OBITUARY | Keith Rusby, former chief salvage officer of Groupe Ocean

Many readers will be saddened to hear that Keith Rusby passed away in January at the age of 95.

Keith was born in South Australia and lied about his age to go to sea when he was just 15. Later, he met a British lady, Jackie, and they sailed together for a number of years after they were married, before emigrating to Canada.

In the early 1970s, Keith joined McAllister Towing and Salvage, before eventually transferring to Groupe Ocean/Ocean Group where he rapidly rose to the position of chief salvage officer. During his long career, he is credited with doing over 150 salvage jobs, which is a remarkable achievement. It is also worth remembering that he established his reputation in some of the bleakest parts of the world in the days before we had modern technology or modern communications. Salvors in those days needed courage, resilience, skill, and more than a little luck, as well as a robust sense of humour.

In Tony Redding’s excellent book Best Endeavours, which was published to mark the 50th anniversary of the International Salvage Union, Keith described several of his most memorable jobs.

When the tanker Kurdistan broke her back off Nova Scotia, the stern section was towed to shelter through heavy ice, and Keith provided the equipment to heat the oil cargo so it could be pumped to another tanker.

With the stern section redelivered, the salvors wanted to have a go at the bow, but the authorities refused and ordered it towed out to sea so the Canadian Navy could “indulge in a little target practice,” said Keith. “We saw this as a waste of 50 per cent of a good ship.”

But the government was unmoved, perhaps because the bow section would have to be towed through waters adjacent to the Deputy Prime Minister’s constituency. “Politics often intrudes in the business of salvage,” remarked Keith, summing it up nicely.

HBC 1001 was an oil barge that was also loaded with stores and provisions on deck when it grounded in the aptly-named Polar Bear Provincial Park on the shores of Hudson Bay. It was hard country, but when Keith and his salvage team arrived, they discovered that earlier visitors had amused themselves by throwing food to hungry polar bears, so the barge was surrounded by carnivores who were partial to bully beef but would happily consume a salvor as an appetiser.

The bears were not happy that this new influx of humans did not feed them, and made efforts to board the barge. The salvage team were armed as a precaution, but all survived.

As the time to refloat the barge approached, salvors hired four large canoes from the local indigenous tribe. Each was fitted with a 150hp outboard and, working in pairs, they would guide the barge into deeper water. But at the critical moment, the canoes disappeared – the owners had decided to go hunting! They returned two days later with the carcasses of a caribou and a polar bear draped across the canoes, and went back to work. After bouncing off a few rocks, the barge made it into deeper water, but by that time the waiting tug had gone aground.

Eventually, the tug was refloated and a very relieved salvage team was able to depart.

“We made for Moosonee,” Keith recounted, “through waters thick with polar bears swimming between the small islands of Huson Bay. HBC 1001 returned to service shortly afterwards. Back in Montreal, I devised a barge anchoring device that can be activated remotely by a tug, should it lose its tow in a storm.” The equipment was soon fitted to all the barges in the fleet.

When a ship struck and damaged the Welland Canal Bridge No 12, it fell across the canal and blocked all marine traffic. Keith flew in and quoted a price, but the Seaway Authority rejected it so he flew home again. Next day, the telephone rang.

“The Principal of the Seaway had had second thoughts,” Keith said. “He still had difficulty with the price, so I promised to do it for $5,000 less if we could keep the bridge.” A deal was struck and Keith became proud owner of a wrecked steel bridge. In typical salvage fashion, he then found a scrap merchant who had been given a government grant to train people to cut up scrap steel, and ended up making rather more than the original quotation.

“This satisfactory result was rounded off nicely by a letter of commendation from the Seaway,” Keith related. “Everyone was happy!”

Every generation seems to produce great salvors, but Keith and his contemporaries were a special group. They did more salvage jobs, generally with fewer resources, and I consider myself fortunate to have met so many of them at tug and salvage conferences before they retired. My abiding memory of Keith is his impish grin, with Jackie never far away. They were always smiling, and I suspect Keith would consider his 68 years with Jackie, and the family they raised, as his greatest accomplishments.

May you rest in peace, Keith.

Extracts from Best Endeavours by Tony Redding are used here with the kind permission of the International Salvage Union.

Alan Loynd

Alan Loynd is a master mariner with extensive seagoing and shore experience, especially in the areas of salvage and towage. He is the former General Manager of the renowned Hong Kong Salvage and Towage company. He now runs his own marine consultancy and was chairman of the International Tugmasters Association.