Henry Larsen and the St. Roch

The following article is an editorial written by The Canadian Encyclopedia staff. Editorials are not usually updated.

While the Arctic may seem a wasteland to some, to Henry Larsen it beckoned as a land of personal challenge and reward. He was born and lived his youth by the sea at Hvaler in southeast Norway where salty breezes constantly blew and boats were at hand to enjoy them. As a youth, he read the books of his national heroes - Nansen, Amundsen and Sverdrup. He first shipped out when he was fifteen years old and got to know many ports of the world, but the call of the Canadian north was strong and became the single most defining force in his future. He set his mind on carving out an Arctic career.

Larsen's ship the St Roch, 1942 (courtesy Vancouver Maritime Museum).

In 1927, Larsen learned that the RCMP was having a small patrol vessel built in Vancouver for service in the Arctic. He determined to sail on her. First thing he did was become a Canadian citizen that year. Then he applied for service in the RCMP and was accepted on April 16, 1928. Larsen was dead on course in his chosen career and was to stay that course for the rest of his service with the Force.

The RCMP ship was the 104-foot, schooner-rigged St. Roch, which was specially built for resisting the crushing pressures of sea ice that would destroy her. Her motive power was the wind and a 150 hp diesel engine.

Larsen's sailing skills acquired in his many years at sea made the difference when it came time to name her captain. The RCMP chose him. For the next 20 years until 1948, there was not a year that Larsen and his ship were not reinforcing Canada's sovereignty in the Arctic. He made 10 voyages during this period, two of which are worthy of special note.

Only one person had ever sailed a ship through the famed Northwest Passage and that was Norwegian Roald Amundsen in 1903-06, from east to west. In 1940, Larsen was the first to sail it from west to east, from Vancouver to Halifax. More than once on this trip, it was touch and go as to whether the St. Roch would survive the ravages of the grumbling, shrieking, crashing sea ice. At one point Larsen wondered "if we had come this far only to be crushed like a nut on a shoal and then buried by the ice." The St. Roch and her crew survived the winter on Boothia Peninsula except for one of the crew. Their strongest man, Albert (Frenchy) Chartrand died of a heart attack.

Henry Larsen on deck in his parka, with binoculars (courtesy Vancouver Maritime Museum).

The following spring, it looked at first as if the ice would not free the ship from her fetters, but when it finally did, the St. Roch came close to being the nut in the icy vise that Larsen feared, as she was battered from floe to floe through sucking whirlpools and finally flung out into calmer waters at the eastern end of Bellot Strait. Soon Larsen and his crew were sailing the quieter waters of Baffin Bay, Davis Strait and the coast of Labrador to finally dock in Halifax Harbour on October 11, 1942. Each of the men on the trip was awarded a medal by King George VI in recognition of this magnificent feat of Arctic navigation.

During the 1943 navigation season, Larsen and the St. Roch sailed out of Halifax on patrol and inspection of RCMP detachments in the eastern Arctic. During the following winter, Larsen received orders to take the St. Roch back home to Vancouver through the Northwest Passage. This time, he used the more northerly Parry Channel Route comprising Lancaster Sound, Barrow Strait and Viscount Melville Sound. It was obvious by then that the southern route explored by both Amundsen and Larsen would never be commercially viable for maritime traffic.

Although the return trip to Vancouver presented certain navigational difficulties, these were far less life-threatening than the ones encountered on the more southerly route. It took only 86 days to sail from Halifax to Vancouver. The route taken, through Parry Channel, and then Prince of Wales Strait at its western end, will most certainly be the one first used by commercial shipping as global warming accelerates the thinning of the Arctic ice cover.