Missionary Boats Grace a Nostalgic Festival

The third weekend in August saw a slew of birthdays celebrated at Garden Bay on the Sunshine Coast. The pioneer mission hospital of St. Mary's, still standing but reincarnated these days as the Sundowner Inn, is 75 this year. It was built by the Columbia Coast Mission, which started life 100 years ago when Rev. John Antle and his nine-year-old son, Victor, left Vancouver in their open, five-metre boat on an 800-kilometre journey to Alert Bay and back. And the summer of 2004 marked the 10th anniversary of the lively Mission Boats Rendezvous at Pender Harbour.

John Antle and his successors brought medical and pastoral care to the rough-and-tumble settlers of the southern B.C. coast, serving an area from Sechelt to Kingcome Inlet, including the east shore of Vancouver Island and up Bute and Jervis inlets. They were known to every logger, fisher, homesteader, and First Nations community in the region. They attended christenings, marriages, and burials, established hospitals, preached at church services, pulled teeth, delivered mail, and provided fellowship and advice. They also ran a well-known, well-loved fleet of Anglican mission boats, including numerous vessels named Columbia and John Antle.

As part of the weekend festivities, the Sundowner Inn held an open house, which gave me a chance to step in out of the steady rain and also to learn some history. The handsome wood building, erected as a 14-bed hospital in 1929, was converted to a hotel and restaurant after a 50-bed St. Mary's opened in Sechelt in 1964. In the former hospital chapel, one could enter the "babies born here" contest. Sixteen cute baby photos were pinned to a display board; 16 names were listed on an entry form. The best guesser (she named five photos) won dinner for two at the hotel.

Biographies of well-known local babies were displayed, and some actual former babies were on hand. Royal Maynard, for example, now 61, was born in fine Pender Harbour style. Mom Carol arrived by boat from Blind Bay on nearby Nelson Island, gave birth, then left for home by boat with Royal and husband Lorne. Her son was soon back at the hospital after swallowing an open safety pin, which was surgically and successfully removed. Royal went on to become a senior tugboat skipper with Rivtow Marine.

Other weekend events included a performance by Caitlin Hicks, based on hospital and mission-boat stories gathered from local people. There was a fishing derby for kids, arts-and-crafts displays, an alternate-healing fair, sail pasts and dinghy races, a magician, plenty of food, and music by the Bay City Jazz Trio. A centennial tree was planted at the Sundowner Inn. But the main draw was the mission boats themselves, four of which were tied to the dock on Saturday afternoon, along with the Master, a lovely wooden steam tug restored and maintained by Vancouver's SS Master Society with many thousands of hours of volunteer labour.

First, we admired the immaculate Argonaut II from Seattle, with its spacious covered back deck and tapered canoe stern. Twenty-two metres in length, the Argonaut was built as the Greta M in 1922 for the Powell River Company, a floating palace for entertaining corporate guests. From 1937 to 1966 it served on B.C.'s north coast as the Thomas Crosby IV, a United Church mission boat.

Next up was the Messenger III, owned by the Scott family from Victoria. This vessel was operated from 1946 to 1968 by the Shantyman's Missionary Society, a nonsectarian group on the west coast of Vancouver Island. Both the Messenger and the Northern Cross opposite are beautifully finished, gleaming with fresh coats of paint. The Northern Cross, built in 1929, was put to good use by the Prince Rupert Coast Mission, another Anglican ministry, until the early 1950s, cruising to canneries, mines, and Tsimshian villages from Anyox to Butedale.

Sheila Duke of Victoria showed us round the cozy interior of the Cross, with its tiny but modern open-style galley and comfortable, book-lined lounge. "We've found a new leak," she announced, pointing to some heaped-up dish towels and revealing a scary aspect of heritage-boat ownership. She and her husband, Ken, live aboard the vessel, which is the first one that either of them has ever owned and which represents a dramatic change of lifestyle. "But this is something we're known for," she reassured us.

Our final stop was the Tari Jacque, where the smiling, burnished face of Victoria's 86-year-old Ed Tooker materialized in the wheelhouse windows. The 10-metre Tari Jacque was originally the Rendezvous, built for the Columbia Coast Mission in 1924 by the Hoffar shipyards in Vancouver. It was a faithful mission servant for 31 years, working mainly out of Quathiaski Cove on Quadra Island under Rev. Alan Greene, and Whaletown on Cortes Island under Rev. Rollo Boas. A regular visitor to Pender Harbour, the boat enjoyed a homecoming of sorts with its reappearance in Garden Bay this summer. Tooker has owned the Rendezvous since 1955, and he scrambled about the vessel like a spry old mountain goat. "There's always something that's needs fixing," he said, and his voice radiated pure satisfaction, without a hint of dismay.