RCMP St. Roch – Artic Explorer – Historic Ship Of The Week
Ship Name: RCMP vessel St Roch (pronounced “Saint Rock”)
Vital Statistics (1944 configuration):
Length: 31.8 m (104’3”) Beam: 7.5 m (24’7”) Draft: 3.25 m (10’8”) Tonnage: 196.5 t
Hull: Douglas fir with Australian gumwood outer hull; rounded hull to allow ice to slide underneath; steel plate covering bow
Power source: 150 hp Union diesel, 6 cylinder; schooner rigged
Built: Burrard Drydock Shipyard, North Vancouver, 1928 (Charles Druguid design with modifications by Thomas Halliday)
St Roch was built specifically for the RCMP to patrol the Arctic. The ship was named after the Quebec east riding of Ernest Lapointe, then Federal Minister of Justice responsible for the RCMP. Launched on May 7, 1928, she began a long and successful career that ended in 1950 when officially retired from duty in Halifax. St Roch sailed through the Panama Canal in 1954 to return to Vancouver.
What was the significance of St Roch?
- First vessel to sail the Northwest Passage from west to east (1940 – 1942)
- First vessel to complete the Northwest Passage in one season (1944), also making it the first to use the more northerly, deeper route and to complete the Passage in both directions
- First vessel to circumnavigate North America
- Survived 12 winters stuck in the ice for 10 months at a time
- King George VI awarded the prestigious Polar Medal to Henry Larsen and the crew who sailed during the 1944 voyage
- Declared a National Historic Site (1962)
What was the RCMP’s role in the Arctic?
The Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) served as both the police and government representatives in the Arctic. Duties included: enforcing Canadian laws and regulations; selling hunting licenses; collecting customs duties and taxes; delivering the mail; registering vital statistics; making government allowance, pension, and welfare payments; delivering supplies to isolated RCMP outposts; transporting the sick and injured to hospital; and transporting Inuit children to and from residential schools.
What is the Northwest Passage?
The Northwest Passage runs across the top of Canada through the Arctic Ocean, between Pond Inlet, on Baffin Island, in the east and Herschel Island in the west. The search for this elusive waterway began more than a thousand years ago when Vikings from Greenland first explored the coasts of Newfoundland and Labrador, and parts of the eastern Arctic. European explorers looked for the Passage for centuries as a shorter route to the silks and spices of Asia. With the search for the famous explorer Sir John Franklin, the Passage was mapped in pieces, with Robert McClure (1854) charting the last piece. In 1906 Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen became the first person to sail the entire Passage from east to west. It took him three years to complete the journey.
Who were the crew?
With the exception of the captain, Henry Larsen, St Roch was crewed by policemen who learned to be sailors. Henry Larsen, born in Norway in 1899, set about building a career path to realize his dream – to sail the Northwest Passage. At the age of 15 he went to sea aboard a square-rigger and later served his compulsory two years with the Norwegian navy. After spending two years in the Arctic aboard an American trading schooner, Larsen made a life altering decision. In 1924 he applied and received Canadian citizenship and joined the RCMP becoming first mate on the newly christened St Roch. A short time after Larsen was made master of St Roch he continued as skipper for 20 years. Eleven other RCMP travelled on board in 1944, fulfilling duties of both policemen and sailors. Joe Panipakoocho, an Inuit guide, and his family travelled with them for part of the 1944 voyage.
What happened to St Roch?
As the Arctic became more accessible by airplane, St Roch was no longer needed and was retired after 20 years of active service. On return to Vancouver, the city bought the ship for $5,000 and in 1958 she was put into a drydock at Vanier Park and the Vancouver Maritime Museum was built adjacent to her. Visitors can board St Roch and see first hand, what life would have been like for the crew of this important piece of Canada’s history.
For more information:
Delgado, James P. Arctic Workhorse: The RCMP Schooner St. Roch. Victoria: Horsdal and Schubart/Heritage House, 2003
St Roch Virtual Tour
(Ed. note: This info from the Vancouver Maritime Museum’s site.)
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