The MV Frances Barkley from Port Alberni has been honoured with a prestigious SS Beaver Medal from the Maritime Museum of B.C.
The Frances Barkley was one of six award recipients: five other British Columbians were also recognized for outstanding achievements in B.C.’s marine sector: Rear Admiral (Ret’d) Roger Girouard of Victoria; artist Bill Maximick of the Comox Valley; historian, author and draftsman John McKay; professional mariner Phillip Nelson; and marine transport executive Keven Obermeyer of Nanaimo.
Nominations come from the public and are evaluated by committee. The award itself is a gold-plated medal cast from materials salvaged from the wreck of the SS Beaver of the Hudson’s Bay Company—the first steam-powered ship on the west coast of North America. The SS Beaver grounded in 1888 on the rocks of Prospect Point, Stanley Park, Vancouver.
Only two other vessels have been honoured in the 11-year history of the SS Beaver Medal awards. Lady Rose Marine Services owner Greg Willmon and MV Frances Barkley Captain John Adam received the award from Lieutenant Governor Janet Austin in the Wardroom at Canadian Forces Base Esquimalt on Dec. 6.
“It’s an older vessel, it’s actually 64 years old so it’s a heritage ship,” said Adam, who has captained the Frances Barkley on its run between Port Alberni and Bamfield for the past 13 years. “It’s been on the same run for all that time. It’s been an institution.”
The MV Frances Barkley was built in Norway in 1958 and originally christened the M.S. Rennesoy. A car ferry, the vessel was renamed M.S. Hidle in 1958 when it moved to a different Norwegian route in Stavanger. The vessel was sold in March 1990 to Alberni Maritime Transportation (1982) Inc., which was operating the MV Lady Rose as a passenger and cargo vessel between Port Alberni, Bamfield and Ucluelet at the time.
The Hidle was renamed MV Frances Barkley after the wife of Captain Charles William Barkley and sailed across the Atlantic Ocean, through the Panama Canal and up the west coast of North America to Port Alberni later that summer.
She was put into service in 1990 and later became the stalwart for Lady Rose Marine Services in 2007, after the retirement of the venerated Lady Rose.
Captaining the Frances Barkley is a “retirement” job for Adam, who worked with BC Ferries for 10 years of his 52-year career as a mariner. “It’s not boring,” he said. “Being on the water, it always seems different.”
He has met people from around the world. “Everybody wants to talk to the captain. I’m always hearing stories from all over the world. It’s a beautiful spot. It’s undeniably a scenic run.
“When you’re on the Frances Barkley people actually want to be there, enjoy the animal life. We saw whales (on a recent run). Watching people watch whales for the first time of their life is cool.”
Adam said the Frances Barkley is an icon of the west coast. “It’s a well-revered little boat. A lot of people have sailed on it; a lot of people want to sail on it. It’s part of the local history.”
Greg Willmon, who purchased Lady Rose Marine Services in 2021 with partner Barrie Rogers, said the SS Beaver award “solidifies” the reason he and Rogers purchased the company to save it from closure after a tough two years of COVID-19 restrictions.
“It shows the importance of what the ship has meant to the west coast of the Island and Barkley Sound, and the communities it serves,” said Willmon. He acknowledged the rich history of the vessel and the people responsible for operating her on the Vancouver Island route for more than 30 years.
“The award wouldn’t have been received if it hadn’t been for previous crews and the team that runs it on a weekly basis.”