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Tidewater Topics: Barrie Farrell, Boatbuilder Extraordinaire

'He was regarded as some kind of artistic genius by his friends, and I picked up on this because I regarded myself the same way'

I first met Barrie Farrell in 1952 when he was 18 and I was 7. We were living in a small 10-man logging camp on Nelson Island and my dad had hired him sight unseen on the recommendation of some older boys from Pender Harbour who were in camp doing some of the low-end jobs like setting chokers and stowing logs in the boom. The camp’s previous hard-luck owner, Harold Pearson, had warned Dad not to hire local guys from Pender Harbour “Because come June they’ll all walk out on ya ta go fishin.” Which turned out to be largely true. But Vancouver was a long way away and the hiring agency kept sending up card sharps and hopheads and the Pender guys kept coming up in their own fishboats begging for work so they wore dad down. Anyway, they were all big strapping lads in their early 20s and after convincing them to give up their gumboots for caulks, they made passable chokermen. 

Barrie was different. He might have been 18 but he looked 12. He was spectre-thin. It looked like a strong gust would blow him away. He was so shy you could hardly get a word out of him and he spoke so softly you could barely hear what he said. He had no experience logging. Dad would have sent him back except he kept saying “Don’t worry Mr. White, I’m a good worker.” That sounded funny coming from a kid who looked like he should be in Sunday School, but he was so eager Dad decided to give him a chance. 

The kid wasn’t lying. He set chokers like a whirling dervish. What’s more he was whip smart. He never got caught in the bight like some of the older guys. What dad didn’t know is that by age 18, Barrie had been doing hard physical work at least 10 years. Chopping wood, salvaging lumber, jigging cod, helping his mum survive when she was between partners. And he’d already built six boats. Row boats mostly but at least one runabout. And from the very first, those boats were eye-catchers—pretty lines, beautiful finishing with lots of varnish and artistic patterns of alternating red and yellow cedar. 

He was regarded as some kind of artistic genius by his friends, and I picked up on this because I regarded myself the same way. I spent most of my spare time drawing boats, mostly blocky looking things pushing big bow-waves. But my drawings earned me quite a bit of renown around the cookhouse table and the logging truck driver, who knew a lot of big words, said I should become a naval architect. I wore that title like a badge and felt a bit challenged having a competitor in camp. So I decided to draw up my best boat, a kind of cross between a tug and a yacht, ploughing down Agamemnon Channel pushing a huge bow wave, and I took this to the big bunkhouse to present to Barrie, kind of like throwing down the gauntlet. Barrie was busy playing poker and just told me to leave on his bunk so he could look at it later. I couldn’t wait to hear his verdict and checked in the next day as soon as the boys came down the hill. 

To my dismay, I found my masterpiece on the floor covered with caulk boot prints. I was crestfallen and on the point of tears which the other guys found amusing but Barrie came to my rescue. He told me it was a wonderful piece of work except for one thing: I had forgot to put in any clouds. “If you go outside right now and look up at the sky, what will you see? Clouds. So any picture has to have clouds, and these prick marks from the caulk boots, those are the raindrops because when you have clouds you also have rain. So your picture isn’t ruined, it just got more realistic.” Then he stuck it on the wall, covering a pinup of Betty Grable. 

I had a vague feeling of being suckered, but Barrie was so kind and so attentive, I couldn’t help but feel better. So there you have two important insights about Barrie, right from square one. He had a heart as big as Georgia Strait. And he wasn’t afraid of hard work. In fact my dad pronounced Barrie “a working fool” which was actually his highest praise, because he was the champion of all working fools himself. 

As many know, Barrie went on to become one of the West Coast’s most outstanding boat designers and builders, pioneering moulded fibreglass to create a new kind of fishboat that was fast, functional and sexy to look at. Over the course of his working career, which lasted into his mid-eighties, he launched over 300 vessels, most of which are still giving good service. I am the lucky owner of one. 

When Barrie died last October, the whole B.C. waterfront went into mourning and a flotilla of workboats, many of them Farrells, paraded through Pender Harbour to spread his ashes. It was a moving tribute to a kid from the Sunshine Coast whose genius and energy changed the look of the B.C. fishing fleet, though he never really profited from his efforts because of his soft heart.