Rumrunners & Pirates Ahoy

Ten years ago, I spent one summer travelling to Sooke, a pretty place in the southeast corner of Vancouver Island. I had decided to use it as a setting for a historical novel from the 1920’s. I’d read an old article in Raincoast Chronicles (Harbour Publishing, 1976) about a Canadian man named Bill Gillis who’d disappeared--likely been murdered--with his seventeen year old son, on their fishing boat, the Beryl G, and I was hooked (pun intended). It was one of those moments writers dream of ... intrigued by a flash that keeps on burnin'.

The Beryl G, empty and blood-splattered, was spotted by Chris Waters, the lighthouse keeper--of course there has to be a lighthouse keeper--of Stuart Island in the San Juans (American side). But the mens' bodies were never recovered.

I decided to weave these two tragic characters into my plot, along with some of the hows and whys of the time. I wrote the novel quite quickly and remember laughing hysterically through some of the scenes, as I read them back to a friend on the phone. Writer's euphoria, no doubt. And I remember receiving some favourable comments from a Vancouver publisher, but then, the manuscript got buried in a manilla envelope in my file drawer, and there it has remained. Until now. Perhaps, it’s being by the sea that’s awakened my curiosity, perhaps it’s working for the Coast Guard; perhaps it's just having the time to think. Whatever the reason, I’ve pulled out Rampage (working title) and am giving it another look. 

The Beryl G in Victoria Harbour 1924 (courtesy of KNOW BC)

The Coast Guard was busy in those days with rum-runners and pirates. On January 16th, 1920, the US Congress had passed the Volstead Act, prohibiting the sale of liquor across the United States. Fortunately for American drinkers, the very next year, the Canadian province of British Columbia revoked their prohibition laws. This made it legal to brew, buy, and sell liquor in BC. The liquor was run south by a swift fleet of Canadian yachts, schooners, and steamers, whose captains made fistfuls of cash. It was even legal for these Canadians to carry liquor across the border by boat, as long as they paid the $20/case export duty when they cleared customs, and as long as they weren’t hauling moonshine. Both Vancouver and Victoria had “rum rows” where these rumrunning ships were berthed in between runs. 

With all that liquor running down the West Coast, pirates soon got into the act. They'd target and overtake a vessel, deal with her crew, and steal her load. And this, unfortunately, is what happened to poor Captain Gillis and his son, Bill. 

Is there a novel in there? You bet.

--convalescing near Comox, BC


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