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The Uchuck Years: A West Coast Shipping Saga

By David Esson Young

Review By Kenneth Campbell

November 4, 2013

BC Studies no. 177 Spring 2013  | p. 187-88

The Uchuck Years is the tale of how two partners managed to keep a passenger and freight service afloat on Vancouver Island’s West Coast and pass the company on to the next generation. David Esson Young, son of one of the founders, grew up working on the Uchuck fleet, eventually becoming skipper and part owner. His experience of forty years sailing the west coast waters brings a unique ability to tell this tale.

The Uchuck III is one of the last of the coasters delivering freight and passengers to BCs coastal communities and camps. It, the Frances Barkley on Barkley Sound, and the Aurora Explorer on the inlets north of Campbell River, are the only vessels still in operation, a legacy of the once ubiquitous coastal steamer. Importantly, the Uchuck III is also one of a diminishing number of wooden vessels at work on the coast.

As a chronological narrative, The Uchuck Years covers the who, when, and where of the company’s development in a thorough if sometimes rambling manner. Although not intended as a complete history of island’s west coast, the book also chronicles the industrial and social changes of the people and companies that the Uchuck III serves, and in the process Young brings the region to life. What is remarkable, however, is the consummate detail that Young brings to the how and why of every aspect of the ship’s operations. He describes everything from the changing technologies of navigation and radio communication, to the types and methods of launching lifeboats, to the complex logistics of delivering freight to remote docks and floats. All his descriptions are based on an extensive local and maritime knowledge. His account of the ships’ repairs and refits give considerable insight into the skills and processes of wooden shipbuilding and the problems that can arise. And where else will you find a page-long account of the brewing and serving of the crew’s coffee?

Apart from having many proofing errors, the book is well presented. Maps at the front are easily referred to and an excellent index provides quick access to the detailed information (including the coffee discussion). Black and white photographs enhance the text. Although books abound for the early coastal steamers and BC Ferries, only Rob Morris’s Coasters (Horsdal & Schubart 1993) deals with the post-war fleet, including the last four coasters working in the 1990s, and the Aurora Explorer is featured in Brian Scott’s Marine Link: Exploring the Working BC Coast (Brian Scott Fine Art Limited 2009).

The Uchuck Years is sure to become an important source for anyone interested in BCs marine history, both for specifics about the company’s operations and for its detailed and encyclopedic description of life and activity aboard a working vessel on the BC coast during the last half of the twentieth century.

The Uchuck Years: A West Coast Shipping Saga
By David Esson Young
Madeira Park: Harbour Publishing, 2012. 304 pp.  60 b/w photos. $24.95 paper.