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Maritime memoir offers insight into seafaring adventures

The great ships abandoned on the sea made a lasting impression on Herbert J. Rees.
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Handout photo

The great ships abandoned on the sea made a lasting impression on Herbert J. Rees. One of his first Maritime memories was sliding past the hulk of the British battleship The HMS Montagu, which ran impossibly aground in the Bristol Channel near Lundy Isle in 1906. Rees and his vessel went by shortly afterward.

There was one of the pillars of the British Empire's naval might, deflated on the rocks like a popped balloon. The power of oceanic nature was obviously still more powerful and they were churning straight into it. Such is every sailor's constant daily duty.

There was something sad and frightening about such complete disconnection between the incredible machines of the sea and the community of engineers and seamen that built and operated them.

Rees charted his life's course directly into many such calamities. The ravages of weather and the savagery of war were frequent shipmates. He sailed the seven seas, faced the four strong winds and survived a thousand adventures. He was an engineer in the British Mercantile Navy from 1903-14. Anyone with a map of history will know the astonishing terror and triumph atop the world's waves during those years, most notably summed up as the First World War. The German navy took particular efforts to target the merchant ships, in order to cripple the British-Allied supply lines.

Rees's vivid recollections formed an eye-popping narrative, but it might well have been set adrift and sunk forever beneath the waves of time had a dedicated crew of relatives, some of them anchored in Prince George, not salvaged the captain's log just in time.

The story was written. This was already far more than most who lived encyclopedic lives only to have the memories and assessments die with them. But the tale was nonetheless in danger of coming to pieces until twin sisters Ella Rodenkirchen of the Okanagan and Johanna Jenkins of Prince George put new wind in those sails.

Rees retired from the sea in 1914 and moved to Canada. He passed away in 1966 while living in Edmonton. He was 84 full, busy years old.

"He was actually Wop May's teacher, after he was called to work for the Canadian Air Force because of his mechanical knowledge," said Jenkins, referring to the famed Canadian pilot.

According to his daughters, he wrote no other accounts of his life except the unpublished manuscript of his seafaring years.

"We grew up with a lot of these stories," said Jenkins, who has lived in P.G. since 1969. "Dad would share them with us as we grew up. He would always take us to the wharves in Vancouver. We would meet the captains of the ships, we would invite them home for dinner, we loved going up the gangplanks."

The written version sat in the hands of their half-brother until his own death in 1997. Then the pile of paper came their way. Rodenkirchen didn't take action right away, but eventually tackled the project with zeal. It has been a five-year passion project that is finally printed and on the bookstore shelves.

The more she read, the more she was amazed. Researching and refining the manuscript only added excitement.

"These were really wonderful stories. Who wouldn't want to hear them?," Rodenkirchen said. "There was the time their ship was attacked by a German battleship. They were facing Capt. (Karl von) Mller of the Emden, and he'd been having a very good day. The Emden had sunk three British merchant ships already, and dad's ship was the fourth, but not one British seaman's life was lost. You see, Capt. Mller believed in the highest rules of engagement. He would warn the other ships and allow them to transfer their crews over to his ship before blowing up the British vessels. Dad got to witness that and be part of that interesting bit of war history. And the British never forgot that. After the war, Capt. Mller was called to a special dinner in his honour for saving all those lives even though he still carried out his duties of war, and my father was one of those lives."

From the waters of the Arctic to the Antarctic and around the coastlines of virtually every continent, the stories unfurled in Rees's hand-typed account. The ship had to make a floating anchor, once, out of big chunks of wood and other flotsam.

They sailed into political tensions on places like The Dardanelles, Constantinople, Crimea and the sisters took note that these places are still headline news spots today.

He set the manuscript down as one continuous narrative. There were no chapter breaks, a lot of repetition, and a great many things needed proper verification. Turning Rees's stream of consciousness into a palatable book was a consuming job, but turned the family into quasi cartographers, historians, and eventually bookmakers. They self-published the volume, calling it Ship Ahoy: A True Life Sea Story.

Rodenkirchen said "she enjoyed every minute" of the research and composition process. She called it "a story of murderers, thieves, swindlers, hurricanes, sweltering heat and bone-chilling cold, all in the service of bringing trade goods to the world."

Jenkins' husband Dave said "I only met him briefly, but you'd never forget him. He was such a proper Welsh gentleman, so well-appointed and prim all the time."

Rees became father to the sisters very late in his life, and they are now retired themselves. It sets the story back quite a chronological distance, making it a rare account to come out now only the one generation removed from firsthand experience. Most books published about adventuresome parents these days pertain to the Second World War or even earlier. This one is a rare account of the First World War and rarer still that it pertains to the naval setting. Most Canadian stories of that era talk about the gruesome ground fight or the air war our pilots played such a large role in.

For that reason, Ship Ahoy has been snapped up by institutions like the Royal Vancouver Yacht Club's library and that of the Vancouver Maritime Museum.

It is more important to the sisters that this book be available for historical context, more than any aspirations of bestseller sales. Anyone interested in this unique chapter of history, through the eyes of a man who became Canadian and raised a family that deeply touched even landlocked Prince George, can find Ship Ahoy by Herbert J. Rees at Books & Company.