Updated: Sep 19, 2019
On March 14th 1972, the 21 year-old M.V. Vanlene freighter vessel carrying 300 Dodge Colts from Japan blindly entered the Barkley Sound; believing they were in the Juan de Fuca Strait. The Vanlene ended up running aground on the rocks off of Austin Island, largely due to the vessel having no more than a compass to navigate its way across the Pacific Ocean. This fact, as well as a thick spring fog coating the whole West Coast made sailing the freighter into the Juan de Fuca Strait nearly impossible. Following the wreck, a large rescue took place. Nearby tugboats and boom boats transported all 38 of the Chinese crew members to safety, helicopters airlifted nearly half of the cars off the vessel, and ecologists assessed and treated the surrounding marine life and beaches of the Vanlene’s oil leakage. Despite sinking over 40 years ago, the Vanlene remains to be an entertaining salvage story and a popular diving spot to this day.
Before Captain Lo Chung Hung and his crew embarked on the Vanlene from Nagoya, Japan to Vancouver, Hung had a standard-issue equipment inspection done. The inspection determined that the Vanlene’s radar, radio direction finder, echo sounder, deep sea leader, taffrail log and mechanical log were all damaged and in need of repair or replacement. Captain Hung requested that the ship’s owner repair the broken equipment before they left Japan, however the owner never obliged, and the Vanlene was forced to embark with only two magnetic compasses, one gyro compass and four repeaters (relays radio signals over wide areas) to navigate their way. Despite the lack of navigational tools, Captain Hung was able to sail the vessel across the Pacific, along the coast of California and up to Vancouver Island without an incident. The thick fog surrounding Vancouver Island that day made sailing the Vanlene without equipment almost impossible, which is made evident when Hung unknowingly steered the vessel into the Barkley Sound rather than the Juan de Fuca Strait; more than 60km off-course. As the vessel neared Austin Island, the water gradually got more shallow until the Vanlene crept onto the sea floor and grounded gently onto the rocks below; so gently that the chief engineer on the ship didn’t even realize they had run aground until the engines shut down. When the vessel was washed up onto the rocks, Captain Hung later claimed “the ship’s position was precarious, listing heavily to starboard with the bow on the rocks and the stern awash. The sea was choppy and a storm was blowing up” (Evans et al.) (see Fig. 1). About a half hour after she grounded, the captain issued an SOS call, claiming that the Vanlene had washed aground somewhere off the coast of Washington State, since he and his crew could only assume they had entered the Juan de Fuca Strait rather than the Barkley Sound. When first responders answered the Vanlene’s distress call, they were surprised when they didn’t find anything there, fearing that the ship had already sunk along with the crew. Once calls came through Bamfield about a ship grounded on the rocks off of Austin Island, emergency services were relieved and headed to the Vanlene’s rescue. The Bamfield lifeboat and the Neva Strait tugboat from Vancouver were dispatched to the Vanlene, heaving a line to evacuate the stranded crew members. All 38 members of the crew, including Captain Hung, were safely rescued from the Vanlene wreck and transported to Port Alberni. Following the wreck, an inquiry regarding the Vanlene posed the question of why the water pumps couldn’t syphon the water out of the engine room. Captain Hung stated that the water pumping equipment couldn’t be used because “when the engine room of a ship floods, there is nothing you can do. Nothing but abandon the ship. I had to give this order for the safety of my crew” (Evans et al.). The Vanlene remained wrecked on the rocks off Austin Island for several years until storms slowly slipped her into the sea.
Figure 1: A photo of the Vanlene taken mere days after it washed up on the rocks off of Austin Island in the Barkley Sound. The photo provides a good view of the bow raised above sea level and the stern flooded below.
Although the navigational failures of the Vanlene highlight her journey to Vancouver Island, the cargo of 300 Dodge Colts she was carrying gave her the legacy she still has to this day. The Japanese auto company Mitsubishi Motors was the manufacturer of the 1972 Dodge Colt; the cargo onboard the Vanlene. Due to their vehicle’s small sizes, Mitsubishi had much difficulty in selling them on the American market. The company decided to re-badge their cars as Dodge instead of Mitsubishi to adhere to American buyers and get them interested in smaller vehicles, rather than the large station wagons that were widely popular in the 1970’s (See Fig. 2). While the ‘72 Dodge Colt was initially praised for its braking, visibility and handling, the vehicle didn’t have a good aerodynamic profile, which resulted in poor gas mileage.
Furthermore, the car’s 100 horsepower inline 4-cylinder overhead CAM engine took nearly 20 seconds to propel the car from 0-60 mph, with an poor average fuel economy of 19 mpg. The sinking of the Vanlene was also a direct factor in why the ’72 Colt was such a rare vehicle model in North America. 300 of these Dodge Colts were loaded onto the Vanlene bound for Vancouver. As per the standard, every car had to have at least half a tank of gas and the keys in the ignition. After the Vanlene washed up on the rocks and the crew was evacuated, salvage efforts for the stranded cargo began. Since the vehicles were stowed below deck, they had to be individually airlifted out with a helicopter through the open cargo hatch on the ship’s deck. Despite this setback, 131 cars were safely taken off the Vanlene and brought to the shores of Bamfield; leaving 169 vehicles that were either unreachable from the cargo hatch or already flooded and lost beneath the waves. For the next several years that the Vanlene was still above the water, many people from Bamfield and Ucluelet would venture out to salvage anything of value off the doomed vessel, such as cutlery, plates, life jackets, bridge equipment (including the bridge telegraph in Port Alberni’s Maritime Discovery Centre) and even parts from the remaining Dodge Colts. According to the Underwater Archaeological Society of BC, nearly every resident of Bamfield and Ucluelet either displays or even uses something from the Vanlene. Many of the remaining vehicles were stripped for whatever parts they could find, including steering wheels, engine components, batteries, gas, dashboard pieces, etc. There was even one man who had planned to breach the hull of the Vanlene and fashion it into a ramp, simply driving about 40 of the Colts off the vessel and onto a barge; however this plan never came into fruition. Salvage efforts continued even after the Vanlene sunk into the Barkley Sound, with the wreck being a popular diving attraction in Bamfield to this day.
Figure 2: An advertisement headlining the re-badged 1972 Dodge Colt series that was preparing to make its way to the American Market. The ad displays the 4 different models of the ’72 Dodge Colt: the 2-door hardtop (top left), the station wagon (top right), the 4-door sedan (bottom left), and the 2-door coupe (bottom right).
Oil has been notorious for leaving a brutal footprint on the ocean, with certain disasters such as the Deepwater Horizon BP oil spill in 2010 causing irreparable damage to marine life. The Vanlene wreck is an example of a disaster that could’ve had a similar oil spill and threaten the livelihood of the Barkley Sound. On March 14th 1972 – the day the Vanlene crashed on the rocks in the Barkley Sound – she had about 400 tons of Bunker B and C fuel (oil used to power the engines) left in her tank, with much of it flooding the engine room and into the water when she crashed. 36 hours following the crash, patches of oil were spotted as far as Forbes Island, which raised concerns about the risks it posed on the ecology of the Barkley Sound. This oil slick particularly threatened the herring spawning grounds in the area, and raised fears of poisonous contamination. The Marine Sciences Branch in Nanaimo issued a research vessel – the C.S.S. Vector – to assess the Vanlene’s oil leak and its possible effect on marine and beach life. The Vector’s crew were very experienced with handling oil spills, and made short work of the Vanlene oil leak. By March 18th, the analysis yielded that an estimated 500 barrels of crude oil was drifting on the water, as well as about 150 barrels on the surrounding beaches. Within 1 square cable of the Vanlene, the oil was about 1mm thick, and ½ mm thick within 3 square cables, which was a fairly manageable amount of oil. The Vector recorded the oil thickness over 4 square nautical miles around the Vanlene, which yielded an average of approximately 25 nanometres. However, the oil measured on the beaches was measured to be a thick ½ cm oil layer over 12 miles of beach land. While conducting reconnaissance of the surrounding beaches, 6 birds were found “contaminated” with oil, however is was a light coating and they were still quite mobile. While the Bunker C fuel remained black and was easy to spot on the water. The Bunker B fuel underwent emulsification (salt in the seawater caused the oil droplets to disperse into the water molecules) that turned the Bunker B oil from black to brown, making it much more difficult to spot on both the water and the beaches. The boats that were launched to handle the oil clean-up were armed with 2,700ft of log booms, a 600ft deep sea boom, peak moss, and a specialized pieces of spill equipment, such as the “slick-lickers”. Once the visible oil was cleaned out of the water and the beaches, the Vector conducted a series of “bottle cast” tests to determine if the oil has completely dispersed from the water, which yielded successful results.
Figure 3: A map of Austin Island and its surrounding broken group islands off of the Barkley Sound, including the location where the Vanlene washed up onto the rocks. The orange box represents the area of 1 square cable ( ̴ 185m) in which the oil was about 1mm thick, and the red box represents the area of 3 square cables ( ̴ 556m) in which the oil was about 1/2 mm thick.
Despite washing up on the rocks and sinking the vessel, Captain Hung did a remarkable job of sailing the Vanlene as far as he did with little to no navigational equipment on board. Although the crash was out of his hands, Captain Hung took full responsibility for the wreck; as he felt guilty for having to abandon his vessel and watch it descend below the waves. The sunken treasure of Dodge Colts became legend on Vancouver Island; a treasure many people attempted to salvage from the vessel. The fact that so little oil was spilled into the Barkley Sound was nothing short of a miracle, as a massive oil spill would’ve done tremendous damage to the beaches and the marine life. The story of the Vanlene has become a rich part of our West Coast heritage, leaving a legacy that will be passed on for years to come.
Written by D. Weber
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Evans, Greg, and Richard Mackenzie, and Rebecca Forrest. “Vanlene.” Graveyard of the Pacific: Tales of Hope and Courage, Government of Canada, 2004.
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