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Melodie and Grant Blundell – and their Cowichan Bay Shipyard
by John MacFarlane 2018
Grant and Melodie Blundell sitting next to their motor sailer Margaretta (Photo from the John MacFarlane collection.)
The Cowichan Bay Shipyard Ltd. is closed now (the Blundells sold it in 2008) but the big yellow buildings still dominate the waterfront. Its former owners, Melodie and Grant Blundell, are really so part of its identity that it is difficult to tell the two stories separately. It is an integral part of the nautical history of Cowichan Bay stretching back to pioneer days. There has been a shipyard there for many years, originally established by Domingo Ordano. Originally based in Genoa Bay, the Ordano family had two boat houses on floats and operated a boat rental and fish guiding operation at Cowichan Bay.
The Ordano Family’s Columbia Hotel on the waterfront at Cowichan Bay near the site of the Cowichan Bay Shipyard. (Photo from the Rick James collection.)
The Cowichan Bay Shipyard about 1990. (Photo from the John MacFarlane collection.)
The Blundell’s yard was purchased from Domingo Ordano by Leslie Blundell, a retired Chief Shipwright in the Royal Navy who had apprenticed at the Chatham Dockyard.
Grant Blundell started working in the yard as a boy, after school and on weekends. By the time he became an apprentice after high school he was fully familiar with the operation of the yard. He apprenticed under his father starting as a very young teenager on weekends and after school. He took over the yard in 1986 after working alongside his Dad in what he fondly remembers as a ’very long apprenticeship’ which ended in 1986.
Les Blundell apprenticed in England with the Royal Navy at the Chatham Dockyard. This was an extremely rigorous and demanding sylabus of training and its graduates were expected to achieve and maintain a very high standard of quality. He was eventually promoted to Chief Shipwright and served in HMS Liverpool. He had extensive wartime service in the Mediteranean, at Tobruk, and in Trinidad for Fairmile repair. He discovered British Columbia when he served on the staff of the naval overseer constructing landing craft vessels. After service with the British Columbia Forest Service, and the shipyard at Birds Eye Cove he decided to put down roots and started in Cowichan Bay.
Grant Blundell and Les Blundell on the deck of the boat shed. (Photo from the Melodie and Grant Blundell collection.)
The yard had two marine ways, one was covered, and the shed had a movable port to handle masts and superstructure. Melodie recalls that "The roof in the big shed was an opening that had no movable port, we finally closed it in when we re roofed the big shop in 1995." This meant that they could handle two boats at a time, one in covered work space. There were also work spaces for shop machinery and joinery projects. The Blundells point out that the band saw was originally owned by the infamous Brother XII.
They typically handled more than 150 vessels a year, many of the them working vessels and fishboats. They did a lot of work for Falt Towing on tugs based there in Cowichan Bay. The outside railway was used for the tugs. They did all aspects of wooden hull and interior maintenance. They did engine installations as well as maintenance on shafts, propellers and bearings but not the actual mechanical engine work that was performed elsewhere.
Originally the two marine railways allowed hauled vessels to be worked on by their owners. The outside railways were used for tugs but smaller vessels could be worked on inside the sheds. This also meant that two vessels could be washed and worked on in the same schedule.
Vessels were hauled at high tide which, in their busy seasons generally occurred in the evening. In the those days the typical pattern was to wash the hull and allow it to dry overnight. The hull would then be ready for work first thing in the morning. As awareness of the problems of draining bottom coatings into the environment grew regulations changed and prudent practice changed. Wash water and debris had to be captured and segregated so that it did not enter the marine environment. This had a dramatic effect on small shipyards.
Fishboats and yachts were the main market for their services but tugs could arrive anytime to cope with debris caught in propellers that had to be removed on a slipway. Sometimes this meant working through the night to get them back in service. The schedule could at times be grinding.
Melodie Blundell worked side–by–side with Grant. When the yard was in full operation she handled the winch hauling the boats out of the water on the marine railway. A Registered Nurse by profession she started working part–time between 1986–1989 and then became a full–time partner. She expresses an air of quiet authority and confidence that caused business to be referred by word of mouth from satisfied customers. Melodie modestly describes her role as being "a general dogsbody! I did all the finishing, and topsides work paint wise, thousands of feet in that department."
The winch house containing machinery from a Toyota truck and surplus parts from Capital Iron. It was rebuilt withh steel gears machined in 1978. (Photo from the John MacFarlane collection.)
Long hours, including many evenings and weekends, was the price they had to pay as independent craftsmen. Also, the yard was at the mercy of the tides, as the slipway use had to be timed with water high enough to handle the boats on the cradle. Tug companies and fishermen experiencing problems might call at any time expecting service – as they were often operating 24–hours a day.
The premises were sold in 2008 to Arthur and Jessica Vickers, who operate an art gallery, while the shipyard carried on to 2016 when it finally ceased operation. The Blundells note that the long hours, changing industrial and environmental conditions all contributed to closing.
Grant reflects fondly on the years they were in operation. He built a small number of vessels from scratch, and did substantial rebuilds on others. He wisely chose the specialties of the operation – particularly noting that he avoided using artificial materials like fibreglass ‘like the plague’. He clearly believes in the integrity, facility and beauty of wooden hulls even if they are slowly growing more uncommon.
The Blundells still have the privilege of using the slipway to service their own boat, the Margaretta, a 1937 motor sailor, the Blundell’s own classic yacht. Now she is the only vessel that gets hauled on the marine railway at the yard when once a year she is lovingly maintained.
To quote from this article please cite:
MacFarlane, John (2018) Melodie and Grant Blundell – and their Cowichan Bay Shipyard.
Nauticapedia.ca 2018. http://www.nauticapedia.ca/Gallery/Blundell.php
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