Editor's note: This is the second in a three-part series of articles by Squamish-based freelance writer Ana Santos about the joys and challenges of life on the water in Squamish and elsewhere in B.C.
Whose job should it be to limit the size of people's dreams? When faced with Steen Larsen, this is an employment vacancy that some in Squamish would like to see filled… and quick. Steen has a habit of dreaming big. He admits his dreams are of a quality "hardly ever fitting with society." When queried about this, he shrugs and offers a simple response: "We're not here for very long."
Playing to Steen's advantage is his immense ability to turn his big dreams into reality. Roll back to 1977, and we find him falling in love with an old Harvard T6 airplane. A dreamer of a different calibre may have gone home with a passing heartache, but not Steen. He rolled up his sleeves, fixed it, and made it his, and in 1978, he used it to open the Squamish Days parade, in the process scaring the pants off everyone there. Why? "Snap your fingers three times and that's how long it took that plane to cover Cleveland Avenue. Too low, too loud, too fast," he says with a sonorous laugh.
The size of Steen's dreams hasn't decreased with time. Fast forward to 2012, and we find him pulling a 130-foot barge into the Mamquam Blind Channel. Many raised their eyebrows and many others raised concerns, but when Steen acquired the barge in Sechelt, his big dream was well-intentioned: He would turn it into a mobile workstation. "Our community could use it in foreshore development," he thought.
How that fits with the plans of the powers that be remains to be seen, though.
While Steen looks at his equipment and sees an opportunity to make a living by providing Squamish with marine services that are badly needed (sediment dredging, derelict boat clean-up, pile driving and extraction, boat transportation and haul-out...), District of Squamish (DOS) officials look at the same thing and see "lack of attention to aesthetics, safety concerns and potential environmental problems arising from living in a non-regulated way," says DOS Real Estate Manager Neil Plumb.
These differing views are now smack in the centre of the radar of senior government reps — how to regulate the multijurisdictional nature of the Mamquam Blind Channel is today an important issue on many important desks.
"If your boat does not comply with the rules, it will be removed at your expense."
" Yes, I acknowledge and agree that: If I have not fully paid (associated) costs within 90 days of removal, the City of Vancouver may sell my vessel."
With 25 years of boat-living under his sails, Bill Sassaman will not be cajoled into ticking the box. "I won't sign my boat away," he quickly says, shaking his head, when asked about the permit that anchoring in False Creek requires these days.
Such are the measures that the City of Vancouver adopted some years ago. False Creek used to be a very busy, congested waterway, and until 2006, there was no agency with False Creek management as part of its mandate. Navigating through the complex process of developing a new Boating Restriction Regulation (BRR) under the Canada Shipping Act took years of hard work but, according to the City of Vancouver, it's paid off. "It has given us the authority to restrict anchoring in the creek," confirms Lisa Leblanc, civil engineer with the city's Active Transportation Branch.
A report in the city's archives from 2001 explains that many boaters had made False Creek their home, and others were using the area to store their boats. Complaints were wide-ranging, from lack of space for visitors and difficulties in manoeuvring and navigating to boats dragging anchor to derelict vessels to garbage accumulation and, sometimes, unacceptable public behaviour.
The BRR in False Creek was developed to address three main types of concerns, Leblanc explains: "From a safety standpoint, one of them was congestion. Equity issues, making room to accommodate all types of users, were second. Third, there was the environmental side of things, controlling pollution in False Creek."
Apparently, in solving those issues, the new permit-based regulation has been very successful.
In hopes of covering administration and enforcement costs, the city had originally planned to charge for the permit, but one of the conditions to obtain the BRR was that it "be free and available to anyone and everyone," Leblanc remarks. Hence, costs have been included in the city's budget, and enforcement is now the responsibility of the Vancouver Police Department. The pricey tag comes with benefits, though, as it offers a means to identify the owner of the vessel and a mechanism to set minimum standards — for instance, related to basic seaworthiness of the vessel and code of conduct.
After the BRR came into effect in 2006, anchoring was restricted to a number of days per month. This meant displacing and relocating long-stay liveaboards and boaters, which was easier said than done. For one thing, waiting lists at Vancouver's marinas can be several years' long. Here, Bill Sassaman, who moved to Cowichan Bay after eight years in False Creek, highlights the issue of a shortage of slips in marinas across B.C.
The British Columbia Nautical Residents Association (BCNR), of which Bill is currently a director, believes the shortage has a lot to do with the hundreds of American boats tied up to Canadian docks. According to Bill, American boaters cannot resist the charm of B.C. waters. With the intention of working on their boats, our neighbours can easily obtain a clearance number, which allows them to keep their boats for a full year in B.C. harbours. At the end of their time limit, they cross the border for the weekend, get their HST back, and then they can simply come back. "This doesn't help when we have Canadian boats anchored all over the place," Bill complains.
For other boaters who used to live in False Creek, slip shortage was the least of their worries, as they couldn't afford to pay for moorage. Leblanc points out that Homeless Coordinators helped those who had nowhere else to go. But False Creek wasn't just a home to the homeless: "The community of boaters who lived there was very diverse," in Donna Sassaman's words.
Donna, Bill's wife and partner in love for life on the water, draws a wide smile on her face as she remembers her neighbours from back then: skilled trades single men, couples, artists, professionals... "Diversity is a really positive thing; it promotes tolerance and acceptance." Her voice is vibrant as she continues to talk: "And liveaboards create very strong communities at a dock or in an anchorage. We watch out for each other, collaborate on projects, enjoy pot-luck suppers..."
The "new" anchoring restrictions may not allow much time for neighbourly relations to develop, but Richard McDonald, who is the welcoming face at the False Creek Boater Welcome Centre, is adamant that the area "looks nicer and tidier, and visitors enjoy it more." So rightly or wrongly, the City of Vancouver may have achieved its goals, frequently earning media attention that nowadays portrays the city as a world-class boating destination.
When asked what he thinks about this and what he learned from his fight to protect False Creek's liveaboards' rights, however, Bill Sassaman doesn't hesitate: "As far as I'm concerned, it's not over yet."
Low cloud; fine Squamish rain. The small launch takes us slowly across the Mamquam Blind Channel. The big barge, with several boats tied to its sides, looms closer and closer, its ghostly appearance gradually breaking through the faint, wintry evening light.
Only a few days before, I had met Steen Larsen, unexpectedly, at the government dock. I couldn't believe my luck: This was the man behind all the watercraft by the old sawmill site. The well-mannered Dane hardly had to be asked; he'd be "glad to show me his boats and his barge."
A couple of days later, I study him as he operates the launch: tall, strongly framed; big, adept hands; weather-toned, life-thickened skin; short, marine-like hair; fair, visor-like brow over blue eyes, deep within their caves; stern gaze fixed ahead.
Bonk! — a gentle bump against a wooden hull. The Elf steals my attention right away. She's a beautiful piece of work, a well-built, sturdy tugboat from 1902 with a fitting name: ELF, meaning "graceful, water beast of burden" in the old Runic symbol language.
Once aboard, jumping from boat to boat towards the barge is a delicate job, and we take our time; Steen fills it enthusiastically with the stories behind each of the vessels. It's almost dark by the time we reach the barge. The massive, cave-like structure is virtually empty; only a big excavator stands alert, in working pose, as if ready to act on Steen's work plans. He rewards it with a long, pensive look and the trace of a smile.
The warm galley of the Elf offers a welcome respite against the chill of the night. Steen talks as we pull our seats close to the stove. His English is clear and well-pronounced. His vocabulary is rich and educated. His knowledge is ample; history, world affairs, law... you name it.
The animated conversation makes me feel courageous, and I dive straight in: "Why do you keep your boats in this spot, Steen?" I read surprise in his eyes. "There's nowhere else for me to go," he exclaims. "I'd prefer to be in a location that offers dock-side moorage, power and land access, but we have no such facilities in Squamish." I continue to prod: "I've heard that you don't have the right to anchor here." He frowns. "Who says? These are federal waters for all Canadian citizens to share."
But are they? The three levels of government "are in the final stages of determining their respective jurisdictions in relation to this particular waterlot to understand how to move forward," DOS Communications Manager Christina Moore writes from municipal hall. Officials cite pollution concerns and the potential for undesirable precedents as fuelling the need to resolve the situation.
From his part, Andrew Guilbride, Squamish Harbour Authority (SHA) chair, is mostly worried about vessels and floating structures that may not be maintained to minimum safety standards. Andrew has been following the recent sinking of derelict boats in Britannia Beach, and he thinks it's just a matter of time before Squamish has its own environmental disaster. His tone comes with a hint of annoyance over the phone: "The SHA's authority stops at the edge of the dock, but we can have an opinion; this issue affects us all."
Islands Trust Council Chair Sheila Malcolmson couldn't agree more. A big part of her organization's efforts are dedicated to bringing the problem of derelict boats to the local, provincial and federal governments' attention. Sheila argues that "the B.C. coast is becoming littered with an increasing number of abandoned vessels, docks and floats because senior governments aren't taking responsibility for the issue at all. Local governments don't have the authority and can't afford to absorb the clean-up and removal costs."
I look up at Steen; he has no trouble translating my querying glance: "My boats are environmentally safe and will not sink, you can be sure of that."
"As it stands today, the District doesn't consider the Mamquam Blind Channel a place to live," affirms Neil Plumb, DOS real estate manager. This could be the foghorn that signals change in the air. Any steps taken to alter Squamish's waterscape may affect not only Steen, but his out-of-bounds neighbours as well: an artist who paints the beauty of the Squamish landscape from his boat, tied to an old piling; a young couple with a latté-coloured cat, used to negotiating the edges of the deck, the mess of sails and the lines; a full-sized family — dog, kids and all — who decided to settle on the Blind Channel's waters after sailing around the world…
Each may be an independent soul, but the uncertainty of their future puts them all on the same boat. Unsurprisingly, though, Steen will not simply sit there and wait to be moved away. "Until then," he says, "I will get on with my dreams and live my own life; limits exist only in the mind."
In Part 3, the marine strategy that the District of Squamish has recently started working on could stir up favourable winds along the waterfront and make waves for Squamish's downtown and the Sea to Sky Corridor. See how in the March 28 edition of The Chief.