Exploratory Dives at Britannia Beach

In 2011, the Shipwreck Exploration and Conservation Society (SECS) was contacted by John Buchanan, a local environmentalist concerned with the state of a derelict ship sunk at Britannia Beach, and the potential harm it posed to the environment. The decision was made to do some exploratory dives to assess its condition and record our findings.

The Canadian Coast Guard Ship Ready was a twin screw diesel-powered search and rescue cutter. Built in North Vancouver, BC at Burrard Dry Dock in 1963, Ready is 95 feet long, with a 19 foot beam and 6.5 foot draft. She had four sister ships, Racer, Rally, Rapid and Relay. Once decommissioned by the Canadian Coast Guard, Ready was acquired by the Maritime Heritage Society of Vancouver in the aims of being restored and forming part of a floating maritime museum of sorts at Britannia Beach, near Squamish, BC. On January 17, 2011, Ready sank under mysterious circumstances. She came to rest on her starboard side in shallow water, less than 100 feet off the dock she was tied up to.

CCGS Ready (Photo: Canadian Coast Guard)

SECS divers conducted a series of dives at Britannia Beach, surveying, filming and documenting all they could. However, what initially we thought would take a day to complete, soon turned into something far more involved. In the short time since her sinking, Ready appears to have shifted position, sliding deeper along the slope from its initial sink location. This is because the natural seabed substrates around Britannia Beach have thick sediment accumulations that are actively transported downslope through sandy and muddy zones. The bottom under Ready’s bow is at 36 feet, and 39 feet at the stern. Being on a sloping bottom, her midships touch the sand at 31 feet on the port side and 44 feet on the starboard side. Her main deck ranges in depths from 20 to 38 feet.

Approaching Ready bow (Photo: SECS)

As we would discover, the only thing stopping Ready from sliding further was… another wreck.

This wreck appears to be a seine fishing boat. It has all the masts, rigging and holds used for fishing, with a stern consistent with seine fishers. She is wood hulled with a steel wheelhouse, and was probably built in the 1950s or earlier. Approximately 65 feet long and 16 feet across, the bottom under her bow is at 41 feet, and 54 feet at the stern. She has many interesting features, such as keel coolers on the outside of the hull, running below the waterline. These are used to cool the engine and other mechanical parts. One of the highlights for our divers was the door knob ring and the intricate door hinges on the wheelhouse, a stark reminder of this vessel’s age. Many modern boating aids, such as a Furuno style radar suggest this ship was still in operation into the 1990s. The wreck is showing signs of severe deterioration, with large portions of deck missing and extensive damage near the bow.

Mystery wreck 1 wheelhouse (Photo: SECS)

It is quite an experience diving two wrecks on the same dive, especially when you are only expecting to see one. What makes Britannia Beach even more remarkable is, after swimming south west for a few hundred feet, yet another wreck appeared!

This second mystery wreck is wood hulled with steel sheathing and also appears to be a seine fishing boat. Probably built in the 1940s or 50s, she may have started life as something other than a fishing boat, undergoing a conversion for its new career on the water. The wreck is approximately 95 feet long, with the bottom under the bow at 25 feet, and 29 feet at the stern. An old TV set found amongst the wreckage suggests she did not sink until the 1980s at the earliest. Even though the wood hull has suffered during its many years underwater, it still presented many interesting details which may help with identification; details such as a distinctive steel stern, as well as tear drop scoops, used for directing cooling water, and circular scoops probably used for fire pumps. Our initial thought based on the relative position of the wreck remains, such as the flipped foredeck and afterdeck house roof, and the destroyed front deckhouse, suggest the hull initially landed upside down, before the hull fell over and separated into pieces.

Exploring mystery wreck 2 debris (Photo: SECS)
Mystery wreck 2 hull remains (Photo: SECS)
Surveying mystery wreck 2 (Photo: SECS)

With the assistance of the local Britannia community, we were able to positively identify this mystery wreck as the seiner Cape Swain, sunk more than a decade ago.

Cape Swain
Cape Swain (Photo: Paul Gevaert Collection, Gulf of Georgia Cannery Society)

Another wreck found in the deeper waters off Britannia Beach is the wooden hulled La Lumiere. Built in 1944 at Wheeler Shipbuilding, NY and originally named USS ATR-64, she served as a US Navy rescue tug during World War II. After the war, she was decommissioned from the navy and sold for commercial service. Between 1948 and into the 1990s, she saw service with a number of marine transport operators and assumed many names. These included Logmac, Mogul, Island Monarch and Seaspan Chinook. She was finally sold to the Maritime Heritage Society of Vancouver and renamed La Lumiere. The 165 foot tug sank under mysterious circumstances on May 9, 2008, and today is resting on a slope a few hundred feet from shore in depths ranging from 245 to 290 feet.

Seaspan Chinook (Photo: National Association of Fleet Tug Sailors)

La Lumiere may have company soon. Still afloat, but with a noticeable list to starboard is Tyee Princess, a 133 foot long coastal freighter that first saw service during World War II as YF-874, a US Navy self-propelled covered lighter. Tied up alongside Tyee Princess is her sister ship, YF-875, another vessel that saw service during World War II. And in the sediment below, the remains of the 180 foot long Ballena, formerly SS Joan, a twin screw wood hulled steamship built in 1892. A 2001 sidescan sonar survey of the area confirmed her presence.

YF-875 and Tyee Princess (Photo: Deep Into Diving)
SS Joan (Photo: Saltspring Archives)

In close proximity to this area is a submerged large wooden structure, originally intended to serve as a retaining wall for an ambitious landfill project. The structure starts in the shallows at around 40 feet, and continues to about 100 feet. Its length is approximately 150 feet, and is now split into two sections.

Barge (Photo: Britannia Mine Museum and Archives)

Britannia Beach promises more interesting discoveries for explorers to find, and SECS continues work on locating, surveying and recording its wrecks, with all our findings to be published. Consider that Britannia Beach was only accessible by boat from 1904 to 1956, when they added a rail line to the area. A road was not added until 1958. There’s more to be found…

As if the wrecks aren’t enough enticement themselves, It is worth noting the area around Britannia Beach is host to a large variety of marine life, including lingcod, large schools of striped perch, and a vibrant various assortment of Pacific Northwest regulars, such as dungeness and decorator crabs, plumose anemones, sea cucumbers, sea stars, prawns, tube worms, barnacles and kelp.

And if you are in the area to dive, please support the local community shops and eateries, and also check out the Britannia Mine Museum across the street.

*****

The SECS Directors/Members involved in the Britannia Beach Project were Russell Clark, Wayne Lefebvre, Dana Moores, John Nunes, Brandon Rogers and John Webb. Thank you all!

The Shipwreck Exploration and Conservation Society (SECS) is a group of local divers passionate about shipwrecks, whose goal is to document and communicate the importance of exploration and conservation of wrecks across British Columbia. For more information, visit http://www.secsociety.com.

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