A ship’s life: white linen and black oil

This is the story of the Union Steamship Lines SS Catala, the ship that helped rescue the 48-member crew of the Zalinski when it went down in Grenville Channel in 1946.

(Aside: This was supposed to be an end note, a small postscript to the Zalinski story, see April 13 post “Back from Oblivion.” But, somehow between then and now, I got carried away, and the story has morphed itself into a full scale tangential diversion in two parts. I guess that’s the beauty of the blog-scape. You can do that.)

The SS Catala began its sea-faring life as one of the famous British Columbia coastal fleet in the Union Steamship Company. It had been built in Glasgow, Scotland in 1925 and was a well-known passenger and cargo ship on BC’s coast until it was sold in 1958 to Nelson Bros. Shipping as a fish buying boat.

SS Catala 1927 -photo Sunshine Coast Museum

There are no highways that run north and south on British Columbia’s coast. It’s too rugged—steep mountains, long fjords and inlets, rocky shores, many river crossings. Between the Sunshine Coast and Alaska, there are are only three or four roads that wend the long way down from the interior plateaus, through the Coastal mountains to the sea.

All the coastal communities, to this day, depend on ships and barges, (along with small float planes) to bring in groceries, mail, freight, passengers and everything else that is needed from outside. Freight day is still a major event in all coastal towns. In the old days it was the major social event of the week too. Everybody turned out down at the wharf: old people, young people, babies in strollers, kids on bikes, groups of giggling teens, the out-of-season fishers and story tellers, the grannies and the nonnies. Everyone. And there was always something interesting to see—and comment on for the next week or two.

The steamships share a darker history too, and the sound of their arrival was experienced by many with fear and dread. From the mid-1800s onward, these were the ships that took First Nations children forcibly from their families and communities up and down the coast to transport them to one of this province’s 18 residential schools. It was a long and devastating chapter of our history. The consequences have long out-lasted the closure of the last residential school in British Columbia in 1986.

The Catala wasn’t a large ship, 67 metres (218 feet) long, two smoke stacks, had room for first and second class cabins, a dining salon, and an ample cargo hold.

She hadn’t been out sailing the coast for very long before running into some trouble though. In the late fall of 1927, the SS Catala had just made a visit to Lax Kw’alaams (Port Simpson) north of Prince Rupert. The winter tides were a full 24 feet and the sea was smooth as glass. As she left the wharf at noon and steamed out of the inlet, she entered a half-mile wide passage before turning south for the three-hour run to Prince Rupert. Even though the captain and and mates had been making this run once a week for years, somehow, the SS Catala ran smack onto Sparrowhawk Reef, a well-known hazard in the middle of the channel.

SS Catala high and dry on Sparrowhawk Reef near Lax Kw'alaams 1927 -photo UNBC Archives

All the passengers were rescued safely, but the ship was thought to be a total write-off at first. That was until a ship salvage crew that came up from Vancouver figured a way to refloat the Catala.

The story is told by Bent Gestur Sivertz, one of the crew members of the Salvage King. (The Life of Bent Gestur Sivertz by Tracy O’Hara and Bent Sivertz, Trafford Press, 2000)

Having looked over the situation, the salvage operators went to Prince Rupert to look for men who could blast rocks.

“They found a team of Scottish miners who had been developing some kind of mine in Observatory Inlet and had abandoned it. They were in Prince Rupert looking for other employment. They negotiated what they would charge. Mr. Allan [the salvage engineer] wanted them to blast the rock from under the ship’s bottom where she was caught against the reef of rock, and to put wooden ‘toms’ which were great supports, or wooden timbers, to hold up the port side of the ship. Then with drills and dynamite they were to blast against the rock.

“We only worked at low tide with a couple of scows with long derricks and wire ropes. The miners worked every day that the low tide would allow, and drilled holes all the way along. Then we got the derrick-scows and the derrick barges and hooked onto the great chunks of rock that the miners had blasted. We got drags and pulled out hundreds of tons of small rock. We didn’t go into the cargo holds at all because they were full of black oil and it would have been very dangerous for the workmen. I remember her dining salon laid with white linen and the sight of black oil that made a continued line across all the tables.”

The crew worked for three weeks to prepare the ship for re-flotation, including patching the sizable hole torn in the hull. With the help of several large barges, a lot wire rope, the Salvage King, and continued blasting of the reef rock, the ship was refloated and towed to Rupert for repairs before the winter storms set in.

The good ship continued in long service to the Union Steamship Company for more than 30 years. She was sold from the fleet in the late 1950’s to Nelson Brothers, and then became a floatel for the Seattle World’s Fair. After that the ship was moored at Gray’s Harbor in Washington state as a lodge for sports fishermen. And there, after being wrecked and abandoned for 40 years, another tale about the Catala is told as a model story in ecological salvage and recovery.

(Part two of the SS Catala story to follow.)

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About blue sea sky

By Cynthia Jones Davies, writer researcher who lives on Haida Gwaii.
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