“Necessity is the mother of invention.” – Unknown
She cut a fine figure as she slipped through the seas with the grace and speed of the dolphins that rode her bow wake, setting records that stand to this day. “She” is the Melanope , a three masted, steel-hulled windjammer with a past as tumultuous as the waters she sailed, her history rife with tales of curses and ghosts, romance and heartbreak, mysterious deaths and mutiny. She began her 70 year career in 1876 as an emigrant ship travelling between England and Australia and ended it as a coal barge off Vancouver Island.
The Melanope now lies at the mouth of Comox Harbour, one of the “ghost ships” of Royston.
In the early 20th century, forestry was a primary industry in British Columbia, with lumber shipped to Australia, Africa and Europe. Rail cars would bring logs harvested on Vancouver Island to Comox Harbour near Royston where they were unloaded into the ocean. There, they would be boomed for transport to mills in Vancouver and New Westminster. The waters around Royston, however, were subject to heavy south-easterly storms that created treacherous swells, making the task both difficult and dangerous. Previous efforts to use boomsticks and sledges to create a breakwater that would tame the tide were unsuccessful. Comox Logging and Railway needed something more sturdy and they needed it fast.
Decommissioned ships were the answer and the first, the five-masted schooner Laurel Whalen, was scuttled in 1936. Over the next 20 years, at least 13 more ships were towed to the mouth of the harbour, drilled with holes and sunk. By the 1960’s when rip-rap was laid to reinforce the breakwater, the graveyard included three Cape Horn windjammers, three naval frigates, two naval destroyers, three tugs, a barque, a barquentine, and one whaler.
No longer necessary as a breakwater and eroded by time, the remaining wrecks provide a unique look back into the history of shipping from the late 1800’s to the mid 1900’s.
Like the Melanope, each ship has a story as unique as the vessel itself . Some are heroic, like the HMCS Gatineau‘s rescue of 1000 survivors of the Prince of Wales sinking off Singapore in 1941, while others a little more tawdry, like the Laurel Whalen‘s brief turn as a floating dance hall in Vancouver. All are fading into lore along with the wrecks, though there has been efforts to obtain designation as a historical site.
Some of the wrecks can be viewed from land at the base of Hilton Road where the Royston Seaside Walk begins. A plaque along the trail provides historical information on the ships and the construction of the breakwater.
The best way to view the wrecks up close, however, is by kayak at low tide when the clear water allows for visibility of the remains beneath the surface, including engines, rudders and windlasses. Salt water and time have eroded many of the ships until they’re little more than skeletons of their former selves, hidden below the tideline, their outline still visible from the water. The kayak also allows you to slip inside for a closer look at the marine life that has made these wrecks home or move along the rip-rap breakwater to view the remains not visible from shore.
The Royston Wrecks are considered one of the most prominent ship graveyards in North America, representing a history of ship construction that spanned 70 years. While you can’t really call the rusting masses of metal “scenic”, they are one of the most unique backdrops along the coast. They’re also one of the most historically interesting paddles you can take, one I would recommend if you’re heading to Vancouver Island.
If you’re lucky, you might even spot one of the Melanope‘s ghosts!
From Nanaimo or Victoria:
Take Highway 1 north towards Campbell River.
Take the exit for the Denman Island Ferry.
From Buckley Bay Road, turn left onto Highway 1A.
Beyond Union Bay, you will pass through the village of Royston. Just beyond the village centre and before Courtney, you turn right onto Hilton Road. A sign for the seaside walk is posted just before the turn. Parking is at the end of the Road.
Take the oceanside route 1A from the Parksville exit north of Nanaimo all the way to Royston. If you find yourself surrounded by box stores, you’ve gone too far and are now in Courtney.
It you want to rent a kayak, check out Comox Valley Kayaks and Canoes. For those not comfortable going on your own, this company offers a tour of the wrecks that includes kayak, gear and guide.