Catching up: When a U.S. vice-president came to fish
George H.W. Bush was a gentleman, says Randy Wright.
Barbara Bush? “She was lovely.”
Today, Wright is president of Harbour Air, but on June 10, 1986, he was the 20-something guy rigging the rods for the U.S. vice-president on a fishing trip out of Oak Bay.
Bush died on Friday. On Monday, Wright looked back on the day he and his father, Oak Bay Marine Group founder Bob Wright, took the future president fishing.
The jaunt was advertised as a chance for some low-key rest and relaxation before Bush left for official engagements at Expo 86 in Vancouver and talks with then-Prime Minister Brian Mulroney in Ottawa.
In reality, there was no such thing as a low-key trip for the man who would succeed Ronald Reagan as president.
The preparations were elaborate. This might have been pre-9/11, but remember that Reagan had barely survived an assassination attempt in 1981. The Wrights took Bush’s Washington, D.C. staff out on the water one day and the Secret Service on another, practice runs for the actual adventure.
On the day, dog teams sniffed around the marina, while divers swam in search of underwater threats. A dedicated office had to be found for the red phone to the White House. Snipers perched on roofs. After landing at Victoria International aboard Air Force Two, the Bushes were whisked to the marina by motorcade. It was a Washington staffer — half of a set of twins, Wright recalled — who gave the limos the all-clear to enter the marina: “He went into his wrist watch like Dick Tracy and said ‘Go, Rider, Go!’ ” The entourage came in hot, flying into the parking lot at a speed guaranteed to rattle Oak Bay teacups and sensibilities.
Quite the operation, Wright told the Secret Service boss. “You’re lucky the big boy’s not coming,” came the reply. The big boy was Reagan.
On the water, 17 people crammed onto Leo Theofan’s 36-foot cruiser Max III. Garde Gardom represented the province, Transport Minister Don Mazankowski the feds. The mayor of Oak Bay wanted to come, but there wasn’t room.
The boat was flanked by a pair of 40-foot RCMP vessels, with rigid-hull inflatables fore and aft. Seals were forced to share normally empty islets with yet more snipers. A helicopter peeled away only after they reached the fishing grounds.
Among all this, they had to try to catch some fish. Wright, handling the rods, was so nervous that he tied two flashers on one line.
Bush was told they would have to stay out an extra three hours, doubling the planned length of the excursion, to catch the evening bite. Sure, he said. “He loved fishing,” Wright said.
They headed out for Trial Island, Chatham, Discovery … “He took the first fish,” Wright recalled. The RCMP boats sounded their horns as Bush landed the spring.
They wanted him to have the second salmon, too, but when it hit, Bush wanted someone else to take a turn. “He was a real gentleman,” Wright said. “I was impressed with him.”
Bush was eventually cajoled into taking the rod. The rules of the day let each angler keep two chinook, and they wanted to make sure he limited out. Barbara Bush landed a salmon, too — a six-pounder — as did Gardom and Mazankowski.
They caught six springs in total, which was a relief given the sight that greeted them when they returned to the dock. “To my surprise, as we came back into the marina there were probably 800 people waiting there,” Wright said. “If we hadn’t got fish, we would have looked like bozos.”
The trip wasn’t all for fun. At the time, Canada and the U.S. were locked in a shake-and-shingle dispute, which Bush, Gardom and Mazankowski attempted to hash out below decks.
That left Wright up top with Barbara Bush. Doesn’t all this security get to you, he asked her.
“Oh Randy,” she replied, “they’re just like family. They’re around us all the time. You get used to it.”
The Times Colonist story of the day said the party had to deal with 20-knot winds and a fog bank. A Secret Service agent got stretchered away after slipping and injuring his ankle on another boat.
Bush, sporting an Expo 86 ball cap, was beaming when he stepped off the Max III holding a 16-pound salmon at 9:30 p.m. “What fun we had,” the veep declared.
The Bushes stayed at The Empress, not Government House, since their visit was not deemed an official one. The next morning, they sailed aboard the Queen of Tsawwassen, which docked at B.C. Place. (We can trust they didn’t eat the Sunshine Breakfast; if they had, Canada and the U.S. might still be at war.)
“All in all, it was a great day,” Wright said.