SALTS’s down-east schooner and longtime sail training vessel
n the early 1970s, a Victoria physician, Dr. Philip Ney ran an adventure program for young people aboard the ex-troller Nipentuck on the west coast. As the program expanded, the need for a larger vessel became obvious and Dr. Ney started a search which led him ultimately to Nova Scotia and the Robertson II. “The Robbie,” as it affectionately became known, was a Grand Banks fishing schooner in active service since her construction in 1940. Under Dr. Ney’s pioneering leadership, Pilot Programs Ltd was formed in 1974 to own the ship and a non-profit society was created to run the program ,Quest Star Life Discovery Society.
A bowsprit was added to the Robertson II’s shapely profile and with a volunteer crew comprised of family members and friends under a collection of second-hand sails, the intrepid doctor set out from Nova Scotia for the Panama Canal. Her crew was reminded of her long service in the fisheries with the rank odour of former cargoes drifted up from her bilges with each ocean swell. In Barbados a minor mix-up of hoses when taking on fuel and water meant that the crew also had to suffer the indignity of diesel fumes in their tea for the balance of the voyage.
After a pleasant trip through the Panama Canal, where the Robertson was used as a pilot training ship, Dr. Ney left the schooner in Acapulco where Robert Herschfield brought her safely to her new home port of Victoria. It had become apparent on the 8000-mile voyage from Nova Scotia that the Robertson II was under-rigged. She was given a three-masted rig with a suit of new sails made in Hong Kong.
From 1974 to 1980 sail training programs aboard the Robertson were developed that ranged from 2 to 20 days and saw as many as 800 young people participate each year. Voyages took them to the Gulf Islands, the Strait of Georgia and British Columbia’s spectacular fjords of Jervis Inlet and Princess Louisa. A particularly innovative program called “West Trek” combined seven days of hiking the West Coast Trail of Vancouver Island with five days of sailing and exploring in Barkley Sound.
Operating costs could usually be met by revenue from trainees’ fees but ongoing maintenance and restoration expenses were a constant drain on resources and energy. On a windy night, the Robertson’s aging “Jimmy” diesel packed it in, proving the last straw in the mounting financial burden for owners and operators. Dr. Ney had accepted a new posting in Christchurch, New Zealand and so in the fall of 1980 the Robertson II was put up for sale.
On a Saturday in early September 1980 the Robertson II lay tied to Victoria’s Ship Point Wharf awaiting the auctioneer’s hammer. However, there was a real surprise in store for everyone. When the bids were opened, the successful tenderer was Mr. Alan Graham of Calgary. He promptly donated the vessel back to the Society with the provisos that there be some new faces on the board of directors and that a second society, the Friends of the Robertson II be formed to specifically help with fundraising. Alan Graham’s involvement was largely the work of local Victoria Businessman, Jim Hartshorne, who had explained the plight of the Robertson II the day before the auction as they gazed at her from a nearby restaurant window. Hartshorne was to become one of the members of the new board under the chairmanship of Dr. Wally Eggert.
The winter of 1980 saw the old engine removed and rebuilt while some major repair work carried out in the stern. In the spring of ’81 the Board, despite the fiscal balance that hardly made it worth the bank’s while to send out a monthly statement, hired a new Executive Director, Martyn Clark. This position called for him to skipper the Robertson II, raise funds and develop sail training programs. Clark assembled his team and began a major restoration effort which would see the Robertson II restored to her historic two-masted gaff rig. The work could only take place in the winter months as the ship still needed to sail from May to October. The total restoration was scheduled to cover three years at a cost $350,000. Work included replacing the wheelhouse with a traditional deckhouse, replacing the spars, diesel tanks, sails, rigging, steering box, wheel, hatch coamings, skylights, generator, steering, crew’s quarters, and chart table.
Builders who were instrumental in the restoration included Gerry Fossum, Jeff Mitchell, David Roycroft, Lars Junker, Derek Cash, Geoff Munday, Gerry Boy, Real Fournier, Chris Maloney, and Tony Anderson.
A vigorous advertising campaign, new brochures, and mailings to B.C. schools had resulted in healthy bookings for spring and summer, but the dockside loafers and armchair sailors became increasingly skeptical that the schooner would be ready in time. On the appointed day the decks were scrubbed clean and the Robertson II took on board a group of eager school children. Her suit of new white sails, cut in the tradition of the true Grand Banks fisherman, were an inspiring sight but the crew eyed her massive boom and mainsail, over 2000 square feet, with more than a little apprehension.
When the next winter rolled around the crew devoted themselves to gutting the interior and installing new water tanks, cabin soles, tables, bunks, heads and galley. The final phase of the restoration, new decking and bulwark caps, was completed in the winter of ‘84-’85.
The Robertson II had already won the award for the best restored sailing vessel at the Victoria Real Estate Board Classic Boat Show in ’82. Her programs were fully booked almost a year in advance with long waiting lists for the summer trips.
SALTS sailed the Robertson II from 1974 to 1995 when she was retired. The ship served as a floating museum in Victoria’s Harbour, available for public tours, until she was sold to Atlantic and Pacific Fisheries in 2003. In 2007 she was grounded on Minx Reef off Saturna Island’s Winter Cove. Today Robbie has become a sad marker for the end of the reef that ended her sailing career.