It all started back in 1984 when the Canadian Coast Guard announced that they would no longer tow non-distressed vessels; that they would respond only to emergency, life-threatening situations. Non-emergencies would be dealt with by commercial operators. This opened a whole new world of opportunities for entrepreneurs.
Jim MacDonald had worked as a bouncer at the popular Sandbar pub in Parksville. Among a group of regulars was Steve Ackles and his wife Sherri. According to Sherri, the local Coast Guard guys would come into the pub and have a few drinks. Jim got talking to them and they suggested there was money to be made from offering marine assistance. Both were experienced boaters and the two thought “Wow! this could work.”
Their idea was to become the “Auto Club of the Sea,” offering annual memberships that would include towing broken down vessels, providing gas, assisting grounded vessels, helping lost mariners and that sort of thing.
Sherri Ackles remembers when Steve and Jim first started. They decided that the Howe Sound/Vancouver/Fraser River area would generate the most business, so the two initially based themselves out of Steve’s family’s cabin on Gambier Island. Their first towboat was an old fiberglass vessel of about 24 feet with a cabin. Soon after though, they replaced that with an 18-foot Zodiac inflatable. They developed brochures, started advertising and contacted companies about discounts for members. According to Sherri Ackles, Steve soon decided that their towing business wasn’t working out for him. Jim then carried on alone, though the two remained lifelong friends.
Barb (MacDonald) was a Montessori teacher when she met Jim in 1988. The two were married in 1992. Living on Bowen, she often went out with Jim on calls. She recalls those early years: “There were a lot of boats out there and of course we had a radio in our house, and it was on non-stop on VHF 16 and 22, the Coast Guard channels and the Vancouver Traffic channels. He had a scanner going all the time and it did kind of drive me crazy at first, but I slowly got used to it. He gave me a VHF so I could call him and keep track of him when he was out there by himself. It was kind of fun listening to what was going on out there and I still kind of miss it.”
Bruce Falkins has operated the fuel dock at Fisherman’s Cove in West Vancouver since the early 1980s. “I remember when Jim first arrived sometime in about 1984. He showed on a miserable day and his Zodiac had no protection, not even a cabin. It was powered by a pair of 70-hp outboards, and I remember thinking to myself, holy smokes, that’s hardcore. I was member of Coast Guard Auxiliary, and I asked him what he was doing. He said that marine towing was all going commercial, and he was starting a commercial towing outfit. I thought, that’s great, good for you. He was the first person I met who was doing that.”
Norma Dallas recalls Jim’s dedication to the work. “He went out on that inflatable in the most god-awful weather you could ever, ever, imagine. That man took his life in his hands to go and rescue a vessel. It was unbelievable. He would get a Mayday and the Coast Guard would notify him there was a vessel, for example, that didn’t know where they were in the fog. Between the VHF radio and the CB (this was before GPS), Jim would triangulate or try to figure out where they might be by listening to the signals of nearby lighthouses. Regardless of the call, he would take off in that Zodiac in miserable weather, in storms and the dark.”
In the 1990s, as business grew, Jim bought a 25-foot Bertram. Said Barb: “I went out on a lot of calls with him on the Bertram. It was a lot better because it was freezing cold in that RIB, open to the air. It was pretty rough out there sometimes and it scared the daylights out of me. Over the years, Jim saved several lives. It was quite an adventure.”
Jim MacDonald passes
Jim MacDonald passed in 2002 and Barb wasn’t interested in carrying on Jim’s legacy. Long-time friends, Harry Woodman (C-Tow Melwood), and his girlfriend, Joy Meldrum, ended taking over management of the company. “Harry was a great, great guy,” said a former C-Tow captain, “and he did a really good job.”
However, Woodman wasn’t really interested in building the company and started looking for someone to take it over. In the end, Harry handed it over to marine surveyor Paul Dupre in late 2002. Dupre sold the company to Gibsons-based Wayne Skinner in 2005 and in 2008, Skinner sold the company to current owner Andy Cardiff. At the time there were about 500 C-Tow members in BC.
The rest, they say, is history!