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New honour for old ship

The Robert Kerr ship received a new plaque on March 4

A century to the day after running aground and sinking just north of Thetis Island, one of B.C.’s most significant shipwrecks will received a ‘re-plaquing’  on March 4.In 1911, the Robert Kerr, a 190-ft. barque first launched in 1866 by the Hudson’s Bay Co., was running coal for the Canadian Pacific Railway, which had converted the sailing vessel to a barge in 1888.Heavily laden and running behind a towboat on March 4, 1911, the ship struck a reef and was abandoned once much of the coal was removed.The March 4 underwater installation, which will replace a plaque originally placed in the early 1980s, will be conducted by the Underwater Archaeological Society of B.C.Among the handful of divers taking part is David Hill-Turner, Nanaimo Museum curator and president of the UASBC, who said the Robert Kerr would have been a familiar sight in Departure Bay during its coal-hauling days, taking payloads from the Wellington mine and later bearing coal from the Extension mine out of Ladysmith Harbour.“There was a fleet of these things travelling to and from Vancouver,” said Hill-Turner, adding that of the hundreds of wrecks in the waters around Vancouver Island, the Robert Kerr is one of just seven recognized under B.C.’s Heritage Conservation Act.It is also one of the most spectacular and most intact, said Peter Luckham, a Thetis Island-based dive master and guide who regularly visits the site.The bow, keel, decking timbers, mast and mast hoops – even a rope, now laden with a sea urchin – are all well-preserved in eight to 15 metres of water.“When you’re down there and you’re diving it, you can clearly see that the skipper had a bad day,” said Luckham. “You can clearly see that it just plowed into this rock ... and there it sank.”Prior to becoming a coal barge, the Robert Kerr was owned by the Hastings Sawmill and used as the temporary home of the mill owner. It became ‘The ship that saved Vancouver’ when fire raged through the city on June 13, 1886 and residents fleeing for their lives took refuge aboard the vessel.While out for Friday’s dive, members of the society also expect to place a new plaque on the steamship Miami, a steel collier that went down nearby in 1900.By recognizing the wrecks, the society also hopes to raise greater public awareness of our marine heritage in general.“It’s also to remind people that a lot of our heritage is underwater,” said Hill-Turner.

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