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magazine / nd02

November/December 2002 issue


À LA CARTE
 


Pacific wrecks
Windblown, rocky and jammed with marine traffic, the waters off Vancouver Island are laden with navigational perils
By Steven Fick and Eric Harris

It was cold and foggy at 15 minutes to midnight on Jan. 22, 1906, when the SS Valencia crashed into the jagged shoals south of Cape Beale on the west coast of Vancouver Island. The 1,450-tonne iron ship, bound for Victoria from San Francisco with 108 passengers and a crew of 65, had steamed right past the entrance to Juan de Fuca Strait. Darkness, thick weather, heavy seas and strong currents had combined to convince the captain he was still safely off the coast of Washington.


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In the ensuing 48 hours, as the seas pounded the ship to the point of collapse, passengers, crew and wishful rescuers engaged in a drama unsurpassed in Canadian shipwreck history. More lives have been lost in other ship disasters, but not in a circumstance where rescue vessels stood within sight but could not approach, where victims fell from riggings or drowned or were thrown against the rocks while bystanders watched helplessly from shore. In all, 136 people perished.

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The waters around Vancouver Island generally, and Juan de Fuca Strait specifically, are treacherous at best, deadly at worst. More than 500 vessels have foundered here since the 1850s (right), when the era of European settlement, gold rushes and ship trade began. True, thousands of ships have wrecked off the East Coast, but that toll spans a 500-year time frame (see CG Nov/Dec 2001.) Wreckage litters the B.C. coastline, especially around the beaches and points of Pacific Rim National Park Reserve, which is widely called the "Graveyard of the Pacific."

"Southeast or southwest winds, reinforced by northerly inshore currents, carry ships faster than expected as they search for Cape Flattery and the entrance to the strait," says Peter Waddell, a Parks Canada marine archaeologist. "This is how many of the 200 or more ships in the Pacific Rim shipwreck inventory met their demise."

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