The Pacific Northwest Forum
Volume 3, Number 1, Pages 25-29
Winter, 1978

The St. Roch: Arctic Supply and Patrol Vessel

J. William T. Youngs, Jr.

J. William T. Youngs, Jr., is an associate professor of history at Eastern Washington University and is editor of the "Pacific Northwest Forum."

Currently [2009] J. William T. Youns, Jr. serves as the chair of the History Department at Eastern Washington University.

The St. Roch National Historical Site, located only a few minutes from downtown Vancouver, British Columbia, is the home of one of the most impressive ship displays in North America. The historical site is part of the Vancouver Maritime Museum, which contains dozens of ship models and fragments from such venerable vessels as the Hudson Bay Company's Beaver. A giant "A frame" enclosure next to the museum houses a whole ship, built half a century ago, and christened St. Roch.

The vessel was built for the Royal Canadian Mounted Police by the Bernard Dry Dock Company in Vancouver. Prior to its construction the RCMP had no vessels of its own. To reach its widely scattered posts in the north it was necessary to take passage on a commercial vessel. Desiring a more regular means of transport and communication, the force constructed an unusually sturdy, if rather uncomfortable, vessel.

The St. Roch was built of strong Douglas-fir, sheathed on the outside with hard Australian "ironbark" to withstand the chafing of ice, and reinforced inside with heavy beams to withstand pressure. She was 103 feet long, powered by a 150 horsepower engine, and schooner-rigged to carry 3 sails on her two masts. Her weight was 323 tons and she could carry 13 men. Her hull was rounded to allow her to ride on top of any ice that might close in around her in the Arctic Ocean.

After a trial run, a man named Henry Larsen was chosen captain of the vessel. He remained on board for almost the whole of her life at sea; and so the careers of the ship and of the man are intimately connected. Larsen was born in Norway and went to sea at the age of 15 during the First World War. He served on many merchant ships during the next few years, and in 1924 he made his first Arctic voyage. He soon fell in love with the north and its people.

Larsen spent the next four years in other voyages to the Arctic and decided to become a Canadian citizen and join the RCMP. Because of his knowledge of the sea he was assigned to duty on the newly commissioned St. Roch. Most of his mates had no experience whatsoever at sea; one sailor on an early voyage was from the prairies and hadn't even seen the sea before joining the St. Roch. The men carried with them the boots and spurs that were the hallmarks of the RCMP. On the docks at Vancouver they were known as "horse sailors".

The St. Roch

On the first voyage the St. Roch, which Larsen called "an ugly duckling", rolled violently on her round bottom. Most of the unseasoned crew became violently ill. In a matter of time, however, they became an effective team, working together in extremely trying circumstances. Larsen attributed their success to the discipline and commitment initiated by the RCMP.

During the years 1928-39 the St. Roch sailed the waters of the western Arctic. Her day-to-day work consisted of such activities as carrying supplies, conducting a census of the Eskimos, caring for sick people, and holding and transporting criminals. In the latter class was a white man named John Brown, who had become demented after being nearly frozen to death. He began to live on an isolated island and claimed that he was God. When be began to threaten to shoot people who came near the island, it was decided to commit him. So for one month he was a passenger on the St. Roch.

The ship was frozen in during 8 winters in the north. The regular procedure on such occasions involved choosing a safe moorage, where the ship would not be carried along with the ice drifts, and then building a shelter above the deck with timber and canvas. Meals were often cooked and sleds repaired under this tent shelter. The men cut ice for drinking water and lived off their ample supplies and the game they could shoot.

Larsen was particularly interested in the Eskimos of the Arctic. He lived and hunted with many Eskimo families and admired their culture. He was a popular figure, inviting them aboard ship to see films and playing Santa Claus in Christmas festivals. A recurrent theme in his autobiography is his sorrow in seeing the deterioration of the natives in the face of white intrusion into the North. He blamed liquor, disease, guns, and white trinkets for destroying some natives and luring others away from their customary virtue. Larsen wrote many memos urging new policies, but could not interrupt the course of "progress." None the less, he and his ship were popular figures among the natives, remembered long after their last voyage to the Arctic.

The St. Roch's two most famous voyages began in 1940, when Canada was involved in the Second World War. To secure the country's claim to her northern territories, the St. Rock was ordered to sail from Vancouver to Halifax via the Northwest Passage. In June of 1940 the St. Roch set off on what was to be her hardest voyage.

She proceeded to Walker Bay on Victoria Island, where she was forced to winter until July 1941. The next summer they were able to sail for only two months before they were forced to winter in Pasley Bay near the magnetic pole. They were stuck here for almost a year, until August 1942. Shortly after leaving Pasley Bay they ran onto a shoal and were very nearly overwhelmed by the ice. In Larsen's words:

"The ship struck, pivoted twice and then remained on the shoal for a few minutes before she started to list to port. It looked as if she was going to topple completely when the ice started to climb right over the starboard side, now high out of the water. Our port rail was already buried under the ice. This was a most uncomfortable situation, and we were all on deck trying to hang onto anything we could get hold of. All the time the deck seemed to be in instant danger of being completely buried."

Larsen wondered whether they had "come this far only to be crushed like a nut on a shoal and then buried by ice." At this moment another, larger ice-floe hit the ship. But instead of burying the St. Roch the new ice pushed it off the shoal; now in deep water the tiny ship was able to escape.

Henry Larsen

This was only the most dramatic of many episodes in which the St. Roch appeared to be doomed. Progress continued slowly - the ship covered only 60 miles in one 23 day period until the ship passed through the Bellot Straight and was then able to sail on with little difficulty into Halifax. The St. Roch came into port on October 11, 1942 after 28 months at sea.

Two years later Larsen was ordered to take the ship back through the Arctic to Vancouver. This time he chose a more northerly route, one that had never been crossed before. Despite ice, fog, blizzards, and gales, he was able to beat the winter and made the whole trip to Vancouver in only 86 days. The St. Roch thus became the first ship to cross the Arctic both ways. the first to use the northern route. and the first to make the passage in a single season.

The ship continued in service for several more years. but it was now being outmoded by newer, more powerful ice-breakers. Larsen was given a desk job in Ottawa as commander of the RCMP in the North. He died in Vancouver on October 29. 1964; his place in history as one of the great Arctic explorers was secure. In a forward to his autobiography I.H. Nicholson characterizes Larsen appropriately as "a modest man with a deep love of the North and its people."

In 1954 the St. Roch was retired from service and purchased for $5,000 by the people of Vancouver. In 1962 it became a national historical site. and in 1970-74 it was completely restored. Today the visitor to the St. Roch finds the ship honorably preserved in a condition she eluded in many winters in Arctic ice packs: never permanently frozen in ice. she is now locked into a "dry dock" of concrete and steel.

A tour of the St. Roch begins at the entrance to the ship's pavilion, where visitors are provided with a guide. You then ascend to the main deck, where you can see such artifacts as dog sleds and an Eskimo tent that sheltered a native family during one of the voyages. Next you go below decks and see the crew's quarters and the radio room. These areas look as if they had been occupied the moment before your arrival. In the crew's quarters are half-made beds. socks. toothpaste, shaving cream, and mementos from home. This sense of the reality of the past is continued by the radio room where you hear broadcasts of music and news from the 1940's, and in the mess hall with its cereal boxes and other historical artifacts. These objects help one have a sense of day-to-day life aboard the ship. In addition the knowledgeable guides describe the history ofthe ship and explain such matters as how it was powered and how the rudder could be replaced.

The one thing lacking in the presentation that we heard was suitable information about what the boat actually did. On the tour we learned about life on board ship and we learned about the vessel's two passages through the Arctic. But we were told little about the ship's actual function in the Arctic. Otherwise, however, the tour was well organized and instructive.

The visit to the ship is a good historical experience in itself. but the tour does not end with the visitor's disembarkation. The museum also features an excellent documentary film about the St. Roch and Henry Larsen. compiled from old movies taken mainly by Larsen himself. In addition. the museum sells Larsen's well written, informative, and colorful autobiography, The Big Ship.

Shortly before visiting the St. Roch this writer toured another maritime museum, Mystic Seaport, in Connecticut. At Mystic one can see an entire nineteenth century maritime community, including several restored ships. But no single vessel at this famous seaport is as impressive as the St. Roch. It is the thoroughness of this Vancouver exhibit that is particularly unusual. From the book to the film to the cereal boxes in the mess hall to the sturdy vessel itself, the St. Roch display is a remarkable historical presentation.