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Historical ship's wheel finds new life at Departure Bay beach

A beautification project initiated and paid for by the Departure Bay Neighbourhood Association turned into a wheel of a deal for local residents and visitors to Departure Bay Beach.

On Oct. 25, a re-finished steering wheel belonging to the working sailing ship Alumna was unveiled along the beach walkway, complete with an information plaque and dedicated to Canadian mariners.

Since that time, the new fixture has attracted plenty of attention.

“I am actually surprised at what a destination marker it has become,” said Karen Hovestad, association president. “I live very close to it and every time I go by there are people standing there looking at it.”

Hovestad said the project took about two years from start to finish. Members of the DBNA were participating in banner painting at the Nanaimo Museum when the wheel was spotted in the basement by executive member Joan Shillabeer, who suggested it be utilized for a public art/beautification project.

“We’re always looking for ways of doing something inspirational at Departure Bay,” Hovestad explained.

The wheel was originally donated to the museum by the late Capt. Martin Higgs, a local tugboat captain known for his collection of maritime artifacts. It was donated on the condition that Canadian mariners be honoured at its site of display.

The ship wheel had been saved from the Alumna, which was built in 1901.

“Its remains are now laying in Mud Bay, which is very close to Denman Island,” Hovestad said.

The wheel was sent to Port Alberni for sandblasting and refinishing, and then installed, with the plaque, by Nanaimo’s Parks and Recreation department. All in all, the project cost just under $5,000, and was paid for by members of the association, and a contribution from the Nanaimo Heritage Commission.

“It’s a little piece of history that has now been rejuvenated and it’s wonderful to see how excited people are to have a look at it and how it ties what we see and do in the bay and its history,” Hovestad said. “Departure Bay was a major shipping port at the turn of the century, and the spot that we chose to mount it, if you stand in front of the ship’s wheel at certain points between low and high tide, you’ll see pilings from where the ships used to come in.”

Hovestad said the wheel is one of a number of projects the association wants to see take place.

“Our hope is that the sidewalk will be leveled and make the walk a more comfortable and pleasurable activity,” she said.

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