The St Roch, Arctic pioneer
The St Roch, Official Number 154809, was built by Burrard Dry Dock Company, Vancouver BC, in 1928. Lloyds Register (1931) describes her as a wooden (hardwood, treenail fastened) auxilliary schooner, with electric lights and radio classes her A1, with a length of 90', a beam of 24.7' and a depth of 10.8', and of 193 Gross and 81 Net tons (although the Mercantile Navy List of 1929 has her net tonnage as 83, then 80 in 1933); her displacement was 323 tons. From Lloyd's (1931-32), she had a 6-cylinder oil (diesel) engine of 48 Nominal Horsepower (often stated a 150 shaft horsepower), replaced with a 300 horsepower engine in 1944.
Historically, the very first voyage through the Northwest passage, from east to west, was completed by Amundsen, sailing his Gjøa in a three-year journey, finishing in 1906. Thirty four years later, in 1940-42, the St Roch was the second ship to accomplish this feat; under the command of Staff-Sergeant Henry Asbjorn Larsen. The St Roch became the first ship to complete a transit through the Northwest Passage in a west to east direction. In 1944, Larsen and the St Roch made the return trip to the west coast, the first passed in a single season and the first ship to complete two passages. On May 29, 1950, she became the first vessel to circumnavigate North America by returning from Esquimalt to Halifax via the Panama canal. In 1954, again under Larsen's command, the St Roch returned to Vanvouver via Panama to become a museum ship.
Henry Larson wrote his memoirs Under the title The Big Ship, published posthumously in 1967. The following notes, from an unsigned, typewritten document, were found inside a first edition of his memoirs; they constitute a summary rather than a review, and are reproduced here verbatim.
The Big Ship
The St Roch was built in 1928 by the Burrard Dry Dock Company for the Royal Canadian Mounted Police. Designed as an arctic supply and patrol vessel, the St Rech was constructed of thick Douglas fir, sheathed on the outside with very hard Australian "iron bark" and reinforced inside with heavy beams to withstand ice pressure. A schooner with two masts carrying three sails, the St Roch was also powered by a 150-horsepower diesel motor.
Never a vessel of great comfort or beauty, the St Roch was called "an ugly duckling" by her skipper Henry Larsen. But the rounded hull that made her roll violently in heavy seas also saved her on several occasions from being crushed in the ice. She was ideal for the job she had to do. Every year between 1928 and 1939, the St Roch roamed the western Arctic for the R.C.M.P.
With Canada at war in 1940, the St Roch was given the task of demonstrating Canadian sovereignty in the Arctic, Sergeant Larsen, who had commanded the 323 ton vessel since 1928, was ordered to sail from Vancouver to Halifax by way of the Northwest Passage.
The St Roch left Vancouver in June, 1940. By September she had reached Victoria Island where Larsen was forced to winter at Walker Bay. Freed from ice in July 1941, the St Roch slowly made her way along the northern edge of the continent. After two months she was frozen in again – this time at Pasley Bay near the magnetic pole. For almost a year the ship remained there, locked in the North's icy grip.
In August 1942, the ship continued her journey eastward. Late that month she reached the 18-mile gorge of the Ballot Strait and headed into this treacherous short-cut. It was nearly disastrous. Half-way through, the St Roch became jammed against grounded floes as the tide began to pile ice into the strait behind her. For an hour she withstood terrible pressure. Then she broke free - undamaged.
Six weeks later, on October 11 1942, the St Roch docked at Halifax – the first ship to travel from the Pacific to the Atlantic via the Northwest Passage. The long journey had taken almost 28 months.
An extensive refit in Halifax gave her a much larger and improved deckhouse and a stronger 300-horsepower engine. Her masts and rigging were also radically altered.
In 1944, Larsen was ordered to take the St Roch back to Vancouver through the Arctic.
The Journey began at Halifax on July 22 1944, for the rest of the summer, the St Roch struggled through heavy pack ice, fog, blizzards and gales. This time her route was through the deep waters of the Arctic archipelago. Much of the time she was following the paths of earlier unsuccessful Arctic expeditions, of which Larsen and his crew found many relics,
On September 4, the St Roch reached Holman Island at the southern end of Prince of Wales Strait.
On September 24, the St Roch squeezed past Point Barrow just ahead of the descending polar pack. Three days later, they passed through the Bering Strait into the Pacific Ocean. Weathering one more bad storm, the ship sailed into Vancouver on October 16, 1944. The 7,295 mile journey had taken only 86 days. The St Roch became the first ship to complete the Passage in a single season, the first to travel through the northern, deep-water route and the first to sail the Northwest Passage in both directions.
After the war the St Roch continued to serve the R.C.M.P, in the western Arctic until 1948. Two years later she was transferred to Halifax. Making the voyage the easier way through the Panama Canal - she became the first vessel to circumnavigate the North American continent.
In 1954, the St Roch was retired and purchased by the City of Vancouver. Four years later, she was placed in dry dock at the Vancouver Maritime Museum on permanent display. The ship was declared a National Historic Site in 1962. Between 1970 and 1974, she was restored by the National Historic Parks and Sites Branch of Parks Canada.
When you look at the St Roch, imagine her in the North, battered by rough ice, buffeted by bitter winds and blasted by driving snow. Visualize her picking her way along narrow leads through the broken ice in summer, or locked immobile in the frozen sea in winter. Remember too, that the north has no mercy upon the creations of man and that hundreds of wooden ships have been lost in its hostile sea. This harsh land was home of the St Roch for much of her 26 years.