Saving 'pirate' Ryan

Nearly three weeks ago, the boat Ryan Brackenbury had been piloting inconveniently ran aground on the beach in Gonzales Bay. Brackenbury had been anchored in the area for about a month but heavy winds and a light anchor on a sandy, rocky bottom was no match for the high winds and high tide of that storm that pushed his boat in and left him stranded.

It’s become clear to people living in the neighbourhood that the boat, lying at a thirty-degree angle, perpendicular to the shore, is Brackenbury’s home.

Brackenbury, or 'pirate Ryan' as some locals have come to know him, leaves it periodically on his bicycle with a skateboard strapped to his pack. If the bike is gone, he isn’t there. If at first his arrival was a curiosity, his weeks-long presence on the beach has become an unnerving waiting game to see how the situation will be resolved.

This isn’t Ryan’s first time on Gilligan’s island. His reputation for running aground verges on the legendary.

In Dec 2018, Brackenbury was forced to run the 20ft fibreglass boat he was living on aground in McNeill Bay. He took on water and needed help but C-Tow service wasn’t called because the charge to lend him aid would have cost either Oak Bay or Brackenbury roughly $400 per hour.

Then, in 2019, Brackenbury was fined a precedent setting $15K for failing to comply with a coast guard order to remove a 27ft white-hulled cabin cruiser called the Akoo, from where he ran it aground in Cadboro Bay. The Coast Guard determined that that boat posed a hazard to the marine environment and to public safety.

The Coast Guard (CCG) only removes vessels when they present navigational or environmental hazards and it was the first time the Coast Guard had ever issued a fine for a hazardous abandoned vessel. The CCG can issue fines of up to $50,000 per violation and additional fines can be issued every day until the violation ceases.

Slapping Brackenbury with a fine is like bloodletting granite.

According to his LinkedIn page, he is the CEO of the Ending Re-Offending Society (EROS), a “rehabilitation alternative to jail, teaching life skills giving the knowledge necessary to become a valued member of the community with opportunity of a hopeful future with the skills and tools necessary to end the cycle offending for the people stuck in the circle of repeatedly getting released from jails and institutions every few months.”

In very real terms, it’s a program he could have designed from experience. Ryan has been in touch with the law across several provinces and charged with crimes varying in degree of seriousness. He’s a man who, in his own words, is merely “passing along what I have learned from my own failures so others will have results with endless possibility's [sic].”

There is something undeniably compelling about a person in the possession of a boat who, without exhibiting any obvious mastery of the craft, has caused a multi-jurisdictional ruckus that, as of Wednesday, no one outfit of authority has been able to resolve. He is a man operating fully outside of the laws of both the land and the sea. Some folks are here for it, insofar as they feel sorry for him but many just want the boat gone.

When asked about their interaction with the boat, the Coast Guard told Capital Daily that “contact was made with the owner of the vessel after the vessel beached” and that members “attended the scene and assessed the vessel as a low hazard to pollute hydrocarbons.” In other words, the wreck doesn’t qualify as an environmental hazard.

Under Canadian law, vessel owners are responsible for their vessel at all times and are responsible for repairs, salvage, and prevention or clean-up of leaking fuel and oil. Vessel owners are also liable for the costs of damage caused by pollution originating from their vessel. In this case, there is no pollution issuing from Brackenbury’s boat.

Their file on the boat has been handed over to Transport Canada. However, in the interim, they said, “the Coast Guard continues to monitor the vessel and, in the event that the situation changes or the vessel deteriorates and becomes a hazard, we are prepared to take action if required.”

It’s come down to the question of who is responsible for getting the boat off the beach.

Inoperable but not hazardous and with its keel cut along nearly its entire length—thanks to some handy work Brackenbury got up to with a chainsaw on Tuesday—the boat remains “home.” Essentially, Ryan is now camping in his leaning, damaged boat in the middle of Gonzales Beach. Enter City of Victoria Bylaw officers, three of whom came to speak with Brackenbury on Wednesday morning. Capital Daily was asked at that time, not to record the conversation and to remain a number of feet away while they spoke with the man.

The situation verges on the ludicrous if not the desolate. Brackenbury, has been resourceful enough, however dubiously, at making his way in it by repeatedly coming into the possession of an alternative housing option again and again. Until he wrecks it.

During the McNeill Bay incident, Brackenbury said “I’ve had my name on the BC Housing thing for a couple years now and I haven’t had any luck, so you know, this (living on boats) is the best option.” No one who would take more than a minute to look into the patterns of misfortune and misconduct that have plagued his life would doubt him when he says, “coming from my heart and walks of life as i have no idea the amount of work i have to do each day.” The daily slog for survival is something support organizations often hear from people who are unhoused.

Brackenbury is no pirate. He’s a beleaguered man whose luck has repeatedly run aground.

Sidney Coles, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Capital Daily