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Unwanted Royalty, part II By Paul Dillon "I want a boat with a stick and a string," said Sunshine. "You put the boat in the water and push it with a stick. And it floats away! Then you pull the string and it comes back!" She laughed immoderately. "Sounds like the kind of boat I need," Quoyle said eating the cold rolls. – E. Annie Proulx, The Shipping News If her first three decades of service as a luxurious passenger ship were relatively uneventful, the modern history of the Prince George II is rife with controversy. From a floating Dutch brothel, or Cabo San Lucas timeshare, to a Squamish casino, she seems to attract every harebrained conversion scheme imaginable. Bought and sold numerous times, she has been seized by successive generations of bailiffs. Hit by fire, left to rot in an Oregon backwater, refurbished, bankrupted and finally abandoned to the elements, she sits today "a sad climax to the last surviving ship of a once proud coastwise passenger shipping company," writes long-time Vancouver shipping journalist Norm Hacking in his new book, Prince Ships of Northern B.C. Like any vessel of its type, the second Prince George was invested with its own lore and mysteries. There was the L.A. millionairess who sailed the vessel twice a year for over a decade; the Bellingham couple who voyaged north 14 consecutive years; or the stewards who were paid by wealthy travellers to visit them during the off-season. Vancouver businessman Paul Deyong offers a slightly different twist on it. "I'll tell you, you could write a book about that boat," Deyong says. "I've owned it twice, sold it twice. It keeps coming back. I still hold a small mortgage against it that I've long since written off on the books. And, when I was 18, I worked on it as a steward. I'd like to see it up and running again. And, it makes a certain amount of sense to refit it. If you put in two or three million dollars it's only 10 per cent of the replacement cost, so it does make sense." Events in early 1971 might have foreshadowed the bizarre course the ship would take. In March of that year, sporting CN's box-car orange colours on her funnel, she was towed from her normal berth at the CNR pier into the middle of Vancouver harbour for the filming of a Charlie Chan movie. Later that same year, Russian Premier Alexei Kosygin boarded her for a tour of Burrard Inlet. She continued to sail the Alaska route through the early ’70s but her high operating costs made it difficult to run profitably against a new generation of floating hotels. In the spring of 1975 CN announced the vessel would be pulled from active duty at the end of the tourist season. However, fate intervened before the ship could be retired with its dignity intact. On April 10 a fire, caused by faulty wiring, broke out while the vessel was docked at the foot of Main Street in Vancouver, gutting 20 staterooms and causing $400,000 damage. Pique Newsmagazine discovered a memo written following a tour of the damaged ship. It reads: "CN are now evaluating the bids received for the Prince George and I gather that they are disappointed with the bids they have received so far. The figure of $3 m(illion) was quoted for the sale of the ship as a going concern. As scrap, the value would be about $200,000. Capt. Davies is very reticent about the future of the Prince George and who sent in bids on her, but at one point during our tour reference was made to 'Barrett's Navy.' Whether this was an oblique reference to the B.C. government having shown interest in the Prince George I'm not too sure..." The author's instincts were borne out when the NDP government of the day intervened and purchased the Prince George with the intention of returning her to the Alaskan route. To show their commitment to B.C.'s maritime service, the province offered the princely sum of $1 for the vessel. "We feel it would be wrong for the CN to sell this ship for uses like a hotel, which would not be in keeping with her tradition," said then Resources Minister Robert Williams, conveniently ignoring the fact it was used as a floating hotel during the 1962 Seattle World's Fair. "We feel it would be wrong for the CN, a federal crown corporation, to ignore the need for this ship on the B.C. coast." In the end, the government shelled out $230,000 and 28 acres of land in — of all places — Prince George, worth an estimated $70,000, to purchase the ship. The NDP never got the chance to refit the Prince George for service with a "bold Indian motif for the ship's exterior" as it had promised. Instead, the Socreds won the next election and promptly sold the vessel to Wong Brothers Enterprises, owners of a Chinese restaurant in Nanaimo, who promoted the vessel as a floating hotel and convention centre. Nanaimo city council said no, and two years later the Wongs, short of money, leased the vessel out to management of the Rayonier pulp mill in Port Angeles, where she was used as accommodations for strike-breaking mill workers. That wasn't the first bizarre offer the Wongs received. While the ship was docked in Nanaimo they were approached by a group interested in turning the ship into a floating brothel, to be moored off the Dutch coast. The former pride of the CN fleet was bought and sold several times over the next few years, languishing on a tributary of the Columbia River in Oregon until being rescued in 1980 by a consortium of doctors, lawyers and businessmen, who purchased the Prince George to run the Alaskan route under the Canadian Cruise Lines banner. That group, headed by Ken Showers and Murray Gammon of the Classic Car Museum, promised to spend some $4 million on the vessel. The actual refit cost $490,000 and involved North Vancouver's Burrard Yarrows yard installing a new sewage treatment plant, as required by U.S. Coast Guard regulations. The venture was a bust from the beginning. Her engines quit on the first cruise out of Vancouver, and the authorities in Juneau twice charged the ship with creating too much smoke. In the first summer of operations the group lost an estimated $5 million, handing out hundreds of free trips in a losing effort to crack the competitive Alaska cruise market. By some accounts the total debt at that time was in the order of $12 million, if you factor in a crushing $5 million loan from the Continental Bank, unpaid bills and personal debts incurred by the new owners. On its last voyage in 1982 the Prince George ran into foul weather: 75-knot winds and 25-foot waves. She performed flawlessly. The storm also served as a fitting send off for one elderly passenger, Tom Sterling, who for years had been the Prince George's band leader. His ashes were scattered from the vessel's rail. Britannia Beach's Kathy Dohnalek got the shivers when told of the ceremony. "I've heard from a few people that they thought it was haunted, but not in a bad way, in a good way," she says. "I'm just stunned that you told me that. The first time I was on it (in Britannia Beach) I kept hearing music all the time, no matter where I turned, and I couldn't figure out where it was coming from. I knew there was more to that ship than wood and metal." Canadian Cruise Lines finally sank under its debt load. The vessel had mechanical problems during its 1983 sailings and the company passed on bad cheques. She was arrested that spring — for what turned out to be the first of numerous occasions — after the crew filed a claim for $250,000 in back wages. A Vancouver bailiff, who didn't want to be identified, groaned when asked for comment about the Prince George. "I can't believe how much grief that ship has caused. I don't know how many times we've served papers on her, it seems like every year. It seems like everyone who touches her gets burned. And it's too bad. She used to be a fine ship." In 1983, Continental Bank sold the vessel, then valued at $1.5 million, to one of its own numbered companies for $1 million. The bank explained that transaction as an attempt to prevent the ship being sold for a pittance, thus devaluing the bank's standing as its principal creditor. Two years later, a company controlled by businessman Nelson Skalbania purchased the Prince George for almost $600,000. In early 1986, the Wolray Hotels Group of Vancouver (then owners of the Fraser Arms and Austin Hotels) bought the Prince George, berthed her in New Westminster and rolled out the gangplank to visitors at Expo 86. The venture was moderately successful, though there were numerous complaints about the accommodations and services and the ship was later seized by the federal courts for non-payment of bills relating to a $78,000 plumbing refit. Ironically, in February 1987, she had to be pumped out by firemen after her sprinkler system broke. The former flagship of the Canadian National Steamships line, a veteran of hundreds of difficult voyages, the Prince George suffered her final indignity in 1989 when, its boilers shot and its hull encrusted in barnacles and seaweed, she was towed to Valdez, Alaska to serve as a floatel for crews cleaning up the Exxon oil spill. Then-owner Tom May, an Island businessman, made an estimated $500,000 off the Prince George, charging between $65 and $165 a night for each of the 120 staterooms. That barely covered the cost of sprucing her up for the voyage; the towing fee alone was close to $150,000. Over the past few years the Prince George has occasioned great speculation. Imagine if you will the well-heeled advances of suitors who see the rotting hull of the vessel as they drive north to Whistler. "Oh no, not the Prince George again," sighs Kay McElwain at the Revenue Canada Excise and Customs branch's Boat Licensing and Ship Registry office. "There have been so many inquiries about the Prince George over the years, mostly from companies from other countries wanting to know who owns it and so on. It has been quite a mystery for quite a while." Whatever the future may hold, Dick Taylor, a former general manager at the Yarrow shipyards in Esquimalt where the vessel was built, believes a refit is out of the question. "In my opinion it would be just too expensive to refit it, to fix the engines and re-tube the boilers to get them fired up," he said recently. "I know that several groups have looked at it, including the Chinese, but nothing has ever come of it. I heard they might drop new motors into it but they'd be liable to go right through to the bottom." Most recently, the ship was the centrepiece of a proposal for Ladysmith's waterfront development. She was towed to Seattle last summer for a limited refit and in February the beautifully furnished interior, now a popular drinking spot for wayward teens, was cleaned up. True to form, that proposal sank under a flurry of accusations, suits and counter-suits between Sea Vision Enterprise Ltd., the company that pitched the idea, and Limbourg Investments, the Channel Island-registered firm that holds the principal mortgage against the vessel. There have been numerous slow dances between potential buyers and Limbourg Investments over the past few years. Unfortunately, neither Chris Wilson, Limbourg's point man in Victoria, nor anyone from the ship's registered owners, Hong Kong-based Fairport Investments, could be contacted about the vessel's future. If Dohnalek is right and the Prince George, like Excalibur, needs a knight in shining armour, he'd better have a castle full of gold. Maybe she'll go the way of other ships and be scuttled to create a diving museum. What's more likely is she'll continue to deteriorate until someone pulls the plug and tows her to a scrap yard, bringing this once-proud vessel to an inglorious end.


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