a favourite of mine. Billy Yates' family remember him as a church-goer, a tea-totaller and a very clean-mouthed man. The people who worked with him remember him as a man who really liked his drink, who could be foul-mouthed when occasion demanded. A real character.
JG: Were there any boats that didn't make it into the Westcoasters?
TH: To qualify for the book the boats had to really be important. They had to shape, form, speak to something about the coast. They couldn't just be a great story.
All of the boats that are in there couldn't be taken out. If you pull them out there is a hole in the story where other ones would have added to the story but are not critical.
-John Goodman,North Shore News