20 years after her sinking, we feature unique views of HMCS Cape Breton, the Royal Canadian Navy’s Cape class maintenance ship, and the second last of the whole group of 320 wartime Park/Fort class merchant ships built in Canada.
For a history of Park/Fort ships, which are Canadian-built ships designed along the similar lines as the famous US Liberty ships, please see part 1, which profiled the last of these wartime ships in existence, HMS Rame Head, scrapped in 2009. The Shipsearcher staff historian was excited to tell the story of HMS Rame Head, but he was thrilled when Shipsearcher Identification Section (SIS) staff stumbled across views of the 2nd last ship, the former HMCS Cape Breton (ARE-100), before it was sunk as an artificial reef.
HMCS Cape Breton was a sister-ship to HMS Rame Head, and 19 other similar Depot, Repair and Maintenance ships built for the Royal Navy. This batch of ships were a variation on the basic Fort or Park merchant ship design, that had been built in many yards in Canada as a vital wartime emergency program. HMS Flamborough Head was completed at North Vancouver’s Burrard shipyards and commissioned on 2 May 1945, a few days before Victory in Europe. The ship was transferred to the Royal Canadian Navy in 1952, along with HMS Beachy Head, another Burrard-built sister, that had served a stint in the Dutch Navy.
HMCS Cape Breton, and the ship that would later be commissioned as HMCS Cape Scott, were both used alongside at the RCN dockyard, Halifax, providing classroom and repair facilities.
In 1959, Cape Breton was transferred to the West Coast, home-ported at Esquimalt, BC, and was reconfigured to an escort maintenance ship. Both ships by this time had a large flight deck on the stern, which could accommodate a Sikorsky helicopter.
Decommissioned in 1963, to reduce RCN expenditures, from 1964-1993, she served as an alongside maintenance facility. By the early 2000s the ship was being prepared for sinking, docked on the site of Burrard shipyards in North Vancouver, back where she had been built 65 years before. Thirty feet of the stern of the ship was removed. This section, along with one of the ship’s reciprocating engines, was intended to have become part of a maritime museum. A truncated transom was fastened to the now 410′ long hulk, which also had many access holes cut into the hull for divers to use. The old ship was towed out to Snake Island near Nanaimo, BC, and sunk on 20 Oct. 2001. The wreck remains a popular dive site, close to the resting place of HMCS Saskatchewan. The monument, meanwhile, was first moved near an old shipbuilding shed slightly North of the Burrard pier.
The maritime center never materialized, and eventually the unsightly and exposed stern was dismantled in early 2014, when the cradle it was resting on was judged to be reaching the end of its design life. So went the last of the remaining Fort or Park ships located in Canada.
*The title of both posts was inspired by S.C. Heal’s book A great fleet of ships: The Canadian forts & parks