My oversized black gumboots thumped against my shins with every step. I was walking fast to keep up with my parents, who set a brisk pace down the ramp of the Maple Bay harbour dock. I didn’t want to get left behind; we were going to look at a new-to-us boat – a big boat, and I was determined to be among the first to see it.

It was an exciting day to be a six year old boy. I greedily eyed on row upon row of gleaming white pleasure boats. Polished brass glistened in the sun. “I wonder which one will be ours?” I thought out loud.

Up ahead, something strange stuck out. Nestled between two specimens of flawless fiberglass lay a squat boat with a square cabin. It was painted Tony the Tiger orange, or at least used to be; peeling paint and rust spots made it look more like Tony with a bad rash. Painted in bold black letters across her stern was “Kingalik”, which we would later learn is an inuit word for “fat duck”, a somewhat appropriate, but utterly unflattering moniker.

“Gosh, I hope it’s not that one” I thought.

Had I been a little older and had even the slightest grasp of the finances of fledgling kayak tour companies, I might have been prepared for what came next. As it was, my heart sank a little as seemingly unphased, my parents walked straight up to the boat.

A man in blue coveralls and scruffy beard popped his head out of the cabin. “You’re here” he said. Then, perhaps sensing my distaste, added, “It’s a little rough around the edges, but the engine’s strong”.

We learned that the boat had been constructed as a tanker tender, and had spent several years carting crew and supplies to and from bigger boats in the Canadian Arctic.

The big diesel engine started with a throaty rumble and we pulled away from the floating palaces. Out in the open ocean, the boat seemed more at home, and when the salty captain let me steer with the big wooden wheel, I was sold.  

Upon purchase, the boat was given a significant overhaul. It received several coats of new paint, as well as a set of kayak racks. It also underwent informal re-christening as the “Chico Mendes”, named in honor of the Brazilian rubber tapper, union leaders, and activist who was assassinated in 1988. Chico Mendes brought rainforest destruction and the plight of local peoples to international attention, and he remains an environmental icon and hero to this day. Replete in its new green colours and handmade wooden name plate, the boat looked quite charming.

For 25 years, the Chico Mendes rumbled its way through the Discovery Islands, becoming one of the area’s most recognizable vessels in the process. Chico was hard to miss, especially with the load of kayaks it often carried! If you did happen to miss it at first glance, Chico would likely still be in view some time later, given its modest cruising speed of 8 knots. We estimate that skipper Ralph spent approximately 3000 hours transporting at least 2500 kayakers and countless loads of lumber and building supplies.  

These days, the Chico Mendes has begun to show its age. Creeping rust has pocked its steel body and it’s become near impossible to find replacement parts for the aged Volvo engine.

Anticipating that a replacement vessel might be needed, we spent weeks combing through used boat listings, but ultimately settled on the option of a custom built boat. Welded in Courtenay BC, the new 34 ft aluminum cabin cruiser was specially designed to haul groups of kayakers in and out of remote areas. A door in the side of the gunwale allows easy entrance and exit of kayaks, and even makes loading and unloading of doubles a cinch. A generous beam allows for stability with a large load of kayaks and equipment, and lets the boat cruise at a brisk 25 kt: more than twice the speed of the Chico Mendes, and with similar overall fuel efficiency. We sometimes miss the slow, thoughtful pace of the Chico Mendes, but also appreciate the fact that less time spent in a power boat means more time kayaking.

Chico Mendes remains in the family, albeit as a work boat rather than a people mover. We debated selling it, but determined that it would be akin to ripping out a piece of Ralph’s soul. While we love the speed and grace of the new boat, we’ll always have a soft spot in our hearts for the rhythmic thrum of that old diesel.

On its last run carrying passengers, the Chico Mendes chugged diligently into the Quadra Island harbour, waited until everyone was safely unloaded, and promptly overheated. I think it was its own way of announcing retirement.

Written by: Albert Keller