It’s possible to mourn a boat.
Once the gale has passed, the rains have stopped, and skipper and crew have been accounted for, it is possible to mourn for the sunken ship. This is especially true for those old, wooden ships that have been plying the waters so long no one really remembers them when they still smelled of fresh-hewn wood.
The Western Commander was a ship that will be mourned. Built in New Westminster’s bustling wartime boatyards in 1943 and lost on April 9, 2018, the 70-foot wooden packer was among the last of her kind still actively fishing B.C.’s waters.
“She was a really dandy boat, and a favourite boat for a lot of people,” recalled Dave Lansdowne, who owned and skippered the Western Commander for a season, seining salmon in the late 1990s. By that time, she’d already been fishing B.C.’s coast for more than 50 years, and had become a fixture in harbours from Ketchikan to Steveston.
It was her reputation that, in part, helped her weather the ebbs and flows of B.C.’s fishing industry for more than 75 years. In that time, new technologies—notably plastics, fiberglass, hydraulics, and sonar—sounded a death knell for many wooden boats. At the same time, the regulatory and economic systems framing B.C.’s fisheries encouraged a consolidation and contraction of Canada’s Pacific fishing fleet, often at the expense of the fleet’s older wooden boats.
Yet despite the odds, she remained an active fishing vessel for more than 75 years.
The Western Commander, like many of B.C.’s wooden fishing boats, was built as a part of the Canadian war effort. Officially, Vancouver’s Nelson Brothers Fisheries Ltd. commissioned the Star (Mercer) shipyards to build her in 1943—on the understanding that she could be drafted into Canada’s “gumboot navy” reserve forces if needed. After the war, she was released from her obligation to protect the coast and jumped full throttle into B.C.’s booming fishery.
She’s been busy ever since. Owned by Nelson Bros. Fisheries Ltd. and their parent company, BC Packers, until 1976, she fished the coast under several skippers. It was a time of intense changes in B.C.’s fishing industry as radios, radars, hydraulics and nylon increased catches.
She was sold to the Inrig family, in Campbell River, in 1977, where she quickly became Jimmy Inrig’s favourite vessel. Those were busy years for the Western Commander.
“We fished the tides at Camp Point area mostly,” Dale Huffman recalled from his time as crew under Inrig. “I remember Jimmy Inrig was a little superstitious you couldn’t say ‘pig’, you had to say ‘curly tail’! I have many great memories with the old-timers that worked on there; each one had above 55 years of commercial fishing experience.”
In 1997, Jimmy Inrig fished for that last time: he passed away on board, bringing in one of the largest sets of his life. It was the end of an era for the Western Commander.
She became part of James Walkus’ fleet for a few years after Inrig’s death before finding her next great friendship with Rupertite Ken Gale. In 2006, Gale joined his friend, Lansdowne, for a season aboard his new boat: the Western Commander.
“Ken fell in love with the boat,” Lansdowne said. “She was a very well-built boat, well laid out, comfortable, and fast. Ken wanted to pack with her. When he offered to buy her, I couldn’t say no.” She remained a part of the Gale family for the next decade. It was during this time that she explored different career paths.
“We used her to ship wind turbine tower parts to Banks Island in 2008,” Roy Corbett said, at the time a contractor for the wind energy company Katabatic Power. Parts were lifted from the deck by helicopter—a use probably inconceivable to the Western Commander’s draughtsman and builders in the 1940s.
In late 2017, Gale sold her to her final owner, Clyde Dudoward. The Western Commander sank on her return to Prince Rupert, after Dudoward tragically suffered an apparent heart attack.
She was one of the last large wooden boats still active in B.C.’s fishing fleet. She will be mourned and remembered fondly by fishermen the length of B.C.’s coast.