Harold Monks and the Tofino Lifeboat

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Snapshot by Harold Monks of the Tofino lifeboat with Lone Cone and Opitsat in the background. Harold kept a diary of his lifeboat work in 1920.

February 16 1920 — gloomy day. Received wire to report for duty on Clayoquot Life Boat 5pm at $105.00 per month…February 17 1920 — gloomy day. Sent reply to above wire to John MacLeod coxswain. Wrote Mother…February 22 1920 – Lovely day. Arrived Tofino about 4pm. Time started from this date on Life Boat.

In February 1920, “returned man” Harold Monks was hired to work as extra winter crew on the Canadian Lifesaving Service of Canada in Tofino, British Columbia. This job was was the beginning of Harold’s thirty-eight year affiliation with the Tofino “lifeboat”. Harold’s 1920 diary and photographs give an insight into his experiences.

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Tofino lifeboat crew in the 1920s. Back L-R: Harold Sloman, Harry Harris, Frank Hopkins, Jack Macleod. Front L-R: Angus Smith, unknown, Harold Monks, Thomas Evans.

The Tofino lifeboat station had a surfboat (with oars) and a power lifeboat. The power boat was built by in 1913 by V. M. Dafoe & Company of Vancouver. The boat was the first of its kind ever built in Canada. There was a power lifeboat at nearby Bamfield lifesaving station, but this had been imported from New York.

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Snapshot by Harold Monks of the power lifeboat built in 1913. L-R: Frank Hopkins, Angus Smith, Murdo Macleod, Thomas Evans.

The Daily Colonist on December 30 1913 described the boat: “Messrs V. M. Dafoe & Company were entrusted with the contract, and much credit is due to the British Columbia firm in turning out such a splendid lifesaving craft. The new lifeboat is a self-bailing, self-righting, centre board gasoline-engined 30 to 40 horsepower vessel, 36 feet long, 8.10 foot beam, 5 feet deep, and fitted with oars and sails. Built of Honduras mahogany and oak, the planking being mahogany in two thicknesses laid diagonally and finished in natural wood, all her fastenings and fittings are of brass and copper, over two and a half tons of these materials having been used.”

Harold sailed from Victoria on the SS Princess Maquinna and arrived for duty on Sunday February 22 1920. He went to stay in the crew quarters on the second floor of the lifeboat station. On February 23 1920 a “lovely day,” Harold cleaned the brass on the lifeboat. Polishing brass was obviously not an easy task, and something that had to be done regularly.

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Snapshot by Harold Monks shows some of the brass and wood on Tofino’s power lifeboat. L-R – Murdo Macleod, Frank Hopkins, Angus Smith, Thomas Evans

On March 2 1920 a “glorious day,” he washed off the lifeboat and cleaned all the brass work – “some job,” he wrote. February 27 1920 was a “hot day with a little wind in the afternoon” when Harold went over to a beach on Vargas Island to collect drift logs. He towed them back to the boat house, and on March 1 1920 “sawed up logs for the boat house.” The lifeboat station used the logs as firewood. But it also had a coal fired stove – which it acquired on March 10 1920 when “the Armitages arrived with coal oil and stove etc for boat house.”

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Snapshot by Harold Monks of the lifeboat crew sawing logs on the beach in front of the lifeboat station.

On March 5 1920 the lifeboat was called out by another neighbour, the Lennard Island Lighthouse keeper. “But no excitement,” as Harold wrote. “Bobby” (Robert Pollack) just wanted a letter mailed – the “mailboat” Princess Maquinna was due. On March 6 1920, with “rain at intervals,” four of the crew rowed back over to Lennard Island with the mail. (It’s unclear why they would have rowed in the rain, rather than using the powerboat) “Nothing exciting,” wrote Harold, though its unclear whether he meant the mail or just the day.

In retrospect, this was a good thing that there was nothing exciting – there were various lighthouse adventures in later years. In 1926 the assistant light keeper fell off a roof and sprained his ankle and the Tofino lifeboat had to take him to the hospital in Alberni. In 1929, there was a fire. In 1931, the lifeboat couldn’t deliver Christmas presents because of stormy weather.

On rainy days, Harold caught up with indoor jobs. On March 3 1920 it “rained pretty heavy all day,” so Harold wrote letters in the afternoon. On March 4 and 5 1920 he “had various forms filled in with by different people in connection to the lifeboat job.” On March 20 1920 there was “more rain all day. Scrubbed our living quarters out in boat house. Read a book nearly all day.” Harold’s most poignant entry was on March 7 1920: “Rained most of the day. Nothing doing only read and sleep.”

The ever-changeable nature of west coast weather is evident in Harold’s diary entries for April 1920. For example, April 1 1920 was a lovely morning, but rain and snow started towards noon. That month, the weather conditions ranged from “strong west wind” to “snow and rain” to “hot day.”


Harold’s fascination with the weather has an explanation. The lifeboat station, where he lived and worked, had a tide and rain gauge observatory, so he may have been able to track the weather. Also, before radio weather reports, coastal mariners had to rely on their own observation skills to see weather patterns. Harold had a personal interest in weather that remained all his life. He later worked for about 15 years as a Dominion Government weather observer and in 1957 won an award for the quality of his reporting.

On April 24 1920 coxswain Jack MacLeod received a wire to lay off the winter crew at the end of the month. On April 30 1920 “a glorious clear day,” Harold finished duties on the lifeboat. He had worked two months and eight days. In May 1920, Harold also picked up some extra lifeboat work. He worked four days on the lifeboat as a substitute and fitted a window in the lifeboat tool house.

Due to his accountancy training, Harold kept detailed records of his finances. On April 13 1920 Harold received a cheque for $19.32 for his February work on the lifeboat. On May 12 1920 he received two cheques ($70 each) for March and April and on May 22 1920 he “Rec’d $26.79 bonus for Feb and Mar.” In July 1920, Harold “Rec’d April bonus of $21.00 Clayoquot Life Boat.” Overall, he earned $207.09 as winter crew. Harold also earned $10 for a substitute crew job. He did not mention how much he made for fitting the window.

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A draft of Harold’s letter to the Department of Transport for his pension gives dates he served on the lifeboat winter crew in the 1920s and 1930s.

In the 1920s and 30s, Harold worked as winter crew, and fished during the summers. This pattern continued until 1924 when Harold quit commercial fishing and bought the Imperial Oil marine gas station. In 1942, Harold was taken on as a permanent crew member. (Directories from this time forward give his occupation as “Lifeboat man” rather than Imperial Oil Agent). His wife Katie ran the gas station during the day. Harold would then leave work, take over at the gas station while Katie made dinner and went to library or local meetings during the evenings.

In the 1940s and 1950s, Harold was the lifeboat station dispatcher. The calls coming to the lifeboat station were not always distress calls. For example, Gail Irvine, who spent summers at the lighthouse, recalls that her aunt and uncle Marj and Doug Franklin used to phone in grocery orders to “Mr Monks”, and then these would be delivered to them by lifeboat.

In 1950, Tofino got a new modern lifeboat. The new 36-foot lifeboat had a two-ton bronze keel to prevent capsizing, was able to do 10 knots and stay out at least 48 hours. Harold Monks and crew members Alex MacLeod, Murdo MacLeod and Harold Sloman went down to Victoria, where the lifeboat had been built, and sailed it up the rugged west coast back to Tofino.

The Daily Colonist July 19 1950
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The new Tofino lifeboat in the 1950s. L-R: “Scotty” Anderson, Harold Monks, unknown others.

In 1957, Harold was due for retirement but “but disliked the idea so much that he was able to induce the powers that be to extend his service for another year.” Harold retired in October 1958. For years, Harold had rolled cigarettes for the lifeboat crew. Not surprising that his retirement gift from them was…a smoking jacket! (Even though Harold had since stopped smoking because he had been diagnosed with angina in the 1950s). A news item on Harold’s retirement said that he was “highly esteemed by all the coxswains under whose command he has served…”

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Harold Monks retired from the lifeboat in 1958. His retirement gift — a smoking jacket.
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