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Three generations of Wahls honoured with B.C. maritime award

Family of shipbuilders from Prince Rupert and Dodge Cove crafted more than 1,100 commercial vessels
Lorne Knutson, Ed Wahl and Ryan Wahl accepting the prestigious B.C. Maritime Museum SS Beaver Award on Nov. 6, 2018. (Photo submitted by Lorne Knutson)

An entire family of boat builders with roots in Prince Rupert has been honoured with the prestigious B.C. Maritime Museum SS Beaver Award.

“To be recognized at this level is definitely a very proud moment for our family,” said Ryan Wahl, who wrote Legacy In Wood: The Wahl Family Boat Builders.

Ed Wahl, a third-generation shipwright, accepted the award for maritime excellence on behalf of the family. He received the honour on Nov. 6 from the Lieutenant Governor, Janet Austin, at the Government House in Victoria.

It all started in 1923. His grandfather, also named Ed Wahl immigrated to B.C.’s North Coast from Norway and set up shop in Port Essington. There he built his first wooden fish boat. The family later settled in Dodge Cove, where the original boat shed still stands. In the decades that followed, the Wahls continued to craft gillnetters for the canneries along the Skeena River.

During World War Two, the family worked hard to meet the demand for fish boats as canned salmon was shipped overseas for the war effort.

“In the war, we were directly supporting canneries and providing canned goods. They had their own fleet of gillnetters,” Ryan said.

The Wahl family has built more than 1,100 commercial vessels that are known for their distinct hulls. “They were real innovators and superb craftsmen,” said former Rupertite, Lorne Knutson, who nominated the family for the award.

“They’re really noted for their sea kindly design, large flaired bows and they were the first guys who built a stern that wasn’t flat or canoe shaped. It had rounded corners, very distinctive lines that helped with seaworthiness and practical utility of the working deck,” he said.

In the mid-sixties, when Knutson was 15 years old, he worked in the Fairview yard as a helper. He remembers jobs such as bringing steam heated planks to the shipwrights who installed them on the rib framing of the vessels under construction or repair. Now, Knutson is a volunteer with the Maritime Museum of B.C. and he assists with the putting on the annual Classic Boat Festival in Victoria.

“Last year, we had 83 classic boats that came as far away as California, and 10-12,000 people came. Guess whose boats were there?” He said.

Wahl boats can be found up and down the coast of North America. Many of the fish boats have been maintained and converted into cabin cruisers, or liveaboards.

“They’re given a second life,” Ryan said.

READ MORE: Maritime Museum marks 100th anniversary of the ‘Unknown Titanic of the West Coast’

The SS Beaver award

Four B.C. residents received the limited SS Beaver Award in 2018, including Don Krusel, retired president and CEO of the Port of Prince Rupert. The Wahls were honoured with special distinction for the impact they left on the province’s maritime heritage.

The award they received has its own story. The SS Beaver was the first steamboat on the west coast of North America. It travelled up and down the B.C. coast for 52 years until it ran aground on Prospect Point, near Vancouver in 1888. Much of the material was sold and repurposed. The Maritime Museum received some of the salvaged metal material and had it melted down and shaped into 100 minted medals, about the size of a quarter, which were then gold plated.

The Maritime Museum began handing out these awards in 2012. The Wahls received the 69th medal.

Although Ed is still repairing boats in Langely, his second cousin Ryan, who lives in Nanaimo, chose a different career path.

“It stopped at my dad’s generation. I came along and the whole industry was on the downside,” he said.

The last boat built by the family was launched in 1990. The 40-foot by 12.5-foot wooden troller was crafted in the Dodge Cove shipyard by Ryan’s grandfather for his son, Larry Wahl. This final boat was appropriately named Legacy.

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A Wahl gillnett boat delivered to the North Pacific Cannery. (Photo submitted by Ryan Wahl)
The Legacy was the last boat built by the Wahl family in 1990. (Photo submitted by Ryan Wahl)