Introduction: Allen Farrell spent 69 years building over 40 wooden boats on the coast of British Columbia, Canada. With his wife Sharie, he lived for almost 50 years aboard many of their handmade vessels or homesteading on the coast, continually building wooden boats and sailing up and down North America and across the Pacific. The Farrells earned a living at times by fishing, digging clams, giving hair cuts and beachcombing. They considered that life on the sea and sustaining themselves with the local food resources was indeed a blessing that they in turn shared with all those that encountered them.
Author’s Note: I never met the Farrells, though I lived on Bowen Island, north of Vancouver, B.C. in 1974-75, and in the 1980’s sailed the length of the Salish Sea five times in my 21′ trimaran. I stopped in Lasqueti’s harbor of False Bay just once and only stayed overnight before continuing on my way. I was coompletely unaware oft the island’s reputation and culture–or I would have spent more time there!
In 1997 at the Wooden Boat Festival, I finally discovered what Lasqueti represents when I met the authors of a book about the Farrells and watched their slide show. I decided to do some more research and write a story for NW Yachting magazine that you will find below, with some additional material. Another ten years passed before I met a woman at the Seattle Folklife Festival with first-hand knowledge of Lasqueti and the Farrells.
Her name is Millie Illin and she shared some of her experiences there in some memorable conversations with me. I learned that she came from the San Pedro harbor area in southern California, and moved to Canada with her husband Larry Aites in 1973 to join the back-to-the-land movement in the Georgia Strait. They visited Lasqueti Island, met Allen Farrell, and were quickly convinced to become residents. They eventually built a float house where they lived until 1986, commuting to the government dock in a plywood dory.But I digress…..
It was another five years before I finally returned to the island in 2011, while staying in Nanaimo and researching a story for NW Yachting on this area (Gabriola–BC’s Isle of the Arts) I was alone as I had been during my first stop, but this time I traveled on the small pedestrian ferry from Frenchman’s Creek. However, I did bring my home-made kayak and stowed it on the upper deck of the MV Centurion. So I spent most of the day paddling around the island’s NE coast.
The unusually calm sea that day allowed me to safely reach the remote Fegan Island light, well offshore. On my return to False Bay, I wearily followed what I hoped was a short cut on a narrow channel that ran along the north shore. Near the end of a long hard paddle, I was very surprised to sight a stylish float house. Tucked into a tiny notch on a small rocky island, it was only visible for a moment, so I paddled closer and found it was in a remarkably sheltered and secret spot. I wondered if this could be the house I had heard about. I learned later that this was Olsen Island and that the houseboat had also been painted by Allen Farrell.
According to the book “Island Dreams: Life on a Wild Island in the Georgia Strait” by Charlie Walters, Olsen Island remained uninhabited until he bought it in 1996. He was so moved by his experience living part-time on the island that he wrote a memoir of his life there. (In 2017, Lasqueti Island remains a counter-culture outpost, still resolutely off the grid with no utilities or retail stores.)
The Farrells, the Boats They Built, and the Choices They Made
Every generation needs its heroes – and sailors are no exception. A century ago, Captain Joshua Slocum re-defined ocean cruising by sailing around the world singlehanded. Fifty years ago, Francis Chichester raced around the world alone and invented long-distance ocean racing. Today, the oceans are crowded with upwardly mobile yachtsmen and professional racers; record breaking has become an end in itself.
At the same time, there’s been another less-noticeable trend of people in Pacific N.W. pushing limits in the opposite direction. Quietly, and without publicity, a few individuals and families have taken to the water to escape the frenetic life of the cities. Their cruising grounds are the sheltered channels of Washington, British Columbia and Alaska. Their craft are a motley collection of float houses, barges, fish boats and yachts.
Needless to say, the singular types who comprise this eclectic, waterborne community set their own standards and follow their own stars. But if they needed an example to guide them, it might well be that of Allen and Sharie Farrell, the Canadian couple who sailed the northwest’s inland Salish Sea together for 50 years.
Even at the age of 85, Allen continued to live afloat, as he had since 1934, when he first set out from Vancouver, in a boat he built, to find a livelihood in the tough days of the Depression. (Sharie died in November 1996 at the age of 89.) Although I had sailed the length of the Salish Sea five times in the 1980’s, I was not aware of the Farrells or the sub-culture of Lasqueti Island.
My first contact with these unsung heroes came in a slide show at the Wooden Boat Festival in 1995, given by Canadian author Maria Coffey and her husband Dag Goering. Together they had produced a book “Sailing Back in Time,” of their participation in the Farrell’s last cruise around the Georgia Strait, sailing a refurbished dory they had found. (This is not their first book, they have previously produced “A Boat in my Baggage,” a story of kayaking and travelling around the world.)
Everywhere the two boats stopped, Allen had a story to tell. Over 60 years of coastal living, he had lived, worked and played on many remote spots on the B.C. coast and could recall every detail of encounters that took place decades ago. “Allen has a clear memory, is a stickler for detail and has told the same stories over and over again,” Maria Coffey emphasized to me.
It was thanks to the authors love of kayaking that they met the Farrells, who often anchored their beautiful 42′ junk, China Cloud, near their home on Protection Island opposite Nanaimo B.C. “Thanks for not having a motor,” Allen volunteered one day in 1988, beginning a friendship that culminated in their 1995 voyage. Allen and Sharie themselves met in a similar manner, fifty years before in 1945 in Bargain Harbour, 50 miles up the coast from Vancouver.
He was hand-lining with his youngest son from a small skiff when a friend came by in his motor launch. He exchanged glances with the young woman onboard and rowed over that evening to find out who the visitor was. So began a romance that lasted 50 years, during which time this devoted couple were never far from the water. This was not a particularly surprising turn of events, for they were already both confirmed individualists, unafraid of the tide of conformity that gripped society at the end of World War II.
Long before then, both of them had turned away from a conventional life and toward the sea as an escape from the mainstream. This urge to explore even extended to their names which they changed in the 1945, in response to the obscure, Kabalarian theory of numerology. I learned all this from a second book that I spotted a day later, purely by luck at the Wooden Boat Foundation. “Salt on the Wind” by Dan Rubin, also published in 1996, is a detailed account of Allen and Sharie’s lives, beginning in the early years of the century.
Allen was born Mallory Daniels in 1912 and grew up on a homestead on the shore of Powell Lake, upstream from the mill town of Powell River. When he was six, the company raised the level of the lake and flooded his family out — an event which would later be reflected in his strong, anti-authoritarian beliefs. Sharie was born Gladys Nightingale in 1907 in Ontario, and lived a comfortable, middle-class existence in Vancouver until 1937. That was the year she met George Dibbern, a man who would be considered remarkable even by today’s standards.
Dibbern had left his family and his native Germany to roam the world in the 32′ ketch Te Rapunga. He had cruised as far as New Zealand, then back to Canada. Sharie braved the disapproval of her mother and friends to join Dibbern and his mate, New Zealander Eileen Morris to cruise the Gulf Islands for a summer. During the winter he wrote an account of his travels, which was typed and edited by Sharie while her friend Eileen took care of the boat.
The authorities were not amused; doubtless there was much speculation over the relationships between this liberated trio. Germany was already re-arming and here was a German national claiming to be a world citizen. Furthermore, he had no visible means of support and was apparently exploiting two innocent, Canadian women! During his immigration hearing, Dibbern said he would never bear arms for Canada or any other country and was given two weeks to depart with Morris.
Sharie took the ferry from Victoria to Port Angeles, Washington (USA) and sailed down to San Francisco with them. The adventure ended there for her, but throughout the war years she continued to find ways to express her artistic and political ideals. It was through her freethinking, wartime friends that Sharie arrived in Bargain Harbour. Within a year, she and Allen had embarked on their remarkable partnership.
With her encouragement, Allen devoted himself to building his first sailing yacht, a 36′ Colin Archer type with deep bilges and a full keel. In a style that would become his trademark in later years, he began with raw yellow cedar logs, which he bought from loggers and towed down Jervis Inlet to a sawmill. Then he rowed the rafts of cut lumber back to his beach. Later on, they motored back up the inlet to find a spruce tree of about the right dimensions for the mainmast, felled it and floated it around to the shop. The rest of their materials were driftwood and they made their own paint.
After three years the schooner Wind Song was launched in 1947. (Doubtless that was an original name at the time–it is now heavily over-subscribed!) Neither of them knew very much about sailing, but they set out to learn by cruising the Canadian islands with Allen’s youngest son Keray. Between tending their garden and visiting other homesteaders, they dug for clams to provide for their needs.
On one memorable day, they secured 3,000 lbs; by 1951, they had saved $200. They were ready for the first ocean passage to Hawaii. They knew of no Canadians who had ever made this trip–it was an adventure that bordered on pure fantasy in those days. They departed Victoria at the end of June, and soon ran into a gale that tested their resolve. The weather remained cold for the first two weeks, then they experienced the warmth of the southern latitudes for the first time.
After 24 days they reached Hilo. The news appeared the next day in the Vancouver Sun, making special note that 8-year old Keray was the best sailor. Wherever they went, the daring Canadian sailors were welcomed with great hospitality; they were even offered residence as immigrants! They rode out an earthquake at anchor in Keauhou. On September 20th, they departed for Fiji setting a new main and staysail, which Allen had completed by hand onshore.
They turned the Wind Song onto a southeast course, to take them to the eastern edge of Polynesia. It meant sailing close to the wind, and resulted in a rough ride, which no one enjoyed. This was when Allen and Sharie began to doubt their devotion to the ocean cruising life and decided to turn towards New Zealand, where they thought they could re-establish themselves onshore.
On October 28th they lit the wood stove for the first time in many months; by November they were wearing all their clothes on the night watches. They reached Suva after an exhausting 56 days at sea. Without the advantages of self-steering, dacron sails or any of the more recent advances, the Farrells had crossed the Pacific Ocean. Now they were tired, homesick and unwilling to press on. Reluctantly, Allen made a For Sale sign and began looking for prospective buyers on Viti Levu.
There was no interest in yachting here–the best they could do was sell to a local shipping agent. After duty, they received $1,275. They bought tickets home on the steamer Aorangi. Four days after they left, the Wind Song was wrecked in a hurricane. With the $500 remaining from the boat payment, the Farrells bought ten acres of land on Nelson Island, close to Pender Harbour. They arrived with practically nothing, but Allen quickly set about building a house from the wood and stone available near the site.
His oldest son, Barrie, who had been apprenticed as a boatbuilder, joined them in 1953. Father and son had separate boat sheds, in which a number of open, fishing boats would take shape over the next, seven years. Pender was called the Venice of the North because water was still the main means of transportation at that time. By 1954, they were almost self-sufficient–all they needed from the city was coffee, tea, flour and rice.
Then the famous English cruiser, Dr Peter Pye paid a visit in his traditional Falmouth Punt Moonraker. The little gaff cutter started Alan thinking again. The next year the Farrells visited England and saw first-hand a variety of traditional craft. It was time to lay another keel and start another chapter of the saga. After a disagreement with a local mill owner, Allen decided to rip all the planks with a hand saw…..
Between fishing, gardening, beachcombing and building a breakwater, four years passed before the 30′, gaff cutter Ocean Bird went down the ways in 1958. Suddenly the cruising life looked good again. Unfortunately, they soon discovered that the new boat had been intended for the local waters and didn’t provide enough space for three adults. The unlikely decision was made to sell the homestead, live on Ocean Bird and build a bigger boat.
The Ocean Girl was to be the biggest of their boats–44′ ‘on deck, almost 12’ of beam with five-ton cargo hold and a heavy displacement. There was a minor delay in December 1955 when their new workshop on Cates Island was flooded, carrying the keel away. Allen and Keray recovered it floating offshore and towed it back home. They also towed almost 12,000 board feet of lumber from the mill, the yellow cedar planking was 2″ thick, Sharie put in 10,000 plugs to cover the galvanized nail fasteners.
The three of them laboured 20,000 hours on the project, using only hand tools. “You can’t hold a conversation with power tools,” Allen told one visitor. It took only 2 1/2 years to complete this little ship, a huge effort which left Allen with little energy to go to sea and persuaded Keray to move ashore. But Ocean Bird found a buyer and in 1960, Allen and Sharie, now aged 40 and 53, set off again into the wide Pacific. The big boat, with its two square sails, proved a handful for them; when they reached Santa Barbara, they turned around and headed back north for B.C.
A year later they felt ready to try again, but with two friends for crew. This time they arrived in San Diego in fine shape and found that a cruising community was beginning to develop. With like-minded friends also preparing to go south, they made final preparations. Christmas found them in Mazatlan, where memories of home began to weaken their resolve to press on. Allen resented the commercialism of the southern California waterfront, but found the poverty of Mexico disconcerting also.
The plan was to take the long way home, via Hawaii, but first Ocean Girl needed a haulout. The rickety marine railway in Acapulco jumped its tracks and left them stranded over a night which was punctuated by earth tremors. With the assistance of many jacks, divers and a good deal of muscle power, they were returned to the water. It took 40 days to reach Hawaii, and again the voyage provided them with the highs and lows of ocean sailing.
They enjoyed Hawaii again but pushed on to British Columbia, which they reached after 26 days at sea. That October they were in Browning Harbour when Hurricane Freda struck, wrecking many boats in the northwest. During the winter of 1962, Allen was cheerfully making models and sail-testing them. In April of ’63 he and Sharie began building a 38′ ketch. Again they worked with a quiet intensity to create another, beautiful hull in just six months. This time it was strip-planked to eliminate caulking.
Selling the schooner was a slow, tedious business until Dave Thomas offered them $15,000, which was enough to make a small profit. The Native Girl had 35 lockers, dacron sails, and a live well in case they decided to commercial fish. During their first year aboard, they took a family trip to Namu on the north coast where Keray was fishing. This was the only time the Farrells ever ventured north of Campbell River. In 1968 Allen felt ready to test the boat, and more importantly himself, on the Pacific Ocean.
The third trip to Hawaii ended abruptly after three days when the mainmast began grinding against the wedges. They returned to Neah Bay, effected repairs, added some rigging and were off again. This time the crossing went smoothly. The problem this time was Hawaii, which was no longer a welcoming backwater. The only place they could winter over was Honolulu, which was also a staging point for the war in Vietnam. The aircraft noise was almost non-stop, officialdom was everywhere and everything cost more.
They stayed seven months all told, before leaving without regrets on May 10th, 1969. They headed north, struggling to make headway, and made good only 118 miles in one, six-day period. It took almost a month to reach the west coast, which they both felt was the real highlight of the journey. They relished the peace of the inland waters after the bustle of Honolulu, visiting friends and relatives.
Of course it wasn’t long before Allen felt the need to build something–this time it was a six-room, log house for Keray near Powell River. The Farrells quickly adapted to this new challenge, living under a lean-to shelter while Keray went back to work full-time to finance their work. Allen took as much pride in finely-notched logs and stone foundation as he did in steaming frames and spiling planks.
Keray was following in his father’s footsteps when, a year later, he decided to cash in on their work by selling the house and buying land on Lasqueti Island, one of the more isolated islands with less than 50 residents. Allen, now nearing 60 years of age, cheerfully set about building another dwelling. He became a familiar sight, going barefoot, pushing a wheelbarrow three miles back from the beach loaded with rocks or lumber.
Many young settlers were inspired by Allen at this time–he was always willing to advise or assist any of the young, would-be homesteaders. This attitude rather backfired when one of them confidently announced he wanted to buy the Native Girl and travel upcoast. Never one to stop a fellow from following his dreams, Allen sold the ketch and promptly started to regret it.
A simple dory would suffice to keep him afloat, and rowing along the shore soon became a favoured pastime for the Farrells, one which they continued to the very end of their cruising days. Before long, there were half a dozen copies being built around the island. The community of hippies, draft dodgers and other individualists produced about a dozen 16′ rowing dories for local use.
In the summer of ’73, they were feeling in need of an adventure and decided they would row around Lasqueti and explore the whole island from the waterfront. This trip turned into a minor epic and reminded them how much they were still tied to the sea. Returning to their home, two miles from the shore, was a painful reminder that they couldn’t stroll the beach whenever they chose.
The answer soon came to Allen; he would build them a floathouse! He found a secluded bay with enough logs and wood already on the beach to create the basic structure. He curved saplings to make an arched roof, which he covered with shakes split from cedar that also drifted in. That winter of 1974 they visited the tropics without a boat, riding buses and trains to San Blas, where they lived on the beach in San Blaas, Mexico in a rented palapa. Allen was 63 and Sharie 68.
In the summer of 1975, Allen was helping a friend with some heavy lifting when he threw his back out and couldn’t move for several weeks. Needless to say, the doctors opinion was that he should slow down and consider himself lucky to walk again. Two months later, he began a regime of back exercises and bends which he never stopped. His goal was to walk on his hands again, a skill he had maintained since he was gymnastics champion of B.C. as a young man.
For therapy, he thought a little boatbuilding was called for–a larger dory would do the trick. He erected an open workshop on the floathouse and began scarfing plywood into 28′ sheets. Once he had the bare hull finished, the design quickly grew a keel, a cabin, then a deck. A lug-sail ketch rig was added to the original pair of 12′ oars. It was 1975 and the Farrells were ready to cruise again.
The August Moon was a fine piece of work for a single season, but didn’t stay long in the family. That summer the Native Girl came back to them, they sold the big dory and the floathouse and still had some money to spare. Allen was now 66 and Sharie 71, but Mexico called again. First, he changed the ketch rig to schooner, cutting a new fore mast from the woods that could carry a big, squaresail.
The winter of 1978 they were back at Cabo San Lucas, now a popular cruisers’ stop on the Mexico run. Allen recalled that on two occasions he prudently took the boat out to sea when an onshore wind picked up. Everyone else thought this was over-reacting, but the next year 29 boats were wrecked during another short-lived blast.
In Mazatlan, however, their two anchor rodes parted while they were ashore and the Native Girl was only saved from destruction by the action of an alert and friendly shrimp boat crew. This experience profoundly shook Allen’s confidence, kept him awake at nights and marked the end of his ocean sailing ambitions. He was content enough while diving to complete an underwater repair to the bow, but no longer felt any urge to continue voyaging.
Fortunately, the Farrells had a couple of Canadian friends who were prepared to fly out with no notice. One had sailed south with them on Ocean Girl, the other was a young boatbuilder who had often come to Allen for guidance. For the first time, he had a crew for an ocean crossing but he was still adamant that this was the last time. Despite occasional tensions, the trip to Hawaii went reasonably smoothly, and from there Allen and Sharie took their first-ever plane flight home.
Finding a delivery crew for Ocean Girl proved to be a lot harder, but they were eventually re-united with their home afloat after some nerve-wracking delays. Any other couple in their 70s would surely have retired to a seaside cottage and spent the rest of their lives in reminiscence…not the Farrells! Now that he was limited to the inland waters, Allen was free to express his creativity in a new, entirely different boat; one which epitomised, more than any other, his life and philosophy.
Allen was not the first northwest sailor to experiment with the junk rig, although he had actually seen junks in China in 1928 when he had worked as a stoker on a tramp ship. Keray had tried a junk rig in the 70s, but on a conventional hull. The Farrells last boat, the China Cloud, would be unique on the west coast–mounting a three-masted, unstayed rig on an authentically oriental hull form. As much floating home as yacht, the new boat would have minimal draft for drying out, truly “easily-handled” sails and enough space for a gracious retirement.
Whenever Allen Farrell needed to build a boat, someone usually felt equally compelled to offer him a building site and assist in some way. This time it was the owners of a boatyard on Scottie Bay on Lasqueti Island who donated the site for a workshop. Within days, Allen and Sharie had cleared the brush and erected a simple, pole framework covered with a tarp. The flat-bottomed hull necessitated a sharp turn at the bilge, which was outlined by slender, cedar frames, built up from two pieces of 3/4″ X 3″. Allen steamed them in a simple box, then bent them using just his hands and feet.
The planking was 1 1/2″ cedar, fastened as usual with galvanized nails, drifted over on the inside. The ample interior space was increased by 66 lockers, while the table could comfortably seat six. In the spring of 1981, the China Cloud, slipped into the water. It was 42 feet long, but closer to 50 overall with the long trailboards at the stern. There was no ballast to speak of, Allen was relying on the wisdom of the ages to keep the boat upright. There was also no engine; the pump was home made from wood. An 18′ sculling oar or yuloh was the backup propulsion. At first they sailed with leeboards, but these were turned into furniture when they were found to have little effect.
The Native Girl was sold to Gerry Fossum, a Victoria sailor, and the Farrells moved onboard their new floating home for the next 14 years. They were in their element with a boat that had enough sail to ghost through calms, could cut across shoals, then anchor where the tide would soon be gone. Seemingly ageless, they travelled on without an engine, electricity or any of the wonders of 20th century technology.
In 1985, they appeared at the Asia Pacific Festival in Vancouver and were given a great reception. By then, the wooden boat revival was well underway and a new generation of young dreamers was looking to the water for fulfilment. Many were particularly inspired by the Farrells, and thus their boatshops became regular stopping points during China Cloud’s seasonal migrations up and down the B.C. coast. (As far as I can tell, the Farrells never owned a car.)
Three copies of the junk were underway at one time, while a junk-rigged version of Ocean Bird was launched in 1991. As the years went by, Allen grew more confident in his ability to take China Cloud into the narrowest spots and could stop the boat, and even back it up with his practiced hand. White-haired, but with the same sparkling blue eyes, he would often play his ukelele or recite poetry while sailing. At anchor, he continued painting–he was a fine artist–and produced many waterfront scenes that capture the peace of quiet harbors.
Sadly, Sharie’s health was failing. In 1982 glaucoma had reduced her vision, in 1988 she was fitted with a pacemaker and in 1991, she suffered a minor stroke, and was taken to hospital by a Canadian Coast Guard hovercraft. Nonetheless, she recovered and returned to their usual life afloat. To the end, she continued to create a true home afloat on the junk–dressing with a style and elegance that belied her age. She remained the quiet balance to Allen’s restive energy.
In 1992, ’93 and ’94, their many friends organized Sail-Ins, which attracted as many as 40 traditional boats to False Bay on Lasqueti Island, many of them designed or built by Allen. By 1995, with Allen 83 and Sharie 88 years of age, it was necessary for even this chapter of their lives to come to an end. She died in 1996.
In his own inimitable way, Allen had the answer to many of life’s persistent questions. As a lifetime pacifist and social rebel, he would give China Cloud away to a deserving owner (Gerry Fossum) and they would return to Mexico by plane. When questioned about the wisdom of this, Allen replied “I like burning bridges, I’ve done it all my life.” He lived afloat on a small boat until he died in 2000.
Allen Farrell – official website
Boats in My Blood by Barry Farrell: memoir of a professional boatbuilder
George Dibbern: New book about his life and voyages by Erika Grundmann
Salt on the Wind by Dan Rubin: The sailing life of Allen and Sharie Farrell
Maria and Dag’s website for adventure travel