THE START OF AN EMPIRE
HIGEAR SEAFOOD got its start in 1984. Tim Webster and Margaret McKenzie were a young couple living on their sailboat at Fisherman’s Wharf in the James Bay area of Victoria, B.C. The economy was in poor shape and work was hard to find. On top of this it was clear that Tim didn’t have what it takes to work for other people and in the words of one employer was “@#@!& untrainable”.
One day Tim and a friend set out on a harbor tour in the friend’s small cabin cruiser. As they passed Rose Bay, the engine died. The wind was blowing from the west and the boat was quickly being pushed towards the rocks. The boys set the anchor and went to work on the old Chrysler Crown. After an hour of troubleshooting the problem was resolved and the engine came to life.
The two started to haul the anchor up by hand. It was a tough slog and the anchor had clearly become snagged on something. After a bit of heavy lifting the anchor finally broke the surface. The snag turned out to be a commercial ground-line linking heavy crab traps. One of these traps was visible just beneath the surface and to their amazement was stuffed with large male Dungeness crab. After peering at this sight for a while the line was slipped off the anchor and the crabs disappeared from view.
Over the course of the next few days, the light bulb started to dimly flicker in Tim’s brain. “If I could figure out how to legally get crabs like that back to our dock they could be sold to the public. Maybe there is a living to be had.”
A couple of docks over Tim had noticed a 33’ double ended Japanese gillnetter for sale. The sign in the window said, “$13,000, comes with 25 crab traps and a ‘C’ license.” At that time all that was needed to fish crab was this type of license. Despite being basically penniless, the two persisted in trying to make it happen. Relatives were hit up for money and in the end it was determined that $11,000 could be offered. Tim contacted the owner and arranged to visit him at his home to make the offer.
It turned out the owner was a ferocious looking, tattoed, biker sort of dude. He was a huge and very hairy fellow and didn’t seem to be overly thrilled to see our young hero. Nervously pressing on, Tim squeaked out, “how does $11,000 sound?” Apparently it didn’t sound very good at all as the biker went into a bit of a rage calling the offer an “insult” and referring to Tim with some rather unflattering names. The would-be fisherman fled the scene thinking that any plan B had to be better than this.
A week later, Tim and Margaret were in the bunk aboard their sailboat around 4 a.m. They awoke to hear the ominous sound of heavy biker boots coming down the dock. The boots stopped outside the boat. The two trembled in fear.
“Webster, are you in there?” roared the biker. Tim gave Margaret a nudge and suggested that it sounded like it was for her. Margaret wasn’t biting so poor Tim slid the hatch back and stuck his head into the early morning gloom.
“Yes what can I do for you?’ Tim said nervously.
“Hey man, have you still got that $8,000?”, asked the biker.
Thinking quickly, Tim replied in the affirmative.
“Well get up then and you have yourself a deal. Let’s hit your bank.”
“Great idea, but it’s only 4 a.m. you know.”
“That would explain why I didn’t see any cars on the way here. Get up anyway and we’ll go for coffee.”
And so, Tim spent the next few uneasy hours with the seller, waiting for the bank to open. The money eventually changed hands, the biker went on a “beer and babes” mission to California and the hook was set for Tim and Margaret.
Over the course of the next quarter century successfully Tim operated a few different vessels, finally settling on the 35’ aluminum Hi-Gear. Tim also became actively involved in fishing politics and formed the Gulf Crab Fishery Association in the early 90’s. He remained as president for 9 years before leaving the position. In the following years he played an advisory role and tried to support the fishermen’s associations in any way. To this day he maintains an active interest in crab fishing policy.
In April 2008, Tim and Margaret decided that they had had enough of the day to day life of fishing. The timing seemed right to make the switch to a new business. At the same time the Department of Fisheries offered to buy the license through the Allocation Transfer Program. The papers were signed and the crab permit was given to a First Nations group.
Once the license was gone the couple imagined a life of tropical holidays interspersed with days of lounging on the couch drinking beer and eating bonbons. Well, perhaps it was just Tim who enjoyed this fantasy. The reality was that two things continued as before. First thing was that huge bills kept appearing in the mailbox. The second and more important was that their old customers continued to call asking for crab.
Throughout their career they had been very conscious of the need to self market their crab locally. As a result they had a long list of customers of various sorts. Wholesale and restaurant accounts
were complimented by a strong retail side. The two have been selling direct to the public from their boats at Fisherman’s Wharf in Victoria since the first day they pulled a trap.
Once again, the light bulb slowly flickered as Tim realized that perhaps a living might be had out of this situation. And so, Hi-Gear Seafood was born.