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Powell River's Giant Hulks

Ten giants quietly floating in their final resting-place, proud ships, now stripped and silent, nevermore to travel the seven seas. Doomed to lie at anchor, calming the pounding seas as the breakwater for our pulp mill. These are the incredible hulks.

Giant Hulks of Powell River BC
Powell River's Giant Hulks Breakwater
Image courtesy of Katrin Harry, Coast Salish Journeys

Within the picturesque community of Powell River lies the pulp mill of Pacifica Papers. To protect its log storage pond, a unique breakwater was formed - ten massive ships chained together and anchored to huge concrete blocks 150 feet below.

The floating breakwater was started many years ago by the Powell River Co., using floating booms, Davis Rafts, floating timer cribs, wooden ships, and finally concrete ships. Behind these huge ships, logs rest in easy security from the fury of the winter south-easterlies or heavy westerlies that blow up and down Malaspina Straight.

All of the dismantled hulks were proud ships in their day. Some fought battles of freedom, others carried full cargoes along the blue water trade routes of the world. In World War I the Charleston and Huron were attached to group convoys carrying American soldiers to France and England. Built a decade prior to WW1, they were withdrawn from service in 1923, dismantled, and partially scrapped. In 1930 the Powell River Co purchased the two steel hulls.

The Huron sank in 1960 and presently lies on the bottom under one of the concrete hulks. Her sister ship, the Charleston, is still afloat protecting logs as she once guarded US transport vessels from the menace of enemy submarines.

Another famous ship in the breakwater fleet is the Malaspina, one-time pride of the Canadian fishery patrol and the scourge of rumrunners back in the boisterous prohibition days. During WW1 she assisted in the Navy patrol of British Columbia.

Side by side with these ships of war are the vessels of peace, the reliable freight carriers, Island Carrier and Albertolite. Both of these crafts were well known in the Pacific trade in their youthful days. They were also known as the "incredible hulks".

The Island Carrier was originally a sailing vessel, built in Scotland in 1892. Over the years she ended up being used as a hog fuel barge until purchased by the Powell River CO.

The Albertolite was built and launched in England in 1912. For some time she served under the German flag but was sold to a British firm and renamed the Winnipeg. She ended up being used for carrying cargo over the years then scrapped and sold to Capital Iron & Metals, which is when Powell River bought her.

In February 1947, the breakwater line was further extended by the addition of four concrete ships purchased from the US Maritime Commission. These four vessels, John Smeaton, Armand Considerer, LJ Vicat, and Le Chatelier, were built in Tampa, Florida in 1944 under the wartime emergency program and were decommissioned and later placed in the Maritime Commission's reserve fleet. All were general cargo carriers, 336 feet in length with a gross tonnage of 4800 tons each.

Additions to the breakwater fleet in recent years are the Peralta, Yogna, Quartz, PM Anderson, and the Cardena. The Peralta, built in 1916 and the largest of the ten vessels, was once a floating sardine cannery.

In the late 40s, after rust and rot holed many of these steel hulls, MacMillan Bloedel settled on a collection of concrete vessels as a more permanent solution to their breakwater dilemma. The ships are ballasted, some with gravel, but mostly with water in their tanks. This puts the hulls twelve to fifteen feet deep in the water, making them stable enough to break heavy waves. They are anchored with sixteen-ton concrete anchors, eight to ten anchors per ship. The anchors are connected to the hulks with massive chains weighing 55 pounds per foot. In the past a few of the anchor and bridle chains have been broken in severe storms, demonstrating the tremendous force of the sea.

Also, during storms the ships pull the anchors shoreward, so that every five to ten years the ships must be repositioned. The chains mooring the hulks to their anchors corrode over a period of time, usually near the bottom. Divers using electric arc-cutting tools, assisted by a crane and barge lifting the chains, replace corroded segments. During one job the divers had to remove a twelve foot octopus from an anchor before the chain could be repaired.

As far as is known, Powell River has the largest floating hulk breakwater in the world. The reason for using a floating breakwater is that a rock breakwater in such deep water would have cost millions of dollars to construct, while the present hull breakwater has been assembled for a fraction of the cost.

When the United States entered WW1 in 1917, they embarked on a crash program of shipbuilding to offset the heavy losses to merchant shipping from U-Boat action. As steel plate was in such great demand, government support was given for the building of seagoing Ferro-concrete ships. Initially the US Shipping Board called for the construction of 22 ships, but only 12 entered service.

The WW2 concrete ship building program was more successful than its WW1 counterpart. Not only was construction much stronger due to better cement, better mix, and more steel reinforcement, but the builders met their schedules allowing the vessels to see war time service. Concrete bottoms were particularly well suited for carrying dry cargo as the condensation problems that plagued steel ships did not occur.

These vessels handled well but were only capable of a maximum speed of 10 knots. Even though Powell River's floating breakwater does the job at a fraction of the cost of a rock breakwater, the old ships still require constant maintenance. A yard crew, working off a floating platform loaded with generator and pump, monitors water in the holds.

Because the ships have been on active duty for more than 50 years they have to be closely watched. The Peralta, the oldest American-built concrete vessel still afloat, remains on breakwater duty at Powell River. In fact, being concrete, she requires less maintenance and pumping out than her steel hulled mates. At 6500 tons and 420 feet in length, she is the largest hulk at the pulp mill operation. She is 83 years old.

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