Many attempts have been made to set up systems for rescuing ships and shipwreck victims on Canada’s Pacific coast. Specialised equipment, organisations dedicated to saving lives, and a chain of lighthouses standing guard along the coastline have made ocean travel around Vancouver Island safer, but still not without danger.

Collecting the remains of wrecked ships, called salvaging, is an industry that many have participated in, both legally and illegally. Once those aboard wrecked vessels are safe or accounted for, crews go out to help the boat limp back to safe harbour, or, if the worst occurs, to take what cargo they can before the ocean does.
Many attempts have been made to set up systems for rescuing ships and shipwreck victims on Canada’s Pacific coast. Specialised equipment, organisations dedicated to saving lives, and a chain of lighthouses standing guard along the coastline have made ocean travel around Vancouver Island safer, but still not without danger.

Collecting the remains of wrecked ships, called salvaging, is an industry that many have participated in, both legally and illegally. Once those aboard wrecked vessels are safe or accounted for, crews go out to help the boat limp back to safe harbour, or, if the worst occurs, to take what cargo they can before the ocean does.

© 2004 Maritime Museum of British Columbia

The Coast Guard of Canada protects ships and travelers from danger, coordinating and carrying out thousands of search and rescue missions every year. The history of the Canadian Coast Guard began with the creation of the Federal Department of Marine and Fisheries on July 1, 1867. This department was responsible for all aspects of marine activities and navigation, including the all-important shipping industry, as well as fisheries, harbours and ports, ship inspection, care of seamen, lifesaving and navigational aids, and shipwreck inquires.

British Columbia came under the dominion of the Coast Guard when it joined confederation on July 20, 1871. Since then, the Coast Guard has been a very important part of Vancouver Island’s maritime history.

Among the most important achievements was the building of the Bamfield lifeboat station in 1907. Bamfield was also important to the development of marine radio, which warned ships about hazardous weather and even helped them to mark their locations. But perhaps the most important addition to Vancouver Island was the creation of the West Coast Trail along the stretch of coast called the Graveyard of the Pacific. Read More
The Coast Guard of Canada protects ships and travelers from danger, coordinating and carrying out thousands of search and rescue missions every year. The history of the Canadian Coast Guard began with the creation of the Federal Department of Marine and Fisheries on July 1, 1867. This department was responsible for all aspects of marine activities and navigation, including the all-important shipping industry, as well as fisheries, harbours and ports, ship inspection, care of seamen, lifesaving and navigational aids, and shipwreck inquires.

British Columbia came under the dominion of the Coast Guard when it joined confederation on July 20, 1871. Since then, the Coast Guard has been a very important part of Vancouver Island’s maritime history.

Among the most important achievements was the building of the Bamfield lifeboat station in 1907. Bamfield was also important to the development of marine radio, which warned ships about hazardous weather and even helped them to mark their locations. But perhaps the most important addition to Vancouver Island was the creation of the West Coast Trail along the stretch of coast called the Graveyard of the Pacific.

Today, the Coast Guard continues its long tradition of protection and service in British Columbia and around Vancouver Island. Bamfield is now home to the Coast Guard’s Pacific Region training school (RHIOT). In addition, the Coast Guard maintains over 2000 navigational aids along the province’s vast coastline! They also respond to and clean up environmental accidents such as oil spills.

© 2004 Maritime Museum of British Columbia

Coast Guard of Canada logo

Coast Guard of Canada logo

Maritime Museum of British Columbia

© 2004 Maritime Museum of British Columbia


Over the years, special equipment has been developed to save shipwreck victims. Lifesaving equipment has advanced, and today, mariners are expected to demonstrate their skill and practice using these important tools.

Kisbee rings or life rings are ‘donuts’ made of a material that will float. They can be tossed to someone who has fallen overboard. Lifejackets, also known as life vests, work on the same principle: keeping victims afloat and visible on the water. Tulle and cork were once used as the filling for these items, but foam and air chambers are now favoured.

When a vessel is trapped just beyond reach of the shore or a rescue boat cannot pull up alongside the wreck, a rope can be used to breach the distance. Tossing waves and slippery conditions made throwing a rope across a long distance quite difficult during the Valencia rescue effort. A Lyle line-firing gun was used to fire a thin rope, which was then attached to a thicker line. Sailors would sometimes rig a Bosun’s Chair, a makeshift seat of ropes and fabric maneuvered over the waves on overhead ropes, to bring shipwreck victims to shore or across to other vessels.

Altho Read More
Over the years, special equipment has been developed to save shipwreck victims. Lifesaving equipment has advanced, and today, mariners are expected to demonstrate their skill and practice using these important tools.

Kisbee rings or life rings are ‘donuts’ made of a material that will float. They can be tossed to someone who has fallen overboard. Lifejackets, also known as life vests, work on the same principle: keeping victims afloat and visible on the water. Tulle and cork were once used as the filling for these items, but foam and air chambers are now favoured.

When a vessel is trapped just beyond reach of the shore or a rescue boat cannot pull up alongside the wreck, a rope can be used to breach the distance. Tossing waves and slippery conditions made throwing a rope across a long distance quite difficult during the Valencia rescue effort. A Lyle line-firing gun was used to fire a thin rope, which was then attached to a thicker line. Sailors would sometimes rig a Bosun’s Chair, a makeshift seat of ropes and fabric maneuvered over the waves on overhead ropes, to bring shipwreck victims to shore or across to other vessels.

Although oil spills are a tragic result of shipwrecks, it was once the practice to spread oil or diesel fuel across the ocean’s surface to settle the chop, making the launch of lifeboats easier. Lifeboats, small inflatable, wood, metal or fiberglass craft that passengers can use to escape a sinking vessel, are carried, by law, aboard all ships.

In 1907, the first Pacific Canadian Marine and Fisheries lifesaving station was established in Bamfield. By 1914, there were four such stations on the British Columbia coast. The early lifeboats that set out from these stations were powered by oars and sails, but the Bamfield station was the first to be equipped with a motorized lifeboat. Lifesaving stations at Tofino, Ucluelet, Clo-oose, Victoria and other points along the coast attended to distress calls of all kinds. Today, high-speed Zodiacs, helicopters and a fleet of specialised craft are in place on Vancouver Island and the mainland of British Columbia to attend to distressed vessels.

© 2004 Maritime Museum of British Columbia

Hand-held bellow foghorn

Hand-held bellow foghorn

Maritime Museum of British Columbia

MMBC 0173N
© 2004 Maritime Museum of British Columbia


Metal trumpet foghorn

Metal trumpet foghorn

Maritime Museum of British Columbia

MMBC 982.030.0001
© 2004 Maritime Museum of British Columbia


Capital Iron, James Bay kispie ring

Capital Iron, James Bay kispie ring

Maritime Museum of British Columbia

© 2004 Maritime Museum of British Columbia


The West Coast Trail stretches for 80 kilometers along a treacherous section of southern Vancouver Island’s west coast. Now loved by hikers, it was originally built between Port Renfrew and Bamfield to assist shipwreck victims.

The trail cuts along a stormy and unforgiving coastal region that has claimed countless ships and the lives of many. Some of Canada’s most notorious shipwrecks happened there, including the Valencia. Sadly, making it to shore alive was no guarantee of survival, for if you managed to survive the horror of the wreck and the breakers, you still faced an impenetrable rainforest and a cold desolate beach obscured by fog.

Often the only help for survivors were local First Nations people who would provide passage to one of the three lighthouses in the area. The lighthouses were connected to the Bamfield telegraph line that ran to Victoria. This was often the only way of summoning much needed supplies and medical attention.

By 1907, the public outcry about the dangers o Read More
The West Coast Trail stretches for 80 kilometers along a treacherous section of southern Vancouver Island’s west coast. Now loved by hikers, it was originally built between Port Renfrew and Bamfield to assist shipwreck victims.

The trail cuts along a stormy and unforgiving coastal region that has claimed countless ships and the lives of many. Some of Canada’s most notorious shipwrecks happened there, including the Valencia. Sadly, making it to shore alive was no guarantee of survival, for if you managed to survive the horror of the wreck and the breakers, you still faced an impenetrable rainforest and a cold desolate beach obscured by fog.

Often the only help for survivors were local First Nations people who would provide passage to one of the three lighthouses in the area. The lighthouses were connected to the Bamfield telegraph line that ran to Victoria. This was often the only way of summoning much needed supplies and medical attention.

By 1907, the public outcry about the dangers of this coast was enough to force the Federal Government to act. After the terror of the Valencia wreck was revealed in an inquiry, the Coast Guard created life saving shacks along the shoreline at intervals of 8 kilometers, following the telegraph line. Each station was equipped with access to the line and written instructions on how to use it in several languages. Blankets and other provisions and directional information were also provided.

Today, the West Coast Trail is part of the Pacific Rim National Park and recreational divers often explore the remains of the infamous wrecks along this stretch of living history.

© 2004 Maritime Museum of British Columbia

Learning Objectives

The learner will:
  • acquire knowledge of many shipwrecks that took place near the coast of Vancouver Island;
  • demonstrate an understanding of the era that experienced these shipwrecks.

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