It is impossible to paddle alongside the rusting severed hull of the Melanope - a three-masted iron ship dating back to the last great days of the sail - and not consider its remarkable voyage through history.

The Melanope was launched in Liverpool, England, in 1876, when Alexander Graham Bell was awarded the patent for the telephone and Lt.-Col. George Armstrong Custer died in the Battle of the Little Bighorn.

© J. Marc, PNG Merlin ArchiveExamining porthole on the stern of the windjammer Comet. Underwater images from a graveyard of historic ships at Royston near Comox.
The 78-metre windjammer began its life as an Australian emigrant ship, served as a cargo carrier - rice, cotton, lumber, heavy machinery, grain, rail, coal, salt - and encountered its share of misadventure along the way.

She ran ashore at the mouth of Burma's Irrawaddy River, became partly dismasted while rounding South America's Cape Horn, and entertained a near-mutiny during a voyage between Washington state and Cape Town, South Africa, over the perceived unjust punishment of a crewman.

The Melanope sailed its last voyage in 1906 when it sustained heavy damage returning to Washington state from Mexico. Its crew abandoned ship and the vessel was eventually towed to shore and converted into a barge. The Canadian Pacific Railway bought the ship in 1911 as a collier, and it continued service into the 1940s.

On this sunny summer afternoon, what remains of the Melanope belongs to me and Rick James, a former salmon seiner turned maritime historian and author of The Ghost Ships of Royston, published in 2004.

"It's incredible, a fabulous site," confirms James, whose latest book, West Coast Wrecks and Other Maritime Tales, will be released by Harbour Publishing this fall. "Such a cross-section of maritime history."

At least 14 ships rest in Royston, across the harbour from Comox on Vancouver Island, hearkening back to the age of sail and steam, the days of whaling off the B.C. coast, coastal tugs, and Second World War military battles. In total: four Royal Canadian Navy warships, one U.S. navy destroyer, one or possibly two whalers, two Canadian Pacific Railway steam tugs, a deepsea rescue tug, and, from the era of commercial sailing, a wood-hulled barquentine and auxiliary schooner, along with three massive Cape Horn windjammers. All are relics sunk, starting in 1936 and continuing for 25 years, as breakwaters for log-booming operations exposed to the southeast winds blowing down the Strait of Georgia.

"It could be a horrible place to work until they started adding ships," assures James.

The ships are in varying states of decay, giving way to the elements as surely as the wooden totems of Haida Gwaii.

Although best viewed from a kayak at low tide, some are easily discerned from shore, including the bow of the Riversdale, a three-masted steel ship launched in Scotland in 1894, and the bow and stern of the former four-masted barque, Comet, launched as a kerosene carrier for the Anglo-American Oil Company of London in 1901.

Paddling up to the Comet, James exclaims: "She's been stripped clear of all her rigging and masts. But you can see the bloody windlass 1/8 used to haul up the anchor 3/8. That's wonderful."

Elsewhere are pieces of the USS Tattnall, a destroyer that served in the Pacific and narrowly avoided a kamikaze attack off Japanese Okinawa in 1945. Also nearby are the remains of the HMCS Gatineau, which began its life as the Royal Navy destroyer HMS Express, the second to last ship to leave the besieged beaches of Dunkirk, France, in 1940. It carried 3,500 troops in six trips across the English Channel.

The Dunver, one of three Canadian frigates at Royston, sank a German U-boat south of the Hebrides while the HMCS Prince Rupert sank one north of the Azores, both events in 1944.

The 73.3-metre schooner Laurel Whalen, built in B.C. in 1917 as a five-masted lumber freighter, was the first ship sunk at the Royston breakwater, in August 1936, by the Comox Logging and Railway Co.

Charlie Nordin, now 88 and living in Union Bay, was present that day, a 13-year-old watching from the tug Joyful captained by his father, whose name was also Charles. "I was aboard the tug as a passenger," he confirmed. "When she was in position, they drilled holes and sunk her. I witnessed the first one.

"It was quite a thing for the boom camp at the time, as a protection against the seas that came in there."

Shortly before the Laurel Whalen's sinking, the City of Vancouver sank a proposal to have the vessel serve as a floating cabaret in English Bay. "You can understand, there'd be drunks falling over the side," Nordin quipped.

The man reportedly behind the floating cabaret scheme was Tommy Burns, the Canadian-born former world boxing champion who was also the first to allow a black man, American Jack Johnson, a title shot in Sydney, Australia, in 1908. Burns lost, the fight was called after 14 rounds, and he never got another shot at the title.

Royston's list of ships and the lives touched can be overwhelming, even to maritime historians.

"I've been there a few times," said Jim Delgado, former executive director of the Vancouver Maritime Museum and now director of maritime heritage for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in Washington, D.C.

"It's a unique type of museum. A lot of those big iron and steel-hulled sailing ships were really built for short life spans, and they lasted much longer than anyone anticipated.

"That collection is special, you don't get those types of ships collected together, particularly to create something as unique as that breakwater. These ships were recycled and used and not just left to rot. Of course, time and tide have certainly started to disintegrate them but there is still a tremendous amount that's there."

To get a better handle on the ships that make up the Royston graveyard, a team from the Underwater Archaeological Society of B.C. and U.S.-based Institute of Nautical Archaeology conducted a series of exploratory dives last March.

"Some of the ships were almost entirely gone, but there were some nice surprises . . . " said participant John Pollack, a Nelson-based surveyor and Explorers Club member. "The 1904 CPR steam tug Qualicum contains a complete powertrain of boiler, engines, shaft and prop."

The team found evidence of 14 ships, although the remains of a 15th, the whaling harpoon boat, may be buried beneath rock that serves as a modern breakwater. Pollock said three of the sailing ships are particularly noteworthy: the Comet, the Riversdale and the Melanope.

The San Francisco Maritime National Historical Park has numerous parts from the Riversdale, including portholes, toilet, and steering wheel. The ship had been located in San Francisco in the early 1920s.

Pollack said the windjammers served an important role as cargo carriers in their day, emerging as a "major force" in the 1870s and into the 1890s. "These were the trucks of the ocean."

He noted there's an opportunity to study the construction methods used in the ships despite the fact they've been "hollowed out like pumpkins" when sunk as breakwaters.

"It's worth spending some time there," he said, noting the team will reassemble in April 2012, for continued studies. "We'll spend a lot of time in the water and a lot of time with advanced surveying instruments."

Only a handful of windjammers remain in sailing condition, including: the 1863-built Star of India, billed as the "world's oldest active sailing ship" at the Maritime Museum of San Diego; the 1874 windjammer James Craig out of Sydney, Australia; the 1877 Elissa in the Gulf of Mexico off Texas; the 1885 Wavertree in New York; the 1885 Polly Woodside in Australia; the Balclutha 1886 in San Francisco; and the 1886 af Chapman in Sweden.

The Royston ships are protected under the provincial Heritage Conservation Act. That makes it illegal to remove any of their parts, although people have done so over the decades.

Interfor took possession in 2002 of the Field sawmill that was served by the Royston breakwater, and shut the mill down a few years later. The property has been cleaned up, decommissioned, and is for sale.

Interfor vice-president Ric Slaco says there are no environmental concerns associated with the ships and the transfer to the province as part of the company's water lease should be issue free. There's no need for remedial work, since that would only destroy the ships' historic values, he argued. "My preference is to retain the rich history of these ships. There is no commercial interest for us," Slaco said.

Eric Forgeng, a heritage resource specialist with the archeology branch in Victoria, said talks are continuing with stakeholders on whether just the ships or the adjacent pilings, as well, deserve protection, given that removing the latter could damage the former. Other issues include liability and hazards to navigation. "At this point, nothing is going to happen," he assured.

Nelson-based surveyor Pollack supports leaving the ships alone and allowing them to fade into the sea at their own pace.

"Anytime you have a site like this, opinions run from 'it's junk, get rid of it,' to 'the ships should be raised and restored.' But given the work we're doing now, and amount of money it would take to do preservation and reconstruction on them, I believe that is the right way to go."

Delgado, formerly of the Vancouver Maritime Museum, agrees. "People find a certain pleasure in viewing ruins," he philosophizes.

"That's why we walk through the Forum in Rome. And while there is no comparison between a breakwater with the hulks of old sailing ships and frigates to the Forum in Rome, there is a connection: we are compelled to look at the remains of the past and wonder what stories they hold."

Indeed. May the Royston wrecks rust in peace.