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A vision for Britannia Beach

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Proposed maritime museum would depict a working history of vessels on the B.C. coast

The idea for a working maritime museum at Britannia Beach came to Paul Thomas almost by chance on a return trip from Whistler in 1999.

"I had dozed off and happened to wake up just as we were coming down the hill into Britannia Beach," he recounts. "I looked and said this is a great spot. This is where we should be."

Two years later a black and white trimmed tug boat and small fishing vessel are tied up at one wharf in Britannia Beach. Two munitions vessels, the robin’s egg blue Tyee Princess and the Yf875 yard freighter are berthed at another wharf.

Across Highway 99, inside the office of the Maritime Heritage Society of Vancouver in a building on the Britannia beach townsite, Marguerite Moroz shows me photographs of some of the vessels planned for the museum. On one side of the office green and white gingham curtains have been pulled from a window that looks towards the waterfront, where plans for the site include an area for the public with boardwalks.

"We’d like to have five or six ships here," says Moroz, who is vice president of the society.

The munitions ships and the fishing vessel, both built in1927 in Ladner, B.C., have been berthed in Britannia for about eight months. The Chinook was brought up from New Westminster under its own power, and has been in the town for just under a year.

Fifteen minutes later, I sit down at a large table in the ward room of the wooden hulled 48 metre Seaspan Chinook, where the officers had their meals. A photograph of the Chinook hangs on a bulkhead over an oak sideboard.

"She was built as part of a fleet of 80 rescue tugs by the U.S. navy that served as a convoy escorting vessels," says Thomas, president of the society.

A three-inch gun mounted forward and two anti-aircraft guns on either side of her funnel provided security during World War II, when she was commissioned as the USS ATR-64 and worked in the Philippines.

When the war was over the ATR-64 was purchased by a shipping subsidiary of H.R. MacMillan Export Company, renamed the Logmac, and put to work towing logs and barges. Shortly after being purchased by Seaspan International in 1970, the ship was relieved from active service and fitted out to serve as floating accommodation for sports fishermen.

The Tyee Princess and the Yf875 dominate another part of the Britannia Beach waterfront. Built in 1944 and used for munitions transport in San Diego Harbour, both vessels have an interesting history.

After the war, the ships were laid up on the Sacramento River for 25 years. By appearance, the Yf875 looks rusted out, as if it spent most of that time at the bottom of the river. In fact, the vessel was never painted.

"We had an insurance surveyor on board, and he was blown away by what good condition the vessel was in," says Thomas.

Inside, the vessel is bone dry, and was one of the toughest vessels the surveyor had ever seen.

In 1972 or ’73, the history of these two ships took another strange twist when a cousin of the Shah of Iran expressed interest in buying them. He was going to operate a coastal freight service in the Persian Gulf, possibly serving Iran and Iraq, but changed his mind, perhaps owing to the fact that the Shah of Iran was deposed.

In the mid-70s, Coast Towing bought the two vessels for scheduled freight service to the canneries up and down the coast of British Columbia. The Tyee Princess served until 1995.

The Maritime Heritage Society was formed in May 1999, to show retired merchant vessels to the public.

"We want to try and preserve some of the really good examples of small merchant vessels that developed commerce on the coast," Thomas explains.

The proposed maritime heritage park would incorporate slips extending out into Howe Sound from the wharf to berth ships. It would also use some existing buildings. Plans hinge on getting a licence and the use of facilities like and old wooden building on site.

"Part of our thinking is that this is likely a contaminated site," Thomas continues. "In order to prevent problems in the future our intention is that we’ll use the site the way it is. We don’t intend to disturb the soils in any way."

The park would include refurbishing the docks, the passenger terminal near the Customs House, and pilings on the south side of the wharves that were part of the original gravel loading dock. The Chinook would eventually be opened to the public.

Thomas would like to display a collection of vessels that might include smaller sidewinders used in the forest industry for sorting logs and launches used as crew boats or water taxis. The idea is to present a working harbour that is constantly changing. Older vessels might include the Coast Guard cutter Ready and the Albert J.Savoie, a small B.C. Ferries car ferry.

The community of Britannia Beach already has a sense of maritime heritage. The Prince George was tied up here for years before being destroyed by a catastrophic fire. Authorities were concerned there were PCBs on board, but the owner of the vessel was never found to take responsibility. Mystery has always surrounded the ship’s history.

"A lawyer told me, ‘let’s say a way was found to legally get the vessel out of the country,’" Thomas recounts.

The Prince George was being towed to China with the intention of being taken to a breakage yard, but the vessel never made it.

"It sank somewhere in the Pacific," says Thomas.

Making the vision of a maritime heritage park a reality involves a lot of bureaucracy, but so far the process has gone quite smoothly.

"We’ve been working on an application for a water and lands lease from B.C. Assets and Lands for about a year, but only formalized (the application) a month ago," says Thomas. "We have a lot of support from the Squamish Lillooet Regional District, and we are actually written into the community plan."

Most of the people in the SLRD support the idea of a maritime heritage park. Detraction comes from a lack of funding, as well as some private concerns.

"Every time new projects come on that are extremely worthwhile and exciting, those who are already struggling look to say, ‘OK, how do we continue to do more with less?’ says Kirstin Clausen, manager and curator of the B.C. Museum of Mining at Britannia Beach.

A recent announcement that the Ministry of Heritage Trust has been abolished doesn’t help.

"There was only $2 million being spent on hundreds of museums, so museums have gotten very good at survival of the fittest," Clausen continues.

Dave Lewis has lived in Britannia for eight and a half years, and thinks a maritime park would be an excellent idea for the community.

"I’d like to see it, I really would," he says. "I think the concept is great."

But there is a lot of politics in Britannia and uncertainty about what is possible in the community. I felt some of this while driving through Britannia to Squamish. The place looked deserted, and frankly almost scary. Yet coming back down the hill into the town, the little hamburger place was open, there was smoke pouring out of the chimney and the whole scene looked inviting. With the proximity of Britannia Beach to both Vancouver and Whistler, maybe it is sights like these that fuel Thomas’ optimism.

"We’re here," he says. "We share a vision of turning this into a historic village."

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