R. B. ‘Ratch’ Wallace: ‘Captain Hollywood’

By: Brian Johnson

Volume 19, Issue 4, April 2024

[Note: This article was first published in TI Life in November 2011. In June 2019 we changed internet format and archived articles from April 2008 - June 2019. Unfortunatey, a few of our past articles - over 1,700 of them - were lost. "R.B. 'Ratch' Wallace: 'Captain Hollywood'" was one of them.  Thanks to an observant reader, we were notified, and we are pleased to republish it now. We have added the comments received on the first edition]

Not twice in an average lifetime, did a man find himself in command of a crack new Down Easter, about to take center stage before an audience of uptown bloods, silent and looking on. Let them look. He’d show them what a hard case Cape Horner looked like.   “Voyage” by Sterling Hayden

All afternoon the wind blew. By late evening, it was gale force, 35 – 40 knots hard, from the southwest. Ships throughout the Great Lakes were dropping anchor in any protected bay or harbour.

On the last night of his life, Captain Ratch B. Wallace, of the cruise ship Canadian Empress, listened to the latest weather report over the radio with his Chief Mate Arthur Emtage, inside the warm wheelhouse of their ship. The message repeated itself over and over, with no variation: “Severe weather watch in effect . . . wind warning . . .”

Capt. Ratch Burnhill Wallace

Tied to the dock at Coteau Landing, Quebec, the Canadian Empress was securely and safely moored. The trip down Lake St. Francis wasn’t too bad, but now the seas were rolling into the protected harbour. Getting up from his chair, Wallace walked out the leeward side of the wheelhouse and onto the bridge wing of his ship, nearly losing his cap. He clamped his hand to his head and leaned his six foot four frame over the dockside rail. This would never do, he thought, staring down the ship’s side. Water was sloshing up between the ship and the concrete pier. The bumping was pushing the big fenders almost flat. Returning into the wheelhouse, the two men discussed their plan to make the passengers more comfortable. For the rest of the evening, master and mate, with their deckhands Andy and Ryan, and assisted by bar steward Justine, adjusted lines and fenders using both main engines and bow thruster. The wind continued incessantly, gusting up to 50 knots on occasion. Hydro lines whistled. Nearby trees bent and twisted in protest. But nothing could drown out that loud, commanding voice from the bridge: “Slack off here . . . Haul in there . . .!” He could be heard above the din. Probably throughout the harbour, too. By 2:00 am, Captain Wallace was satisfied; his ship was snug and the passengers – all fast asleep – never felt a thing.

“By early morning, the wind was still blowing hard,” said Mate Emtage. “The captain and I listened to the weather report, and then he said he wasn’t feeling well. I noticed his colour was off. I asked him would he like to return to his room. He answered that he didn’t think he could make it.” An ambulance was called. Shortly afterward, Captain Wallace collapsed on the bridge of his ship. Both Emtage and deckhand Ryan Mullen started CPR. Later, as the ambulance drove away, every crew member, fearing the worst, came to realize the inevitable. Their captain was gone. He wouldn’t be coming back. Outside the small harbour, the wind continued to blow the tops off the curling waves.

It was Sunday morning, October 16, 2011. My good friend and fellow Canadian Empress colleague, Ratch Burnill Wallace, had suddenly passed away. He was 66.
He was ‘Captain Hollywood’ in his heyday, and he loved it! The only child of Bill and Grace Wallace, Ratch got bitten by the acting bug during his high school years. He began his professional stage career as an actor at the Crest Theatre in Toronto, and the Stratford Shakespearean Festival, after attending Humberside Collegiate, Lakefield College, and the University of Waterloo. In 1966, he starred in the Canadian feature film “The Offering,” written and directed by David Secter. His film career encompassed ten movies, including “Ragtime Summer”, for which he wrote the screenplay and also produced with Deanne Judson.

“Earlier this year, he returned to the stage as the Head Waiter in Pacific Opera Victoria’s production of La Boehme,” said daughter Kate ‘Casey’ Wallace. “No, he didn’t sing a word. He did a great job. He loved the gig.”

“Dad was concerned about the opera singers and the placement of the props he had to deal with,” added younger daughter Mercedes, “but he didn’t complain to anyone, just concerned that he looked like a professional waiter and not a bumbling fool!” Many will remember Ratch in his role as Kenny Volker, the tough guy hockey player – with a heart – on the CBC television series “Seeing Things” from 1981 through 1987. Ratch is survived by Kate, his older daughter, and her three children with Lance Priestly: Jackson, Ruby, and Shane. His younger daughter, Mercedes Calvert and Todd Legault, have two children: Johnny and Jake. Ratch also leaves Lissa Calvert, his lifetime companion.

As an actor, Wallace was travelling back and forth to California working on various projects and assignments when he struck up a friendship with veteran actor, mariner, and novelist, the late Sterling Hayden. The two men hit it off immediately, both standing well over six feet in their socks, loud, booming voices and a zest for life involving acting, writing, and sailing. “When he talks, it’s loud,” Kate remembered. “His whisper is not a whisper. It’s a stage aside, so the audience does hear you. Ugh!” Hayden convinced him to pursue his sailing interests as a career. The younger man heeded Hayden’s advice and fell in love with the sea. He entered officer training at Georgian College in Owen Sound, which was followed by Great Lakes and North Atlantic voyages in the fleets of Upper Lakes Shipping and Imperial Oil. Eventually Certified as a Master Mariner, Wallace became captain of the 1925 Muskoka Lakes steamship SS Segwun. One day in 1982, he came knocking on Bob Clark’s door here in Kingston. “Captain Wallace served St. Lawrence Cruise Ships with ambition and enthusiasm from age 38 to 48,” Clark remembers. “Some might say the best years of a man’s life.”

Big and theatrical, Wallace commanded attention just by his presence, both on the bridge of the Canadian Empress and ashore at her ports of call. In 1992, the Captain moved on and became the Senior Superintendent at Robert Reford, a General Steamship Agent company. In 1999, westward bound, Wallace joined B.C. Ferries to be near his family. “We must have trained him well,” said Bob Clark. “He became senior captain of their fleet and Vice President of Operations and Acquisitions. Fortunately for us, B.C. Ferries has a mandatory retirement age of 65 and we once again benefitted from his talent for two more seasons.”

In 2010, Ratch was thrilled to be back aboard his former command, his Canadian Empress. A little older, but that ‘Hollywood persona’ remained. “He always had a comb at the ready, should an errant, mischievous wind throw his hair into disarray,” remarked bar steward Justine Sousa. “Virgin Caesars were his drink of choice when dining with the guests. If any lemon touched any part of his Caesar, the drink had to be remade – with lime. His iced coffee was to be made in a pilsner glass. Two sweeteners, then the coffee added, and a serious stir with his favourite long handled bar spoon. One cream to be served on the side.”

Crew at attention on the Canadian Empress, Kingston. 

Deckhand Ryan Mullen describes his first meeting with his new boss. “He stood in front of me. All six foot four inches tall, his shoulders globed like a full sail strung, and said ‘So you’re one of my deckhands, eh? I hear that you know the difference between the pointy end and the blunt end!’” As neither had family living close by, the two became close, both aboard and ashore. “He took me under his wing, giving me guidance and direction, as well as the next steps to make my dreams a reality.” Mullen was with him those last few moments, pounding on his chest. It is said that American writer and river pilot Mark Twain departed his life riding Haley’s Comet. It’s a known fact that Captain Ratch Wallace departed his colourful life riding the ‘horsetails’ of a south-westerly gale!

The Master's Salute on board the Canadian Empress, Kingston October 2011.

Returning to Kingston, Canadian Empress had her ensign at half-mast: ‘Ship returning, master missing’. Flying forward, snapping smartly in the incessant south westerly wind were the signal flags: Romeo, Bravo, Whiskey – Ratch Burnill Wallace.

Captain Stephen Steels arranged an honour flotilla for his former colleague and friend with the Island Queen, Island Star, Island Belle, and the Wolfe Islander III. Even the bascule bridge at the LaSalle Causeway stood to attention. All four ships blew one long and two short blasts of their whistles as we passed. The Master’s Salute.

Returning home, October 9, 2011.

The Canadian Empress is tied up now for the season. Summer is over and soon, over at her winter berth, her empty outer decks will be covered in snow. Cabins, passageways, and even the wheelhouse will be silent. No radio weather reports or booming voice cursing them. You know, I’ll bet if you listen carefully, some quiet night this coming winter, over in Anglin Bay, you’ll hear that voice, on the wind – a loud whisper – according to Kate, especially if it’s blowing south-westerly: “Ryan, coffee, now!”

Memorial services for Captain Wallace were held aboard Canadian Empress on Sunday, October 23, 2011, in Kingston, and again, in Toronto harbour, aboard Wayward Princess on Thursday, October 27, 2011. A final salute was held in Vancouver, B.C. with his family.

This story first appeared in the Kingston Whig Standard as ‘An Unforgettable Presence’ on Saturday, October 29, 2011.

By Brian Johnson, Captain(retired), Wolfe Islander III and, on occasion, the Canadian Empress.

Brian Paul Johnson was one of five captains of the Wolfe Island car ferry Wolfe Islander III. He worked for the Ontario  Ministry of Transportation for more than 30 years, recently celebrating  20+ years as captain.  He also recently retired as a captain of the Canadian Empress.

Click here  and here to see many of Brian’s contributions!

This link is to a restored version of a Province interview by Michael Walsh, originally published in January 1975 and republished in November 2018.

The following comments have been posted since the original story was published in November 2011.

Posted in: Volume 19, Issue 4, April 2024, History, People, Places

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