Very few seafarers can claim they know the entirety of British Columbia’s coastal waters inside and out, but Capt. Norm Craddock just may be one of them.
The 60-year veteran of the B.C. fishing, ferrying and boating industry can be found these days at the Prince Rupert Seafarers’ Centre – an oft-forgotten establishment, but an extremely critical one in hosting the hundreds of sailors who dock at Rupert’s shores and giving them some of the comforts of home.
The captain wasn’t born in Rupert – he’s a product of Chilliwack – but he came to the North Coast town in 1954 at the age of 20.
Fresh out of bible college and ready for what life would throw at him, Capt. Craddock didn’t know at that point that he’d spend the majority of his days on the water, but he had some experience working with boats before arriving.
“The denomination I was involved with had a mission-ship in this area for a number of years and the family that was operating it was leaving. They were looking for somebody and they asked me if I’d come up here and I was young and looking for adventure,” said Craddock.
At that time the city was bustling with activity. With a brand new mill opening up and fishing charters, canneries and commercial fisheries on the rise, Rupert was the place to be in northern B.C.
Visiting the various villages and canneries, including places as far away as Hazelton, Craddock and his colleagues had their hands full with the various communities in the area. But soon enough the sea would call him home.
After spot duty working with CN Rail, the Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) was looking for a captain for a patrol boat. That would launch Craddock into a life at sea which, like the tides roaring against the harbour here, still hasn’t let up.
The captain bought an ex-halibut boat and rigged it up for trolling, shrimp-dragging and salmon-fishing.
While doing that, he met a Prince Rupert woman – Madeline Sklapsky – whose family had moved to the city just a few years before himself. More than a few Prince Rupert couples might be able to relate to the conditions facing Craddock’s and Sklapsky’s wedding day of Nov. 21, 1957.
“The day before was a beautiful, sparkling, bright, sunny November day,” he recalled.
“And then a storm moved in and the day of our wedding, we had rain coming down, but it was also horizontal.”
The adventure didn’t stop with their monsoon nuptials.
On their way to Terrace to fly to Vancouver for their honeymoon, they ran into a bit of a snag on the highway.
“We got on a bus and headed for Terrace. In those days, the pulp mill monitored water levels on Prudhomme Lake. They built a dam on Kloya Creek to feed water into the mill and they monitored that level,” he explained.
“When there was a lot of rain, somebody would go and open the gates to let the water down. Well, somebody forgot and the bus driver we had was an adventurous type of guy. When we got out there, the water was all over the road. He said ‘the bus must go through!’ and so we ended up ploughing through a bunch of water and it died.”
So, Capt. Craddock and Sklapsky waited on the road with their wet luggage down below in the bus’ compartments. When they finally returned to Rupert after the highway patrol trucks lifted them out of the highway’s pool, they were able to leave on a midnight union steamship boat for Vancouver.
But in the meantime while they were waiting, a landslide came down on Wantage Road, killing approximately eight citizens, with the lone survivor being a baby in a carriage who had somehow made it through the rubble. The captain remembers it like it was yesterday.
“She’s come back to Prince Rupert a number of times years later,” he said.
During Canada’s centennial year in 1967, Capt. Craddock and his fishing partner took two boats and traveled across the continent to reach Nova Scotia and Newfoundland. It took them 50 days to reach the east coast from Vancouver.
“We had a great trip. We spent the summer there and family came out. We fished in Newfoundland in the winter.”
After being involved with various fisheries on the North Coast in the late ’60s, he received formal training from a nautical college in Terrace to receive his Transport Canada certification and it would be the last time that Capt. Craddock would live on the North Coast for 35 years.
Moving to Vancouver Island and working for Rivtow Straits Tugboats three weeks on and three weeks off, the captain was just settling into a life that would take him up and down the coast as a mate, captain and senior office official.
“Me, my wife and three [daughters] moved into the Courtenay area,” he said.
Transitioning into BC Ferries just as the organization was amalgamating with the Ministry of Highways and expanding rapidly, Craddock was named a captain within a year and navigated inter-island waters.
The captain travelled along Alert Bay, Port McNeill and Sointula for eight and a half years as his young family grew up.
“Then an opportunity came to come back down to the Lower Mainland. By then I got a position as senior captain on the Albion-Fort Langley ferry and that ferry, in those days, ran 24 hours a day and it was a free ferry. So, I spent most of my time on the ship and in the office because I had a huge staff and we handled over a million cars a year on that run,” said Capt. Craddock.
The captain eventually moved back one last time off the mainland to Quadra Island to become a senior master in charge of that route. In his last three years, he was a marine superintendent out of Comox.
Capt. Craddock enjoyed a grand total of two weeks of retirement after turning 65 when he was approached by Courtenay’s North Island College’s nautical department to teach. He did, for four years.
“It was supposed to be part-time, but it ended up being full-time … They put on marine emergency duties courses … safety and lifesaving and survival and those kinds of things,” he said.
Upon moving back to Prince Rupert in 2005, Capt. Craddock was coming home to family. Madeline’s family still resides on the North Coast and two of their daughters live in Terrace as an RN and a paramedic.
“Rupert had changed quite a bit in 35 years … But the people of Prince Rupert are still the same. They’re still an open, friendly, generous people,” he said.
Now, volunteering almost every evening with the Prince Rupert Seafarers’ Centre as chairman, the captain is still in contact with sailors across the globe.
“I think I can empathize with the sailors. I understand where they’re coming from … The majority [that we see coming in] right now are Chinese and Filipino [sailors]. Most of them speak Mandarin, they’re from mainland China. Communicating can be a challenge, but we work through it … Most of these people from [some of the] Asian countries don’t have all the blessings that we have in North America, like free education and health care,” he said.
“We’re very privileged in our country, so these people sacrifice a lot of home life and a lot of extras in order to go away and make a living away from home. So we try to make it a little easier on them.”