Sable Island Summer Stories – Shipwrecks

Hello! This is Shania, your Archives Storyteller, and I am going to discuss a bit of the history surrounding shipwrecks on Sable Island.  

Sable Island has long been a hotspot for shipwrecks throughout its history – hundreds of ships have found themselves cast away on its shores.  There are several reasons why the island has proved such a dangerous spot for sailors.  For one, the island is prone to bad weather, including strong winds and storms throughout the year, as is frequently discussed in archival documents.  Another factor is the island’s sandbars, which extend under the water a far distance from the island, and can lead ships to become badly damaged if the crew do not realize their presence.

“The length of the W Bar has been greatly exaggerated, but it is still a most formidable danger, excluding 14 miles from the island, to the depth of 10 fathoms, and 13 miles to 6 fathoms.  All within this last-named depth being a line of heavy breakers in bad weather – not far from the and of this bar, the depth amounts to 140 fathoms, so that a Vessel going moderately fast might be on the bar in a few minutes after trying in vain for soundings.  This bar more-over, is very steep all along its North side, and is on these accounts exceedingly dangerous.”

Unknown, 1851

The combination of frequent bad weather and underwater sandbars is a deadly one – ships, who already are being battered by storms, might try to escape the risks of sailing through the storm by quickly landing on the island, only to be wrecked when they are unable to detect the danger below the waves. 

1908.  An off-shore wind after a gale on the north side. (Photo credit: Trixie Boutillier, The Vickridge Collection)

Because of these problems, the island was a major risk to ships passing by it on their way to Halifax or the United States.  In the interest of preserving as many lives and as much property as could be managed, the government of the day decided to create an Humane Establishment on the island for the purpose of assisting wrecked vessels on Sable Island.  Since the island was capable of supporting agriculture (as was discussed in the last Archives Storytime), the people of the Establishment could live on the island full time and therefore always be present to help if they were needed.  There were settlements on both the West and East sides of the island, for the purpose of being close at hand to assist no matter the direction the ship had approached from, as well as a HeadQuarters for the entire Establishment.  There were also shelters in place for survivors, as well as life boats and other equipment for the purposes of saving people and cargo.

Lifeboat crew – Main Station. (Photo credit: Trixie Boutillier, The Vickridge Collection)

This is not to say that the employees of the Establishment had an easy time however.  The Establishment was perpetually running low on funds and provisions, with the risk of starvation being a frighteningly often occurrence.

“We have a great many Wrecks here this Winter with Seventy Six Persons, besides the Twenty five persons belonging to the Establishment to Feed, and from the very small stock of Provisions put on the Island last October, say 15 bbl of Flour, and five barrels of Bread, I have had Serious apprehensions of much Suffering, some of those Persons have been here since the 12th of November, and we lost a great many of our Potatoes, by the universal complaint that is among them, I have been, and am now killing cattle to feed one hundred & one mouths and we shall be entirely out of Provisions by the last of February if even no more Distressed people comes on the Island”

Joseph Darby, 1847

This was only exasperated by the influx of extra people brought on by wrecks who also required items from the island’s already strained stores.  It would be inaccurate to assert that the island was perpetually on the edge of total economic collapse, as it is known that the island had a fairly thriving agricultural sector, but when winter came and the storms loomed larger than normal, it is easy to see how things could become tight. 

There were also accusations of wrecked people being taken advantage of by the superintendent of the island, with him demanding payment for food and shelter.  Whether this is actually true is unclear, as the documents discussing the case can sometimes feel very much like an 19th century game of “he said, she said”, but there is no denying how vulnerable people wrecked on Sable Island would have been, and how much they relied on the people of the Establishment to help them make it home safely. 

Of course, it was not only human lives that the people of the Establishment were contracted to rescue.  The preservation of cargo was just as important to their mission.  Not only did the owners of the wrecked ships highly value the items that were being transported, but the Establishment could be paid Salvage for the items they saved, as well as auction off items that were not claimed by their owners.  There was therefore a substantial economic incentive to save as much cargo from wrecked vessels as possible.  While this set up could be beneficial to both ship owners and the leadership of the Establishment, it also often led to arguments and legal disputes over who was owed what money and materials.  In one particular case, that of the “Growler”, the owners of the ship were angered by the commissioners of the island selling the cargo from the vessel, claiming that they were not told of this or given any chance to collect their property, while the commissioners claimed they had acted lawfully.  This dispute goes on for several letters, and handily demonstrates how messy ownership rights could become when the possibility of acquiring funds became involved.

1897.  Salvaging Charles H Taylor. (Photo credit: Trixie Boutillier, The Vickridge Collection)
Composite photograph of Alfios and the flying fox arrangement used for salvage. (Photo credit: Don Johnson, The Vickridge Collection)

Fortunately, modern navigational equipment has made shipwrecks far less common along Sable’s shores.  Shipwrecks began decreasing in number and severity in the late 1800’s after the construction of lighthouses on the island, and the need for a life-saving establishment became lesser as the years went on. The advent of such tools as radar only made things easier for ships as they sailed by the island, and the final major shipwreck on the island took place in 1947, with that also being the last significant rescue conducted by the Humane Establishment on Sable.  The Establishment was finally closed in 1958, with the small community that had been created to sustain its operations going with it.  The final wreck on the island as of the present day was in 1999 of a small private vessel, and it seems unlikely that there will be many more wrecks in Sable Island’s future.

The Panamanian freighter Manhasset.  She ran ashore on 4 July 1947 whilst on route from Hampton Roads Virginia to St John’s, Newfoundland (Photo credit: Department of Transport, The Vickridge Collection)

Although there has not been a life-saving establishment on Sable Island in over 60 years, it is important to remember the essential work that was conducted on Sable Island throughout the Humane Establishment’s 157 years in operation.  Many lives and livelihoods were saved by the people who braved the rough sea and sometimes even rougher island in order to preserve the lives of those unlucky enough to be stranded on its shores.  In 1855, the Superintendent of the Establishment and the men who served under him were awarded medals of honour by the Shipwrecked Fishermen and Marines committee of the Royal Benevolent Society for their work in saving the lives of many people who had been shipwrecked on the island, stating that the medals testified to

“The Committee’s approval of their brave and devoted conduct on saving the lives of their fellow creatures.”

Francis Lean, 1855

The story of the shipwrecks of Sable Island is one of loss and dispute, but also one of bravery and hard work in the name of preventing untimely deaths. Thank you for reading, and I hope you enjoyed this tale! I’ll be back soon with some more stories from the archives.