Capt. Billy Ettershank thrived on coffee and the high seas

Upon eventual retirement, in an age when shipwreck was almost commonplace, his record was “as clean as a dog’s tooth”.

Upon eventual retirement, in an age when shipwreck was almost commonplace, his record as a ship’s pilot was “as clean as a dog’s tooth”.


Capt. Billy Ettershank, retired, was widely respected as a navigator and as something of a character.

Born in Aberdeen in 1842, he went to sea at an early age. Five years after the discovery of gold in British Columbia first electrified the world, he arrived here as an officer on a passenger ship. When the Julia continued on her way it was without her second mate who’d succumbed to the lure of the gold fields.

But, unlike many of the Julia’s company, he’d been in no hurry to charge off in search of his fortune. You see, he had some unfinished business aboard ship: the thrashing of the ship’s cook for his continued insolence and his lack of culinary skills.

This in mind, Billy headed topside in search of the guilty chef — only to find the ship’s surgeon administering an “artistic whipping”.

Regretfully allowing the doctor to complete the operation, Billy shouldered his few effects and slipped over the side. Once ashore, he headed to the Cariboo where, he’d heard, gold “could be washed from the ground in handfuls”.

But a year of hard work in ‘El Dorado’ drained his limited resources so he returned to the coast and joined a trading schooner which plied between Victoria, Nanaimo and Alberni.

In December 1869, with Billy as mate, the Alpha set sail for Honolulu with a cargo of lumber.

She made it as far as Barkley Sound where, against Billy’s advice, Capt. Tom Brennan insisted on putting to sea in heavy weather. Almost immediately, Billy’s fears were realized and the Alpha rolled heavily onto her side, stranding her company on Flores Island, six miles west of Clayoquot Sound. With snow deep on the ground, almost no food and only the clothes on their backs, the castaways faced a bleak future.

Fortunately, some blankets drifted ashore from the wreck. It was nine days before some Indians canoed them to Barkley Sound and they could hike overland to Nanaimo via on old trail. “Had it not been that they obtained a sack of flour from the wreck they must certainly have starved,” reported the Colonist. “The men are all more or less affected by exposure.” They stumbled into the Bastion City on Christmas Day.

Even shipwreck on Vancouver Island’s rugged west coast was all in a day’s work for Billy Ettershank and he immediately returned to the coasting trade. Eight years later he was appointed as a ship’s pilot and he served in this capacity for no fewer than 43 years. Right up until he was 74, he “took his regular turn with the youngsters of the profession in bringing in the ships”. Upon eventual retirement, in an age when shipwreck was almost commonplace, his record was “as clean as a dog’s tooth”.

Once asked the secret of his seemingly eternal youth, he replied with a chuckle that he owed his vigour to his grandmother. Almost the instant he opened his eyes, back in Aberdeen on Oct. 6, 1842, she’d given him a sip of coffee. Billy said he’d been faithful to the “brown berry” ever since. Upon his being interviewed in 1924, at the age of 82, he declared that coffee had “preserv[ed] him through the toils and tribulations of the four-score years of his life to date,” and that he expected it to do so indefinitely.

The 58-ton schooner Alpha came by her name honestly, having been the first vessel to be built in Nanaimo in 1859. Alpha Passage, west of the entrance to Ucluelet Inlet, was named for her in 1861 as she was active on the west coast. Alpha Bay, in northern B.C. waters, was christened six years later. Alpha Islet, off Discovery Island, Victoria, takes its name from the fact that the schooner, while carrying passengers and coal from Nanaimo to Victoria, ran into it in a blinding snowstorm. Fortunately, she was floated off with little injury and resumed her career until the fateful stranding on Flores Island.

The Gazetteer of Canada lists 10 more geographical features named Alpha, by the way, but not in recognition of this heroine, and two B.C. landmarks bear the name Ettershank. Let us hope that at least one of them honours the ever-young Capt. Billy Ettershank, navigator, character and coffee freak.