Charlie’s Tugboat Tales

Charlie's Tugboat Tales(Hollinger, 1997)

Charlie’s Tugboat Tales is long out of print. The late Captain Charlie Currie was a waterfront icon of the Northwest Coast.

Captain Currie and his wife, “Tugboat Winnie,” ran the 44-foot wooden tug C.R.C., built to Captain Currie’s design at the Prince Rupert Drydock in 1929. They helped people. They helped boats in trouble, hauled supplies into isolated communities when other boats couldn’t get in, and carried barge-loads of school kids on beach picnics.

I am as proud of Tugboat Tales as I am of any other story I’ve ever told. I still sometimes see a battered copy aboard the working boats of the northern fleet, and there is no higher praise than that.

I visited Captain Currie in his museum-like home, recorded his stories, and then gradually built up what I considered to be the definitive version of each tale. They were then blended together to be as much like his voice as possible. Then Charlie read it, and made any changes he wished. The stories ran as a newspaper column, and they were collected as a book in 1997.

For several years after Captain Currie’s death we carried on his weekly chowder gatherings at Sabre Marine, and recovered and restored the C.R.C. Much of what I know about the northern waterfront was learned over chowder and fresh buns around the table in the floating office of Sabre Marine.

Here is my favourite Tugboat Tale. Or rather, it is the one which most frequently finds its way back into my thoughts. It was during the Second World War, when Prince Rupert played a vital role in defending the Canadian coast.  Canadian and US troops filled the town, artillery forts guarded the harbour, and North America’s only armoured train ran on the coastal stretch of the railway. The Fisheries patrol vessel CGS Howay was stationed here; and, as Captain Currie described, the Cougar was a private yacht that had been requisitioned for coastal defence.

I can’t escape the image of this poor woman alone as the camp froze to the mud, flooded with incoming tide, and then jarred loose, over and over again for eleven weeks. And it says much about Captain Currie’s nature that he felt so terrible about the two little dogs.

Eleven weeks alone with the ice

It must have been ’42. That was a cold winter. There was a fellow named Arman Auriol logging up at Khutzeymateen Inlet. He’d left his wife in there and gone to town to get more supplies for the winter after we’d towed the camp down there and tied it up. He was going back, but it was froze in so he couldn’t get back to her.

See, there’s the narrows at Khutzeymateen, and a lot of fresh water comes out of there. It hadn’t frozen there for years, but that’s the year it froze.

There was a big slide on the opposite side. Auriol climbed up there quite often in the daytime to see if he could see smoke, but he could never see smoke. He figured she was dead. She figured he got drowned.

There were quite a few boats come along and try to break in. One boat did a lot of damage. She was crazy to try. She was empty, running around following the herring fleet, and the gumwood was above the waterline so that she was cutting the planks.

McAfee at Georgetown financed Auriol, and he wondered why he hadn’t heard from him for awhile. In March he said, “Would you take a run up?” So I run up from Georgetown.

Well, he was there with his boat all right, but he couldn’t get in there. He had no gumwood on his boat at all.

So he came with me and we broke the ice for a couple of days there. There must have been a quarter-mile of it when we started. Then it got so thick, toward the shore, with wet snow frozen too, that I was afraid we were cutting the hull.

So we had to quit. I told Auriol I’d go to town and get a steel boat and come back.

The Navy didn’t think much of the idea. I thought I could get the Howay, but they wouldn’t let me have her. She was only running on one engine because they had the shaft out. All I could get was a yacht some movie actor had down south, the Cougar, I think. A great big clumsy thing, though she had lots of power; she had two 375 Wintons in her. She was anchored in Metlakatla Pass quite a bit; during the war the Navy used to have boats at the first buoy you turn at, at the village there, and each boat coming in had to stop and report. I think the reason they used her there was she wasn’t no good for anything else.

The man at the Navy office says, “You know, she’s not much good. Her sides are like a hungry horse.” You could see all the ribs in her.

Well, they only nosed into the ice a little bit and the engineer come up and says, “We can’t do this, it’s heating up the engine.”

That was all baloney. He just wanted to get back to town.

But anyway, it was lucky I took a flat-bottomed skiff along aboard the boat. We put it in, and me and Auriol went ashore.

Well, his wife was there. She’d spent eleven weeks alone in the shack there. She had a bad time of it, too, making do with what she had. The camp was dry at low tide, sitting on the mud. It froze there, and then the tide would come in. The tide just kept getting closer and closer. Finally she piled all her food that she had left on the table, and when the float let go it shook everything loose on the floor and everything. She had a hell of a time. Worst of all she had two little dogs with her that would get outside, and the wolves were right there trying to get them.

Anyway, we were crazy taking that skiff in. We should have took another guy. See, because I couldn’t get the skiff back to the boat without another guy with me to drag it on the ice. So we had to take him back again. It was quite awhile after that before the ice let go and come out.

She had a hell of a time. Imagine, that woman alone there for eleven weeks.

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