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  • Hilde Huus

Very Informative Talk on Henry Larsen’s “Ugly Duckling”

The Canadian Nordic Society is indeed fortunate to have Doreen Larsen Riedel as a member and one of our Past Presidents. The daughter of Arctic explorer Henry Larsen, she is currently devoting herself to the eventual publication of her father’s memoirs. This has required a lot of research and there can be no doubt that she is the ultimate expert on her father’s voyages and explorations in the Canadian Arctic.

Her March 20 address to the Society focused primarily on the 104-foot wooden ship, the St. Roch, that took him through the Northwest Passage from west to east in 1940-42, and by the deep water route from east to west in 1944. Doreen explained that the ship, now on display at the Vancouver Maritime Museum, has changed a great deal from its construction when it was first built, and in fact was constantly being modified for most of its career in the Arctic. She described the many significant improvements that her father made to it over the years to overcome major limitations in its design. These limitations had caused severe difficulties for its crews, most of whom had little or no previous experience at sea.

Henry Larsen was a boy when news of Roald Amundsen’s navigation through the Northwest Passage reached Norway. He vowed that he would go to the Arctic himself one day. Living on the Hvaler Islands, off the southeast corner of Norway, he had plenty of experience at sea, starting with rowing boats as a boy before officially going to sea at age 14 and then earning his international navigation papers at the Oslo Navigation School.

The St. Roch was an RCMP vessel, and Doreen gave us a brief history of the Mounted Police’s presence in the North. It began in response to complaints from missionaries about the behaviour of whalers who were overwintering on Herschel Island. Eventually the Mounted Police set up stations across the North where, in addition to policing, they served as representatives of numerous federal and provincial departments. The stations required supply vessels, which also came to serve as “floating detachments” along the Arctic coast. There were no qualified seamen in the Mounted Police at that time, so they encouraged Henry Larsen to join their organization. In addition to his global sailing experience and navigational qualifications, Henry Larsen had served two years in the Arctic with Danish whaler Christian Klengenberger on the Maid of Orleans, where he became familiar with the North and was in contact with Inuit. He joined the Mounted Police in 1927, while the St. Roch was still under construction in Vancouver.

Henry Larsen closely observed the construction of the St. Roch and offered his opinions on its antiquated design and inadequate equipment, but he was disregarded. At its one trial in English Bay, local fishermen did not think it would ever see the Arctic. As Doreen outlined all the shortcomings of the ship and the lengths her father and his inexperienced crew had to go to in order to navigate it, the hardships involved became very clear. With his extensive sea experience, Henry Larsen had a feel for what could be done to improve matters, and many modifications ensued. Doreen has carefully documented these changes by researching her father’s memoires and other records to put together a complete picture of what was done to the St. Roch over the years to improve it, much of it by hand by Henry Larsen himself.

In 1954, the St. Roch was decommissioned in Halifax and returned to Vancouver. In 1958, she was placed in dry dock at Kitsilano Point for restoration and was restored to its original 1928 configuration. It has since been returned to its final condition as modified by Henry Larsen, and is on display at the Vancouver Maritime Museum.

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