NORRIS, Pat Wastell

Author Tags: Fishing, Local History, Maritime

Pat Wastell Norris was carried aboard her father's tugboat before she could walk. Raised in Alert Bay, she has written a history of coastal tugboats, High Seas, High Risk: The Story of the Sudburys (Harbour 1999, 2005) [See review] and a retrospective appreciation of seine boats of the Alert Bay area in High Boats: A Century of Salmon Remembered (Harbour 2003). Norris also produced a local history in Raincoast Chronicles 16: Time & Tide, A History of Telegraph Cove (Harbour, 1995) when she was living in Whistler. She lives in Vancouver.

[BCBW 2005] "Fishing" "Maritime" "Local History"

Review of the author's work by BC Studies:
High Boats: A Century of Salmon Remembered

High Seas, High Risk (Harbour $28.95)

Harold Elworthy’s Island Tug & Barge ranged the Pacific for over 20 years and became the largest employer in Victoria. Known as ‘H.B.’ for hard-boiled, Elworthy was a seat-of-the-pants innovator who had founded the company in his twenties. After World War II, to supplement his towing contracts, he decided to undertake the risky work of marine salvage.

In High Seas, High Risk (Harbour $28.95), Pat Wastell Norris recalls how Elworthy and his feisty fleet earned their reputation as the finest marine salvors in the world with their two flagships, the Sudbury, a converted Canadian corvette, and later the Sudbury II, a former U.S. naval salvage vessel.

It wasn’t work for the faint of heart. On the top of each standard contract, in large letters were the words ‘No Cure—No Pay’. Under maritime contract law, a successful salvage operation entitled Island Tug to a large award from the ship-owners. As each stricken ship was towed into port for repairs, local newspaper articles retold, not always accurately, the latest exploits of the laconic salvage crews.

Island Tug set records transporting vessels on long-distance tows but mostly became famous for salvage. Usually battling fearsome weather, the big tugs specialized in saving deep-sea vessels disabled by storms, collisions or mechanical failure. But by 1978, both Sudburys were gone and Island Tug had been merged into a much larger corporation. Island Tug’s company records were destroyed and key crew had died.

Two more decades passed until Norris decided to re-tell the legendary exploits of the ‘black gang’, the engineers, firemen and oilers who were always covered with grease and worked in the bowels of the ships.

Pat Norris grew up on a tugboat, having been carried onto her father’s 60-footer before she could walk. She had sea captains as ancestors, loved the ocean and respected nautical skills. She learned how to run the winch, start the big diesel with compressed air and not to stand in the bight of a line.

She grew up at her family’s sawmill in Telegraph Cove, on eastern Vancouver Island, where there were no streets. A rowboat was her tricycle. She started work early as mate, deckhand and engineer for her father, who skippered the mill towboat around Johnstone Strait. In those days, mariners were largely on their own, without today’s navigational aids.

Norris eventually published memoirs of her youth in Time and Tide: A History of Telegraph Cove in 1995. Retired and seeking another book project, Norris spent three years tracking down Island Tug crewmen for interviews. “I loved the people so much it kept the project going,” she said. Some of her subjects have died since they were interviewed.

A stickler for accuracy, Norris had former salvors check her writing for technical errors and eighty illustrations accompany the text. She was much influenced by Sebastian Junger’s recent nonfiction bestseller, A Perfect Storm, a detailed narrative that puts the reader on board a modern American fishing boat encountering a hurricane.

“I like to write about people who do dangerous and demanding jobs,” Norris says. “You only know what people are like when the chips are down.” 1-55017-208-5

[David R. Conn / BCBW WINTER 1999]

High Boats (Harbour $32.95)

As two old-time mariners take their last voyage on a 1920s seiner called the May S., Alert Bay-born and raised Pat Wastell Norris describes the classic vessel down to her engine, and harks back to a time when whales were called blackfish and pubs were beer parlours in High Boats (Harbour $32.95). Ostensibly a history of West Coast fishing, High Boats doubles as a paean to the unique hybrid culture of Alert Bay, the fishing community on Cormorant Island, off the northeast coast of Vancouver Island. Beyond the roll of the boat, the tang of the bull kelp, Norris provides a social history of the region and its prominent personalities. The title refers to the term used to describe seiners with the highest total catches, as usually cited in the local paper—not unlike boxscores for baseball. 1-55017-289-1

[BCBW Summer 2004]