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Sailor’s journey still shrouded in mystery

By the time her husband, Les, had untied his sailboat and pushed off into Semiahmoo Bay, June Hambleton had already had a few drinks.

So had most of the members of the send-off party, although their glasses were raised in celebration, as opposed to June, who was trying to calm frayed nerves, as she watched Les – her husband of 26 years – set course on a wild, round-the-world journey aboard the 28-foot ketch which he had built himself, over the better part of a decade, in a barn behind their South Surrey home.

Truth be told, Les – who was attempting the adventure solo – had probably had a few drinks too, and June only hoped he wouldn’t immediately make himself another now that he found himself alone on his boat, with nothing in front of him but the heaving waves of the sea.

While the rest of their friends left the beach to continue the party elsewhere, like at the Legion, June sat alone and watched as Les’s boat, The Lemming, disappeared over the horizon.

It was 1971, and June Hambleton never saw her husband again.

It’s presumed nobody did.

• • •

Les had tried it once before, this sailing-around-the-world thing, and it did not go well.

In the spring of 1969, the jeweller/engraver announced a plan to sail around the globe. His pronouncement came as a surprise, because aside from owning a boat when the family lived for a time in Deep Cove – a 16-footer, recalls son Steven – Les did not have much experience on the water, save for the trip aboard the ship that took him and his fellow Canadian soldiers to England during the Second World War.

“He wasn’t a sailor, not by any means, but he was friends with sailors,” notes Maureen Harbott, June’s niece, adding that longtime Peninsula residents may remember her uncle, either through the Legion or from his sailing exploits.

To prepare for his trip, Les had spent much of the previous two years sailing around the Gulf Islands, testing his sailing skills – and the sea-worthiness of his boat – in all types of weather conditions.

“It was a nice boat, but not really the type of boat you’d think was fit for that kind of voyage,” recalls Maureen’s husband, Michael.

In order to finance the venture, and to ensure his family had enough money while he was away, Les sold the family home and golf course, Meridian Par 3 Golf Club, on which the home sat.

Like Les’s interest in sailing, the course had been built on something of a whim, when an old friend, was over having a drink and whacked a golf ball into the yard.

“That’s where your first green should be,” the friend told Les when the ball landed.

Soon enough, that’s where the first green in fact was, along with 17 more on the 168 Street property.

All this despite the fact Les was not a golfer.

The course was a success, but maintaining it was hard work for the entire family, except, it seemed to friends, Les, who preferred to spend his time working on his boat.

“I’m going to sail around the world,” he’d tell June often, but she brushed off the claim as nothing more than a dream.

He soon started planning.

According to a March 29, 1969 story in The Columbian – a now-defunct New Westminster newspaper – Les’s route would see him head first to Maui, and from there he would head to Samoa, around Australia to Africa. If all went well, he’d be sailing around the Cape Horn by Christmas, and after a month’s layover in Tahiti, would then head back to White Rock.

The journey was expected to last 15 months.

Les left March 30. He arrived in Maui two months later – a month overdue – and called June to say he was cutting his trip short and coming home. He could hardly speak on the phone. He could barely walk and was ill enough that he had a short stay in hospital.

The most difficult part of the trip, he told her, was his inability to stay dry. At one point, after being constantly wet, he tried to change into dry socks, and his toenails fell off.

He asked June to send Steven, just 20 at the time, to Hawaii, so he could help him sail home.

“He looked awful, just in really rough shape,” recalls Maureen, who was there on shore the day Les and Steven returned to White Rock.

For his part, Steven, who lives in Victoria, remembers the trip as something of a thrill for a young man who, until then, had never travelled far from his home.

“That was my first time on the water – and I’d never been on a trip that long,” he said. “It was just an adventure.”

• • •

It was during the war that Les met June, at a small pub in west England. She was there with her sister, Nellie, and Nellie’s husband, Bill.

Bill, as he often did, found himself seated at the piano, and June, on a stool beside him, entertained the pub crowd – which included Les – by singing.

Soon, Les approached the 17-year-old June and struck up a conversation. They hit it off, and during his next military leave, Les travelled to June’s London home to visit her and meet her family. Right away, June’s mother did not approve of the tall Canadian soldier sitting at her kitchen table. But this did nothing but drive the two closer together.

Within months, they were wed.

The war soon over, Les returned to Canada, and June – pregnant with their first child – followed soon after, traversing the Atlantic with other war brides.

Before leaving, June did not speak to her mother, who had become increasingly frustrated with her young daughter. In fact, they never spoke again.

The trip was a long one. Later in life, June would remark to family members that the journey overseas seemed to go on forever.

After the voyage and an equally long train journey across the country, Les and June were reunited. They settled first in Pitt Meadows, and then on the Peninsula.

They’d go on to have six children – two boys, four girls – and, as their children grew up, Les seemed to have a difficult time dealing with them, friends say.

It was this reason, those friends surmise, that Les became more focused on his boat.

“White Rock was a bit of a wild place in those days, and it was kind of that flower-power era,” notes Michael. “They never seemed to be a particularly close family… he had a lot of trouble dealing with his teenage children.”

Then, in ’71, with the family living in a small house on Victoria Street – with a view of the ocean – Les decided, to set sail.

Steven doesn’t recall ever entertaining the thought his father would not return.

“What else do you think when you’re 20? You’re young, only thinking about yourself. I actually thought it was kind of cool – he was doing something he wanted to do, just going off on another adventure.”

• • •

After Les left Semiahmoo Bay in the summer of 1971, the family heard from him only sporadically.

First, there was confirmation he’d made it to Hawaii. Steven recalls his father made it nearly to Australia, too, but after that… communication stopped.

“I got one letter, my mom got a few, too, but that’s it.”

After no communication for some time, a search began, but efforts were fruitless.

“It was a lot of area to cover… 4,000 kilometres of ocean,” Steven says.

After five years, June was declared a widow. She continued to live in the Lower Mainland – eventually remarrying and settling back in White Rock, then Aldergrove – before passing away in the 1990s.

While most assume that Les and his boat met with their demises at sea, not knowing exactly what happened has always been troubling for family members.

“He could have had an accident at sea, or really, he could have just cut off contact and spent the rest of his life living somewhere in the South Seas, you really don’t know. It would be nice to have had that closure,” says Michael. “It’s just one of those mysteries, and the years go by, and you kind of forget.”

Though it’s been 40 years since his father’s disappearance, Steven, too, finds himself wondering what may have happened.

“A few years back, I saw a boat in Victoria harbour that looked familiar – my dad’s boat was pretty unique – that made me stop and think, and take a second look, but I didn’t see anybody on it.

“You always wonder, I guess. But I haven’t heard from my dad since 1971.”