Decades of service in Nuu-chah-nulth waters for what could be ‘the last wooden freighter on the coast’

Yuquot, BC

The Uchuck III is a beloved cargo and passenger vessel that has been serving Nootka Sound for decades bringing the Mowachaht/Muchalaht nation back to their ancestral home, Yuquot, while delivering supplies to remote First Nations and industry camps.

Each summer, on Wednesdays and Saturdays, the Uchuck III departs from the Gold River dock, travelling through the Muchalat Inlet to Nootka Sound, past Bligh Island, and arrives two hours later at Friendly Cove, also known as Yuquot.

Since 1992, the Mowachaht/Muchalaht nation has hosted their annual campout and Summerfest, which invites their community to celebrate and connect to their ancestral homeland. This year, as it does annually, the Uchuck III brought Mowachaht/Muchalaht members, guests, and equipment needed for their annual Summerfest held on Aug. 5.

“[The Uchuck is] really important especially for events like Summerfest, the campout, [and] people go out to berry pick,” said Margaretta James (Yakup) of Lil’Wat Nation, president of the Land of Maquinna Cultural Society. “[It’s] linking that path to going home.”

To Mowachaht/Muchalaht, Yuquot is their home community that they have inhabited “since creation”, a home for the Whalers Washing house, a place that has hosted representatives from other nations for over two hundred years, and a place of natural power and beauty, reads the Agenda Paper submitted in 1997. This document requested that the Historic Sites and Monuments of Canada commemoration of Nootka Sound be corrected to recognize Mowachaht/Muchalaht’s history in Yuquot.

“To outsiders, Yuquot appears to be at the edge of the world,” reads the Agenda Paper. “For us, it is the center of the world.”

James said that though there are water taxi services and other ways to travel to Yuquot, people enjoy the community and social aspect of travelling to Yuquot on the Uchuck III.

Additional to Friendly Cove Day Cruises, the vessel makes its cargo deliveries twice a week throughout Nootka Sound and Kyuquot Sound to logging camps, fishing lodges, and to Ka:'yu:'k't'h'/Che:k'tles7et'h' First Nations, bringing them supplies such as oil, fish food, lumber, and small logging equipment pieces, said Sean Mather, current owner and captain of the Uchuck since 1994. 

The Uchuck Years, written by David Esson Young, a former captain and owner of Barkley Sound Transportation Co., outlines the history of four Uchuck vessels that served as freight and passenger boats in Barkley and Nootka Sound for almost a century.

In 1952, with business along the coast growing, Barkley Sound Transportation Co. Ltd. purchased a striped-out hulk of an old US Navy minesweeper which would later be known as Uchuck III - the only of the Uchuck vessels that remain running.

The vessel, originally named YMS 123, was built in 1943 and was previously based at Mare Island near San Francisco, where it would patrol U.S. and Canadian waters, The Uchuck Years reads.

“One of the reasons why this one survived for war [was] it never left California's coast,” said Mather. “Just doing local patrols.”

When they purchased the stripped-out hulk, Uchuck I towed it around the southern tip of Vancouver Island to Port Alberni where they would begin the process of rebuilding the vessel with one of its most distinct features, the cargo-operating lift, also known as a union purchase mainstay.

This lift-operating system was made with two winches and two derricks that extend from the mainstay to either side of the boat. This design made for more control and mobility for onloading and offloading cargo, reads The Uchuck Years.

Using salvaged parts from vessels of the Canadian Pacific fleet, bridge telegraphs from the Princess Victoria, as well as a mast, derricks, wheelhouse steering gear, and lifeboats from Princess Mary, they finished building three years later, the book continued.

“They had vision, they had drive, they had knowledge, and they put it all together,” said Mather, referencing Dave Esson Young and George McCandless' effort to restore Uchuck III. “They converted it in 1955 and here we are in 2023 and the vessel’s still going.”

“Without a lot of changes,” he added, though the MV Uchuck III now has life rafts instead of lifeboats.

In 1980, it was advised by a senior surveyor from Canadian Steamship Inspection that the company buy a new boat, but instead they invested 12 years of upgrading, receiving new hull planking, new engines, winches, wiring, and electronics, among other features, reads the Get West Adventure Cruises website. 

“I think this is the last wooden freighter on the coast,” said Mather.

To date, the Uchuck III continues to run deliveries and day cruises throughout Nootka and Kyuquot Sounds.

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