Tofino History Lesson; The NorVan Ferry on Strawberry Island

The infamous NorVan ferry of Strawberry Island has faithfully served the coast for over a century. Now she’s helping save the Sound she calls home.   

In the late-day light of Tofino, boats glimmer in their moorings as the tides pull through the Inlet. One shines brighter than most. Despite the NorVan’s weatherworn wooden appearance, this seemingly ancient relic of coastal history is notable not only for its tales, but because it might just be the most famous boat in Tofino. It’s also become the inspiration to an important steward of the salty waters below her landlocked location.

Commissioned in 1900 and built by an H. Kenworthy, with a length of 82’, a width of 20’ 1″ (known as a beam to the boat fans), and a volume of 82.79 tons, the NorVan was originally dubbed the North Vancouver. The steam-powered vessel featured a boiler engine and hit the water for the first time on May 12th, 1900.

Almost immediately, the boiler became a problem. The OG captain—Captain Gosse—hated how often it broke down and quit. Subsequent captains came aboard and broke piers and wharves with their inexperience. Even the boat took on damage.  Eventually, in the interest of not sinking the North Vancouver or destroying every dock from Deep Cove to Ambleside, Gosse returned.

Over the following decades, many would own her, from the city of North Vancouver to North Vancouver Ferry and Power Company to North Vancouver City Ferries Ltd…but she always did the same damn thing—moving people across Burrard Inlet to the city of Vancouver as a ferry boat. Until 1919, that is. Rebuilt to 65 feet at Vancouver Shipyard, she started her new life as a tugboat in 1925. The update also came with a name change. The NorVan pulled hard for over 25 years. Eventually the steam engine became so outdated and the good ship was retired.

So how did she get to Tofino, you ask? In 1958, a crab fisherman named Percy Wilson Howes bought NorVan and towed it from Burrard Inlet to Tofino Harbour. He anchored her in front of Neilson Island, the one hidden behind Strawberry Island as viewed from Tofino Resort + Marina. When Percy perished in 1971, a caretaker/executor named Tom Grant reportedly made $5 a day to watch the ship, overseeing expensive machining equipment and Lowe’s estate. The ghostly presence of Percy could be felt aboard the boat, according to Grant. In October 1971, A.W. (Sandy) Bradshaw bought the NorVan for $6600—mostly for the machine shop equipment. Not long after, Rod Palm bought the boat for only $2000—sans shop equipment—and moved his family in. Six years later, he hauled it out of the water onto Strawberry Island. Palm says it sits “close to a meter above the highest recorded tide in Clayoquot Sound.”

For awhile the NorVan became home to the Strawberry Isle Marine Research Society (SIMRS), a registered charity “dedicated to conducting long-term research and monitoring, providing emergency marine mammal response, and educating the public about marine ecosystems.” The organization is currently focused on killer whale and sea star research, among other programs, and based out of offices in Tofino.

Read more about the North Vancouver ferries with Scout Magazine‘s fantastic history.

Follow SIMRS on Instagram.