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Canada's Forgotten Schooner


5-masted Schooner 
City of Alberni 1940

SV City of Alberni
Many thanks to Andrea Andraczyk-Frost for this beautiful photo which was taken 22 June 1940.


City of Alberni was a 1,600-ton five-masted topmast schooner built by the George F. Matthews boatyard in Hoquiam , Washington, in 1920. Constructed mainly of Douglas fir, she was 241 feet long with towering mast heights of 170 feet. She was christened Vigilant by her first owner, the E.K. Wood Lumber Company, and she was put her to work transporting lumber, a job for which she had been specifically designed. Unlike many other sailing ships, or sailers, of her time, Vigilant managed to survive the next two decades in spite of competition from steamships and downturns in the economy. She was fitted out with new masts in 1936 and after being laid up from 1938 to 1940, she was sold to the Canadian Transport Company, part of the H.R. MacMillan Export Company based in Vancouver, British Columbia. Her new owner renamed her City of Alberni in honour of the community on the west coast of Vancouver Island which was a centre of the lumber industry. (Click for Map) By that time, World War Two had started, and with the majority of steam- powered merchant ships serving on the North Atlantic convoy routes, sailing ships like City of Alberni were pressed into service elsewhere.


In early 1940, the schooner made her first voyage for the Canadian Transport Company, carrying B.C. lumber to Sydney, Australia, and returning with sugar from Fiji, under the command of Captain John D. Vosper. Captain Vosper was a well-known and respected master, who had been given the nick-name "Honest John D" by his crews.

Captain John D. Vosper

This picture shows Captain Vosper and the ship's cat on board City of Alberni. The photo beside the Captain is of his two daughters. Captain Vosper liked to tell the story of his "rum running" days during the Prohibition era of the 1920's. He would sail his schooner, Malahat, with her cargo of liquor, down to California, where he would heave-to -- face the ship's bow into the wind and drift with the sails aback -- three miles off the coast. Even if the revenue men suspected what Malahat was up to, their cutter couldn't investigate her because she was in International Waters.

Once it was dark, Captain Vosper would put a light out on a handy buoy, and the revenue men, seeing the light, would assume it was the Malahat's. Instead, the ship would be off selling her cargo elsewhere, returning in time to be innocently back beside the buoy again when the sun rose!

Photo Source: "City of Alberni -- Wartime Windjammer", by Captain H.D. Halkett.


In April 1941, Captain Vosper and City of Alberni were needed to take another load of B.C. lumber to Sydney, Australia.
Glen Eastman and Mates from SV City of Alberni
Glen Eastman (3rd from the left) and mates.
Among the seventeen men on board the schooner for the voyage were four young seamen -- Roland Geddes, Bill Hurford, Douglas Nutter, and Arthur Smith -- along with Joe Skaling, the Cook, Glen Eastman, the Wireless Operator, and Hugh D. Halkett, a Quartermaster in his regular job, who had signed on City of Alberni as an Ordinary Seaman. Hugh had been working on board the Canadian Pacific passenger ship, Princess Mary, where, under essential service rules, his job had been "frozen" for the duration of the war. He had been fortunate to be granted a leave of absence in order to gain deep-sea experience under sail. Glen's job as the Wireless Operator or "Sparks" was quite varied and interesting. He knew Morse Code, but, due to wartime restrictions he couldn't transmit on his radio unless there was an emergency. So when he wasn't listening for other messages, Glen kept busy doing the Captain's paperwork, and helping the other seamen on deck.

On the April morning that City of Alberni was to depart Vancouver harbour, the weather was rainy and miserable. Hugh Halkett always remembered how everyone aboard the ship was cheered when the head of the Canadian Transport Company, Mr. H.R. MacMillan, came to wish them them a safe journey. Mr. MacMillan was, in Hugh's words, a "fine gentleman who loved his sailing ship" and his gesture of caring was greatly appreciated. Large deep-sea sailers like City of Alberni found navigation close to shore very hazardous, and it had been the custom on the coast for powerful tugboats to help them to and from the open sea. So when all was ready, the steam tug C.P. Foster took City of Alberni in tow for Port Alberni, the deep-water harbour adjacent to the city of Alberni, where the schooner was to load her lumber. After their arrival at Port Alberni, C.P. Foster patiently waited while an incredible two million board feet of lumber were carefully stowed in City of Alberni's huge holds and on her long, flat deck. Then the tug towed the schooner down the inlet to a safe anchorage where the two ships were forced to wait a few more days for a favourable offshore wind. Finally, C.P. Foster towed the schooner thirty miles off Cape Beale, Vancouver Island, and cast her free to begin her voyage to Australia.

Throughout City of Alberni's crossing, her crew kept a lookout for disguised German surface raiders, which were known to be in the Pacific. Fortunately, none were encountered, and the schooner arrived safely off the Sydney Heads in 82 days. At that point, the crew had their first opportunity to see Glen in action with his Morse Code skills when he used an Aldis signalling lamp to request a tugboat. An elderly steam tug then came out and towed City of Alberni to her mooring in Snail Bay, Sydney Harbour.

City of Alberni view looking aft City of Alberni at Sydney, Australia, 1941

The photo on the left shows the breathtaking view at sea looking aft from high up on the end of the yardarm on the foremast. The delightful photo on the right was taken by a Sydney newspaper while the schooner was discharging her cargo in Snail Bay. Left to right the seamen are: Roland Geddes, Hugh Halkett (in front), Bill Hurford, Douglas Nutter, and Arthur Smith.

Source: These photos and the one above of Glen Eastman are from the collection of Captain Halkett.

While the schooner was unloading her lumber at Sydney, Captain Vosper had to make the decision of what cargo to carry back to Vancouver. Luckily, he passed up a charter to sail to Singapore for rubber, opting instead to load copra at Apia, Samoa (now Western Samoa). This decision saved City of Alberni and her crew from falling into Japanese hands after Japanese forces attacked Pearl Harbour on December 7th, 1941, and began their destructive sweep through the South Pacific.

When City of Alberni arrived at Apia, she was greeted by happy, singing Polynesians who were intrigued at the sight of a five-masted sailing ship anchored in their lagoon. Once a German colony, the western part of Samoa had became a mandate of New Zealand after World War One, and when City of Alberni visited there, her crew found that it was still a typical South Sea Island paradise, complete with a Governor's Residence. Samoa was also famous for being the home of the great Scottish writer, Robert Louis Stevenson (1850-1894). Stevenson and his family had lived about 3 miles from Apia in a beautiful house which he named Vailima. During his six years on the island, the writer became very close to his Samoan neighbours. They called him "Tusitala", or "Teller of Tales", and when he died, sixty of them cut a path to the top of the mountain to bury him. While City of Alberni was at Apia, everyone aboard made the trek up the mountain to see the grave of the celebrated author.

Robert Louis Stevenson had been plagued with sickness all his life and he had moved to Samoa for his health. Before he died at the age of 46, he wrote his own epitaph, the beautiful Requiem.
of Robert Louis Stevenson, Samoa 1941

The Tomb of Robert Louis Stevenson in 1941

Under the wide and starry sky
Dig the grave and let me lie.
Glad did I live and gladly die,
And I laid me down with a will.

This be the verse you grave for me;
Here he lies where he longed to be;
Home is the sailor, home from the sea,
And the hunter home from the hill.

Stevenson is best remembered today for works such as A Child's Garden of Verses, Treasure Island, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, and Kidnapped. In one of his essays, El Dorado, he penned the famous line " travel hopefully is a better thing than to arrive...."

Even nearly half a century after his death, Robert Louis Stevenson was still so highly thought of by the Samoan people, that when the men from City of Alberni made the pilgrimage to his grave, they found that the path was still being kept clear of foliage by volunteer labour. After her pleasant and memorable stopover in Samoa, City of Alberni returned safely across the Pacific, managing once again to avoid both the surface raiders and the Japanese submarines. She arrived off Cape Flattery, Washington, sixty-seven days after leaving Apia. There she was taken in tow by the big tug Anyox, which brought the schooner the rest of the way to Vancouver.

This photo shows Hugh Halkett at the wheel of City of Alberni. After this 1941 voyage, Hugh gained his Mate's Certificate and went on to spend the rest of the war as Third and later Second Officer aboard SS Crystal Park , one of the new 10,000-ton replacement cargo ships built in North Vancouver. Crystal Park was managed for the duration of the war by Canadian Pacific. She sailed the North Atlantic in convoys to Britain and to the Mediterranean. After the war, Hugh managed to stay at sea in spite the sudden decline of Canada's once splendid merchant fleet. When he received his Master's papers in 1947 at the age of 26, he was thought to be the youngest Captain on the BC coast. After the CPR Hugh worked for the Canadian Hydrographic Service and for the Canadian Coast Guard, where he spent some time ice-breaking in Canada's north. In his last 18 years before retirement, Hugh served as a Master with B.C. Ferries.

Photo Source: "Wartime Windjammer", by Captain Hugh D. Halkett.

Captain Hugh Halkett

Captain Hugh 
D. Halkett


Upon his retirement in 1985, Captain Hugh Halkett married, and he and his wife, Alice, made their home far from the sea in St. Albert, Alberta, where Hugh became a Marriage Commissioner. Hugh was a member of both the Company of Master Mariners of Canada and the "Cape Horners" or Amicale Internationale des Capitaines au Long Cours Cap-Hornier. He was very involved with the Canadian Merchant Navy Veterans Association (CMNVA) and worked hard on behalf of Merchant Navy veterans. Hugh wrote for a variety of publications and he was also one of the contributors to Robert G. Halford's book, The Unknown Navy: Canada's WWII Merchant Navy. Sadly, Hugh's health began to fail in 1999 and in November 2000 he was diagnosed with bone cancer. The terrible disease took his life less than a month later on December 6th. At Hugh's funeral one of the poems read was his favourite Robert Louis Stevenson's "Requiem".

City of Alberni is continued in Part Two


This page is maintained by Maureen Venzi and it is part of the Allied Merchant Navy of WWII website.