Skip to main content

Engineer George Liu stands on RCMP schooner St. Roch, which he is mapping with a laser scanner.DARRYL DYCK/The Globe and Mail

When visitors enter the Vancouver Maritime Museum, they are immediately greeted by the historic St. Roch, an imposing 32-metre schooner that once served as an RCMP detachment in the Arctic and became the first vessel to circumnavigate North America.

In the coming months, anyone with an Internet connection will be able to view a 3-D rendering of the 87-year-old vessel as part of a project run by the charity CyArk, which is dedicated to preserving at-risk heritage sites across the globe by mapping and modelling them for a free online database.

The St. Roch was made with thick Douglas Fir timber strong enough to withstand massive pressure from ice floes and, during the first half of last century, was one of the few boats plying Arctic waters. It was built in 1928, served in the Second World War and worked as the RCMP's floating detachment in the Arctic.

"It's really a remarkable Canadian metaphor," the museum's executive director, Ken Burton, said.

"The ship itself was built right here in Vancouver, it was crewed by farm boys from all across Canada, it was named for a Quebec parish … it was skippered by an immigrant and it was successful in its service in the high Arctic with the help of the Inuit.

"So it tells a real compelling narrative."

Over the next several months, North Vancouver-based Absolute Space Engineering will be taking laser scans of the sturdy wooden vessel, mapping each centimetre for a detailed digital model.

CyArk's online archive already has photos, models and information on dozens of sites from around the world. Three other Canadian places have been profiled: Saskatoon's Third Avenue United Church, Fort Conger on Ellesmere Island and Alberta's Okotoks Erratic boulder.

The St. Roch has been restored to the condition it was in during the Second World War, when it was sent on a secret mission through the Northwest Passage to Greenland to protect bauxite and cryolite mines that were vital to the aircraft industry of the Allied forces. The St. Roch left Vancouver in 1940 for Halifax, but its mission stalled when it became mired in thick Arctic ice.

"They calculated it would take them 90 days and it took them two and a half years," Mr. Burton said. "They were frozen in."

Almost 20 men lived in tight quarters and had up to 30 sled dogs sleeping onboard as well, Mr. Burton said.

"The crew would spend a lot of their time actually hunting – whether it be seal or walrus or whatever – for themselves and to feed their dogs," he said. "It was a survival voyage, for sure, not a luxury cruise."

When it reached Canada's Atlantic Coast two years later than expected, the St. Roch surprised the navies of the Allied forces, Mr. Burton said.

"The convoys were happening between Halifax and Britain and nobody was expecting a 104-foot wooden schooner to pop out in the North Atlantic," he said. "The crew had to scramble to get their identity flags up so that the Allies would know that they're friendly forces."

After the boat was retired from service in 1948, the boat travelled from Halifax back to Vancouver through the Panama Canal, a voyage that made it the first ship to circumnavigate North America. Once back in Vancouver, it was hauled ashore in 1958 and became designated a national historic site in 1962.

George Liu, who volunteered his company Absolute Space Engineering for the project, said he will finish scanning the interior of the ship in September and then send the modelling data to CyArk by the end of that month.

He said the vessel is in good shape, but the dry rot on its stern underscores the need to preserve it digitally.

"Even though it's kept in a controlled environment you can't stop the decay," he said. "Not only that, they may have a fire one day and it could be gone, also an earthquake or tsunami – so much uncertainty in the future.

"It's a good time to capture it while it's still intact."

Your Globe

Build your personal news feed

Follow the author of this article:

Check Following for new articles

Interact with The Globe