A Life at Sea

By Enise Olding

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In 1955, Port Alberni teenager Garett Ollander and his friend had saved their money and were on their way to a local dance when an off-the-cuff remark to some other lads resulted in fisticuffs. Garett never made it to the dance. Instead, he found himself in jail with blood dancing across his clean shirt. It was the turning point in his life. “Being thrown in jail was the best thing that ever happened,” he says. While the idea, he now realizes, was to give him a scare and turn him lose, the result was Garett making a choice that sent his life in a direction he’d never imagined. 


Garett’s enthusiasm for the sea had kept him active and occupied throughout his childhood when, for extra pocket money, he’d catch and sell fish, make himself useful around the boats, sometimes building packing boxes for the cannery and going out on boats whenever he could. Growing up around ships, fishing boats and hanging around the waterfront was Garett’s childhood both in Port Alberni and, for a while, in Steveston. By age 12, he worked as a deckhand on a fishing boat and was out on the west coast swells after salmon. “I just loved it,” he says, “I never got seasick and I had nothing but energy.” 


As time went on, he found himself in some pretty rugged company as he worked first as a waterboy for the men who packed lumber in the holds of the ships, and then eventually doing that work himself for three years. He fit in, worked hard, got stronger and he thought this was how his life would be. But the tussle outside the Midway Café on the way to the dance changed all that.


In jail, one of the police officers told Garett there was a job opening for a deckhand on an RCMP boat, and if he didn’t take the opportunity to apply for it, he’d find himself in jail a lot throughout his life. Although the idea of being in the RCMP had never occurred to Garett, he didn’t think twice and took that opportunity. “I loved boats and thought this would be great - live on the boat and travel around.”


Garett was with the RCMP Marine Division from 1955 to 1963 and his travels on the 65’ ex-airforce boat took him to all the logging camps, mines, canneries and settlements along the west coast of Vancouver Island. “There wasn’t anyone we were not in contact with,” he says, “including Cougar Annie.” Known for the garden she created out of the wilderness in Boat Basin, Cougar Annie’s reputation as a local character was well-known to the five aboard the RCMP boat.  True to her name, she hefted a shotgun and shot errant cougars, and tried to sell one of the skins to Garett.


When the boat called in to Cougar Annie’s place “we would take a small boat in,” recalls Garett. “One day, I could see a dead killer whale on the beach and thought I could see someone behind it. Sure enough, it was Cougar Annie and she was cutting chunks off the whale with a cross-cut sword,” he laughs, “she told us she’d render it down for chicken feed!”


Garett relished this life: the travel, the experiences, performing much needed services and treasures special memories of backpacking trips into the mountains with local people. “I couldn’t wish for a better life,” he confirms. And during this time, under the tutelage of the officers, he studied and got his 3rd Mates Ticket, then his 2nd Mates Ticket and his Masters Ticket on May 20th, 1960. He also studied in Vancouver when the Small Vessels Regulations came into force and in Ottawa for RCMP Marine Division training. By then, he was aboard the 100’ Fairmile design steel boat with a crew of 13.


Changing course in 1963, Garett joined the Coast Guard, where he’d be involved in rescues and patrols. He particularly enjoyed visiting the various lighthouses along the coast. A couple of years later, he saw the 5,000-tonne ice breaker the Camsell, and thought “I would like to get on that!” And he did.


Garett, along with a crew of 51 aboard the Camsell, headed to the Arctic, where their job was to assist all shipping such as small tankers, tugs and barges.  “We departed Victoria 15th June and worked our way up the B.C. coast to Prince Rupert where we took on final stores and the helicopter, and then headed across the North Pacific to the Bering Straits, then across the top of Alaska and into Canadian water,” Garett recalls. 


Garett took up photography and on every occasion possible he’d leave the ship and capture images of the landscape and life around him. On one such excursion, when he was being transported by helicopter to take pictures of the ship coming through some impressively heavy ice, he was about to alight when he changed his mind for a better location. Lucky for him because as they were pulling away, he spotted a polar bear the other side of the rise with which he would have come face to face.


Garett has many more experiences as captain onboard private vessels: laying undersea cables, towing boats, travelling to Australia, China, Norway, England, Holland and the U.S. as a marine consultant, and running the famed *Lady Rose* for a year, of which Garett says, “I’ve never enjoyed anything so much because there were people from all over the world aboard.”


Garett lives in Nanaimo now and styles himself a storyteller. “I enjoy sharing my life experiences in all phases of life with anyone who likes to share,” he says. Those pictures he took on his many trips are now edited, and form three digital presentations that many groups have enjoyed: from the Newcomers Club to the Legion. Images and yarns, stories and artifacts, Garett welcomes the chance to share them all.


To contact Garett, e-mail him at: garett-g@shaw.ca

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