Thursday, September 14, 2017

The "Secret" Adventures of Tugboat Billy

It was not until I seriously began researching my adoptive father's genealogy that I found something unexpected among original records and documents.  He was a tugboat cook!  This was surprising to me, not only because my sister and I never heard about his maritime adventures, but because he never showed that much interest in boats, or the sea, in general.  Dad did like to fish upon occasion, but he did not go frequently.  He did not even swim very much, as far as I know.  So, never in a million years would I have guessed that my dad, William "Bill" Robert Wheeler (1922-1975), served on at least two tugboat runs in Pacific Northwest waters.  Perhaps it was a folly of his youth, or, perhaps he was challenging himself to try and raise a sum of money for a certain purpose.

The "Seattle Passenger and Crew Lists, 1882-1957" database on reveals that he made two border crossings from Canada to the United States, well before he emigrated from British Columbia in 1948.

Bill Wheeler, in 1947/48 (age 25 or 26).  This image
was probably used as a passport photo.

Voyage of the Le Mars

The first document, a "list or manifest of aliens employed on the vessel as member of crew," shows that Dad was on the British MS Le Mars on July 20, 1940, when the tugboat made a port of call at Port Angeles, Washington, in the U.S., arriving from Vancouver, B.C.  There were eight crew members on board:  Stephen Carlson-master, Charles Plister-mate, Christopher Beaton-1st engineer, Oliver Wellman-2nd engineer, with Lawrence Leslie, Rodney Mayall, and James Bavester as "A.B." (able-bodied seamen).  Dad (William Wheeler), was signed on as cook.  Carlson and Wellman were longtime mariners with thirty years experience apiece.  Charles Plester had fifteen years of service under his belt, with eight years held by Beaton.  Leslie, Mayall, and Bavester each had a year's service accumulated, but Dad, only eighteen years old at the time, showed a length of service of "zero."  Obviously, it was his first trip out.  He was described on the manifest as being of "Scot" descent, with Canadian citizenship; he was 5 ft. 5 ins. tall and weighed 160 lbs, having no "outstanding physical marks, peculiarities, or disease."  He was definitely of Scottish descent, as his mother had been born and raised in Edinburgh, Scotland, and came to British Columbia only after marrying his father.

A modern-era photo of the Le Mars, more recently named Excaliber, ca. 2011. (

The Le Mars, 93 ft. long, was built in 1908, at the Wallace Shipyard in Vancouver, British Columbia.  Originally a steam powered tug, it was later modernized and refurbished with a diesel engine.  The tug had many names over the decades, including:   Osprey VII, S. S. Langston Hughes, and Illene.  It towed under the names of Le Mars and Excaliber for several companies.  (source:

For further information about the Le Mars:  Excaliber ("Le Mars"), "Seattle Passenger and Crew Lists, 1882-1957."

Voyage of the Goblin

Dad's second tugboat voyage was aboard the British MS Goblin.  It traveled from New Westminster, British Columbia, to a port of call at Bellingham, Washington, arriving on January 26, 1942.  The Goblin was a smaller tug than the Le Mars, and Dad was one of only five crew members.  At this point, he had accumulated one month service at sea.  The master of the Goblin, John Lowry, was an Irishman with twenty-three years maritime service.  Robert Kinkaid, the engineer, topped at twenty-five years service, with Maurice Sjoquist, mate, and Norman Lowry, deckhand, having six and three years experience, respectively.  Dad was still a relative greenhorn, even though a year and a half had passed since his employment aboard the Le Mars.  Why did he make no further voyages between the recorded Le Mars and Goblin runs?

MS Goblin, towing a barge.

A strong possibility for Dad's short length of service, overall, was because of a health issue he faced during that time of his life.  After serving as cook aboard the Le Mars in 1940, his physical description changed somewhat in 1942, on the Goblin manifest.  On the Goblin, he was twenty years of age, and at the same weight (160 lbs.), but his height had decreased a couple of inches, from 5 ft. 5 ins., to 5 ft. 3 ins.  He was also listed as being "crippled--left hip, and lame."  Is this the same William Wheeler, you might ask?  Well, yes... there is very little doubt in my mind., "Seattle Passenger and Crew Lists, 1882-1957." 

With Bill Wheeler being my dad, I'm fairly certain about his appearance, vital statistics, and other particulars.  He was Canadian by birth, but emigrated from British Columbia to the United States at the age of twenty-six (his age is listed incorrectly as twenty-three on the border crossing document, although the birth date is correct).  Intending to become an American citizen, he crossed the border at Blaine, Washington by automobile on July 14, 1948.  The record lists his uncle's name and address in Oakland, California as his ultimate destination.  It correctly describes him as being 5 ft. 3 ins in height (the same as on the manifest for his voyage with the MS Goblin in 1942), and having brown eyes, brown hair, and two large linear scars on the front of both hips.  Yep, that was Dad.  But, how can we be sure that it is the same man, with the slightly different physical description, aboard the Le Mars on July 20, 1940?, "Border Crossings:  From Canada to U.S., 1895-1956"

Dad was born with congenital hip dysplasia.  He suffered through dozens of operations during his childhood at a Vancouver, B.C. orphanage.  But, hip surgery in the early twentieth century was not as advanced as it is now.  The best the surgeons could do, in the end, was to add steel plates in place of some of his hip bone and remove some of his femur.  After a couple of inches of bone were removed from his left leg, he walked with a pronounced limp.  This all happened years before my mother met him.  Based on varying physical descriptions of Dad:  on the Le Mars in 1940 (5 ft. 5 ins., with no scars or discerning marks); as opposed to the 1942 Goblin voyage (5 ft. 3 ins., with hip scars), it is apparent that the physically-altering surgery was done in about 1941, between his two stints as tugboat cook.

Bill Wheeler, 1953/54.  In this image, he shows off his catch, but you can also see evidence of his compromised physical condition.  With his left leg shorter than the right, following major hip surgery, he had to stand with his full weight on the left leg, and bend the longer right leg in order to accommodate his stance.

Could Dad have signed on for the atypical job of tugboat cook in order to obtain funds for his constructive surgery?  It's possible.  Though he made his second sea voyage aboard the MS Goblin in early 1942, following the surgery, he apparently never made another excursion after that.  Perhaps the second trip earned him enough income to finish paying necessary (hospital?) bills.  Or, perhaps he found that last trip a bit too much to handle.  Steaming down to Washington State aboard the Goblin in winter would have given a fuller effect due to choppier waters, especially as it was a smaller tug than the Le Mars.  Early tugboats did not offer very safe or comfortable accommodations, and it would have been no fun at all having to cook for the crew, if he could hardly stand the sight of food due to sea sickness!

Whatever reasons Dad had for taking on employment aboard the tugboats, it seems he intended it to be a temporary involvement.  He later worked in warehouses in Vancouver, before leaving British Columbia permanently.  After moving to California, he met my mother while they were both employed at the Bell Packing Company in Berkeley.

Hip dysplasia was not the only condition he struggled with.  He also suffered from Type I diabetes for much of his life.  But, even with significant health issues, he continued to work full time in packing and manufacturing plants for many years, engaged in physically demanding duties.  He would usually arrive home at the dinner hour, quite spent, but I do not remember hearing him complain about the cards he had been dealt.

When I was young, I could never fully appreciate the day-to-day difficulties and discomforts he faced.  My discovery of his "Tugboat Billy" adventures reveals more of the determination and stamina he was able to summon in the face of significant challenges.  Dad has been gone for many years now, and I was not old enough to be able to interact with him on a fully adult level before he died.  If I could, though, I'd like to tell him, "Dad, thanks for keeping at it from day-to-day as long as you possibly could, and for taking such good care of your family, in spite of the odds.  I love you."

I wonder what other adventures Dad may have had, that I have yet to discover?