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Pioneer Boatworks owners moving on after 35 years in Ucluelet

A revered local couple is voyaging into the relaxing and well-deserved waters of retirement
Bonnie Gurney and Eric Caswell are ready for a relaxing retirement after 35 years operating Pioneer Boatworks shipyard and supply store in Ucluelet. (Andrew Bailey photo)

A revered local couple is voyaging into the relaxing and well-deserved waters of retirement.

Bonnie Gurney and Eric Caswell have sold their iconic Pioneer Boatworks shipyard and supply store, which they operated for over 35 years in Ucluelet.

Ucluelet mayor Mayco Noel told the Westerly News that he was a frequent customer and will “miss them dearly.”

“Everyone can attest that every time you walked into that store, whatever you needed, they were very accommodating and very community oriented,” Noel said. “Their service level was unprecedented. The customer service always amazed me…They will be dearly missed and never duplicated.”

The couple is headed for Duncan and looks forward to finally experiencing some time off this summer.

“We haven’t had a summer off in a lot of years,” Caswell said. ”As most people that are in the fishing industry and tourism industry in Ucluelet, we don’t get summer vacations. We’re going to have a summer vacation; we’ll start there.”

Gurney added that while wrapping up their successful local careers is bittersweet, “It’s time.”

“There will be things we miss. We will miss the water and we will definitely miss the people,” she said. “Our highway is the water in front of us…There’s a lot of comradery in the fishing industry. It’s local, but it’s not just local to Ucluelet. The fishing industry is local to all of Vancouver Island and the lower mainland.”

Caswell noted some of the shipyard’s clients have been with them throughout their 35-year journey.

“Now we’re dealing with their kids and in some cases their grandkids. It’s kind of come full circle for a lot of fishing families,” he said. “That’s what we’ll miss the most.”

The couple arrived in Ucluelet on June 1, 1986, from International Falls Minnesota where Gurney was a nurse and Caswell was a bricklayer at the local mill.

“We came out here and we were thinking we’d stay for five years and we stayed for 35 years,” she laughed.

She said the mill was slowing down and that prompted the couple to look for other areas to raise their two kids, who were one and five at the time.

“We decided if we’re going to make a move this is the time to make a move,” she said.

They initially looked for properties around Victoria as Gurney’s parents were living in Sidney at the time, but found themselves priced out of most of the Island’s market.

“The only place we could afford was a shipyard in Ucluelet,” Gurney said. “It was just a leap of faith.”

She added that Ucluelet was “a lot smaller” at the time and “really undeveloped” which suited them just fine as they got to work learning the ins and outs of running a shipyard, which they’d never done.

Caswell focused on the shipyard side of the business, performing annual vessel as well as repairs, while Gurney looked after the store, which offers fishing gear, hardware, raingear and a bevy of other West Coast necessities.

“Eric was responsible for the outside and I was responsible for the inside. They were kind of two separate businesses, but you did have to communicate a lot to make them both work…It’s a very unique business, very unique,” Gurney said. “There were lots of ups and downs just as anybody would experience doing this dramatic change.”

Caswell explained he had grown up around the marine industry as his father designed outboard motors.

“I operated my first boat when I was three and I used to deliver papers with a skiff,” he said, adding he went on to spend over three years in the navy.

He recalled being buoyed by his new community as he learned the ropes.

“There are some families in Ucluelet that I’m extremely grateful for that welcomed us with open arms,” he said. “When we came in, we were pretty green and didn’t know much about the commercial fishing industry, but they welcomed us with open arms. It was great. I’m really thankful for that. People took us under their wings.”

Gurney added that transitioning the shipyard and store’s operations over to the new owner has shown her how much she’s evolved over the years.

“You realize how far you’ve come. I’m picturing myself in the new owner’s shoes and I realize how much I know now. I realize I’ve come a long way. I never thought too much about it, I just put one foot ahead of the other and learned what I had to do and my husband did the same. We devoted ourselves to making this a success and bringing up our family,” she said.

“Thank you Ucluelet for all the support through the years. We couldn’t have done it without the support of the community.”

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Andrew Bailey

About the Author: Andrew Bailey

I arrived at the Westerly News as a reporter and photographer in January 2012.
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