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Dockyard of the damned: Vancouver Island's hidden shipwrecks

The waters surrounding Vancouver Island do not easily surrender secrets.

The remains of vessels that once plied these waters can be found all along the craggy shoreline, hidden beneath the waves.

It is said a wrecked ship rests on the seabed for every nautical mile along the western shores of Vancouver Island.

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They were lost to storms and misadventure, vicious sou'westers and unforgiving reefs.

Jacques Marc, 56, dons diving gear to explore what rightfully belongs on the surface.

As exploration director of the Underwater Archeological Society of B.C., he has admired the propeller of the Idaho, a passenger ship lost off Race Rocks in 1889; studied the boiler of Tuscan Prince, a freighter that sank in Barkley Sound in 1925; been awed by the wreckage of Valencia, a passenger steamer whose sinking claimed 136 souls in 1906.

He refers to the latter as "our local Titanic."

The remnants of the worst disaster in the waters surrounding Vancouver Island can be visited only when diving conditions are ideal.

He has wandered among the remaining pieces of a ship whose terrible end horrified people in Victoria more than a century ago.

The experience is both "cool" and "eerie."

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He never forgets those whose last moments were spent aboard the doomed ship.

"The vessel is broken up," he said, "and the West Coast surf has pounded it into the bottom."

The largest remaining chunk belongs to the bow. It rests on the seabed, flanked on either side by anchors that failed to protect the ship from being dashed against the rocks. "Like it was cleaved in half," he said, "and forced upside down."

The captain, navigating by dead reckoning on a night of icy rain and strong winds, missed the entrance to Juan de Fuca Strait. The ship struck a rock, rupturing the hull.

Believing the hole doomed the ship to sink, the captain ordered a beaching. Instead, the Valencia became stuck on a reef.

The tragedy unfolded as mistakes compounded. A failed attempt to launch one lifeboat spilled passengers into the water and their death. Other lifeboats capsized. A handful of men who made it to shore, only 100 metres away, faced a sheer cliff. Two men who sheltered in a cave were forced from their refuge by a rising tide. They then fell to their deaths.

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By the time rescuers arrived, they could only watch helplessly as a final massive wave smashed the ship, sending the remaining crew and passengers to their deaths. Some drowned, some died from exposure, some were pounded to death against the rocks.

Hours of unimaginable horror ended with the ship reduced to matchsticks.

These waters earned their reputation as the Graveyard of the Pacific.

The victims have included barques and barges, tugs and freighters, ferries and warships, clippers and schooners.

The roster of lost ships runs from Armin to Zephyr – including the Fanny, Panther, Byzantium, Surprise, Swordfish, Robert Kerr, Thomas Woodward, and William Tell.

The non-profit group to which Mr. Marc belongs is dedicated to surveying, documenting and protecting what it describes as the province's submerged cultural heritage. In B.C., underwater wrecks, at sea as well as in rivers and in lakes, are protected from scavenging.

More than a century ago, a public outcry sparked by the Valencia disaster led to the creation of a series of shacks stocked with lifesaving materials along the rugged coast. The West Coast Trail stretched for 80 kilometres as an emergency network for shipwreck victims along the isolated coast. Today, the trail is part of Pacific Rim National Park.

From the shore, there is no evidence of the tragedy that unfolded 106 years ago on the rocks south of Pachena Point, near Bamfield. The final chapter in the sad tale of Valencia is found 6½ fathoms below the surface.



Special to The Globe and Mail

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