William Watts – The Maple Leaf’s Colourful Builder

This is the final piece in a series of articles celebrating the SV Maple Leaf’s 110th birthday, in 2014.

Capt. and Mrs William Watts ca 1912, courtesy Vancouver Archives

Strong, fast, and up for adventure: the SV Maple Leaf shares these three traits with William Watts, the man that made her.

While Alex Maclaren was the businessman that had her built, William Watts was the businessman that built her. He also built one of the most important entities in Vancouver, BC, one that still operates to this day: Vancouver Shipyard (now Vancouver Shipyards).

Here is a thumbnail sketch in tribute to William Watts, his vision, and his craftsmanship in constructing the famous Maple Leaf.

It is fair to say that boats were in William Watts’ blood. His father, also William Watts, arrived at Collingwood Ontario and began that town’s well-known tradition of boatbuilding in 1850.

Vancouver Shipyard and her staff, circa 1902, at Coal Harbour (Burrard Inlet), Vancouver, BC. William Watts is standing in the back row, centre, with arms folded. Courtesy Vancouver Archives.

William the younger moved to British Columbia in 1887. After ferrying miners up Harrison Lake for a couple of years, Capt. Watts and business partner Edward Trott opened a boat building business in 1889.

The Maple Leaf under construction at Vancouver Shipyard, Coal Harbour, in 1904. Courtesy Vancouver Archives.

In 1902 this business became Vancouver Shipyard. It was located at Coal Harbour in downtown Vancouver, and this is where the Maple Leaf was built. Now, Coal Harbour is one of the city’s upscale neighbourhoods, filled with high-rise condominiums, parkland, marinas, rowing clubs, and restaurants between downtown and Stanley Park.

William Watts, BC Single Sculling Champion in 1890. Photo taken at Victoria, BC. Courtesy Vancouver Archives.

It’s fitting that rowing clubs are a part of the scene in this part of Burrard Inlet, because one of Capt. Watt’s notable achievements involved rowing. He broke records for speed and, in 1890, he won the BC rowing championships in a rowing shell he designed and built himself! Not a bad choice to design the fastest racing yacht on the coast in 1904.

(Coincidentally, Capt. Kevin Smith, who now runs Maple Leaf Adventures that owns the Maple Leaf, was also a BC single scull rowing champion, almost exactly 100 years later!)

Capt. Watts remained adventurous all of his life.

William Watts, driving, with Mrs Watts and friend in the back seat. Take a look at the condition of the roadside and imagine it in a rainstorm! At the start of a cross-continental road trip in 1922. Courtesy Vancouver Archives.

This photo, from 1922, marks the start of just one adventure: Capt. Watts and his wife DROVE from Vancouver to Boston! Although automobile use was skyrocketing in 1922 (by 1923 there were cars for 1 in 7 Americans), it was still early days for cars and roads. Driving Vancouver to Boston these days is a big trip. Imagine what it was like when you know you’d have to fix your own car multiple times during the trip. A great adventure!

In addition to rowing and driving, Capt. Watts was also an avid sailor and sports fisher. And, according to his family, he liked a bit of fun. He loved to visit Hawaii and while there he actually learned to hula the right way, in a grass skirt. One historian refers to Watts as “one of BC’s most colourful personalities since the turn of the [20th] century.”

The Maple Leaf under sail in the Salish Sea, with William Watts’ descendents aboard, 2004 (the year of Maple Leaf’s centennial). Photo (c) Kevin Smith / Maple Leaf Adventures

In 2004, the year of the SV Maple Leaf’s centennial, descendants of William Watts sailed aboard the ship on one of our Gulf Islands National Park Reserve trips.

They brought with them a treasured album, with photos and history of Capt. Watts. It’s kept aboard the Maple Leaf for our guests to peruse and get to know the man whose drive and vision created two of the most enduring pieces of boating history on the BC coast: Vancouver shipyard, and the schooner Maple Leaf.

Learn more about the SV Maple Leaf here.