Fishing vessel Jan White sails home

  • Jun. 5, 2006 9:00 a.m.

Submitted by GIID HAAGAAN (Captain Wilson Brown)–From the late Forties to the late Fifties, the boat building business was booming in Old Massett. Many families were building many seiners and trollers. Back in those days, the big seine fleet out of Old Massett was known as the “Ghost Fleet” because they were all painted white with varnished trim. They were well known up and down the coast.
My grandfathers were some of those men who built strong fishing vessels. Henry White my great grandfather and his son’s Jeff, Rufus and Willis and George my Chinnees built some beautiful seine boats that they fished and were top notch producers them selves. All the timber they used to build the boats was milled in Old Massett with a mill they had.
One of those boats was the “Jan White”. It was built starting in 1957 and launched in 1958 at the Boatshed in Old Massett. (The shed, no longer there, was at the very north end of Old Massett). It was launched with some very gorgeous lines, as you would call it when a boat had good flowing lines to it. It was built with a shallow draft in order to maneuver around the shallows. Our Chinee Willis fished the boat until the 60s sometime, at which point it became part of the Nelson Brothers Fishing Co. fleet, which later became BC Packers Ltd. It continued to fish out of Masset for a period of time under a number of skippers. The last fishing it did by a Haida was in 1971. I was told there were approximately 27 seine boats built by many families.
Our chinnee’s knew how to catch fish, but they didn’t know how to take care of the books. They produced more fish than they knew what to do with, they loaded barges with salmon, herring and filled docks with halibut. One would think this would have been more than enough to pay any debt they had with the companies buying their fish. Ironically, they were always in the hole at the end of the season. Over time they could not get out of the hole so they had to give up their boats to the company, Nelson Brothers Ltd.
It then went to Prince Rupert where it became a fish tender for the many gillnet fishermen who fished the Skeena. Over the course of its time working out of Prince Rupert, it packed thousands of pounds of fish. The numbers would be staggering if one were to tally the years up.
It was in 1994 that I started to focus on the boat and decided that I had to get it back. I wrote letters to the management of BC Packers who denied me. They were using it for packing fish out of the Skeena River. I did this every year, even after BC Packers Ltd sold to Canadian Fishing Co. Ltd. They continued to deny me ownership. It wasn’t until I had an opportunity two years ago, when I had an opportunity to have a meeting with Mr. Jim Pattison who is the owner of Canadian Fish Co. Ltd. I sat and gave him the reason why I wanted this boat and what it meant to me and to my family. He listened with interest and later instructed one of his managers to make a deal with me. So Mr. Don Macleod called and said we need to come up with a deal. It took us a little over a year to strike a deal.
I received the boat a little over two weeks ago and it my real journey started. I left Prince Rupert on the Queen’s birthday early in the morning. My trip home was filled with much emotion as I travelled home, it was almost like the boat was steering itself home as the time ticked away quickly. There were many moments that my mind would drift off imagining how it must have been when my Chinnee’s were at the wheel. I have to mention the steering wheels that were built by Charlie Yeltazie, they’re both still on the boat and show their use, but are still as they were the day they were put to work. Fine craftsmanship.
I arrived in the inlet at approximately 4:30 pm to a number of people who were drumming and singing in our traditional way on the beach at the birthplace of the “Jan White”. I started to dance in appreciation and gave thanks to our creator; I was so excited to be home with one of our boats that left that same spot almost 50 years ago.
As I travelled down the inlet to Masset to the harbour, there were a number of family and community members escorting me in, honking their horns, drumming and singing. As I pulled into the floats in New Masset, there were a great number of family and community members there to greet me, it was a very emotional moment for my mother and my aunties. One of those aunties in particular, the boat was named after her. She is now known as Jan Ingram.
As Terry Russ and Darrell drummed and sang, the many people shared stories of their recollection of the boat. We later were dancing on deck as Christian White and a number of others sang along with him. It was emotional for everyone. There were a number of older men who sailed on the boat when it was new who shared stories of their experiences and the fun they had as young men while fishing on the boat.
The “Jan White” is finally back home after so many years out in a world of corporate demand. It has seen many changes in the fishing industry. She is showing some signs hard work. I hope to restore the boat starting with new decks, some cosmetic work in and outside the boat. This will take a couple years, as I want to bring it back to the way it looked when it was launched.
My thanks to Mr. Jim Pattison of the Pattison Group for his kindness and understanding. I also thank Mr. Don Macleod of the Canadian Fishing Co. Ltd., and my old friend Mr. Chester Johnson who also made this happen with his contribution of time and finances.
If there are other families out there looking for boats that their families built, I know of the boat the “Gwen Rose” now renamed the “Tanu Warrior” still in operation, also working out of Rupert. The Jones family built this boat. The seine boat that was launched the “Bennett” now renamed the “Nordica” is working out of Vancouver. Wilfred Bennett built this boat. The boat launched the “Robert Agnes” now renamed “Casey Point” is now working as a troller. These are other boats that I know about that were built here that are still working.
Thank you to all who escorted me home. Drop by the “ol’girl” and have a coffee, share any stories you have about the old days.