Stories from the Archives – Wreck of the A.S.H.

Hey Friends of Sable Island,

It’s Rebecca, the summer student, again.

It was awe-inspiring to see the beauty and excitement described in R.J.’s letters contrasted with the danger that the Island can bring. In fact, the danger is really what stuck out this week.

Reading R.J.’s writings about the wild horses and station repairs and lifeboat practices can make one forget the whole reason those stations were there – life saving. This would have been a reality that R.J. and his crew would need to keep in the front of their minds at all times.

This is why I was so fascinated to read the report of the wreck of the A.S.H. R.J. writes in such a way that you can feel his sadness for this wreck. There was only one survivor and I can’t help but read between the lines and see that he probably blamed himself for that fact, having called off the search until the morning.

Here is the complete letter, with a few redundancies cut out, to make the important parts the parts you read:

Sable Island, Dec 22nd, 1884.


    On Saturday morning Dec 20th at about 1:15 A.M., a wreck was reported to me by Mr. Merson of the West End Light. The wind was blowing a gale from the N.N.E. with a blinding snow storm and a very rough sea. A ship-wrecked sailor had crawled to his door in exhausted condition, one foot being bare, and could only mutter in a low tone “ship, seven”.

    I set out immediately with the horses, and two men of the staff leaving the others to be prepared with the Rocket gear in case it should be required, although it would have been quite impossible to use on such a night. I located the wreck about three miles from the Station: on the North Shore, a brigantine completely broken up. I then proceeded with my men to search the shore and the beach as far as we could but owing to the blinding snow and sand, against which we could scarcely see each other or find our way, none of the men of the wrecked vessel were discovered. After sending a messenger back to [tell] the Main Station staff to search the shore at daylight, I went on to the lifeboat. Then I saw the sailor, who in his suffering could only make signs and spoke no English.

    Having left the Light at daybreak in order to continue the search for any of the unfortunate crew, we discovered now some of the wreck, two bodies, with both being barefoot, one being without a coat. Life had [ended] in [them] for some hours.

    Early in the day, I returned again to the wreck with a team and three men, and the two bodies were brought to the Main Station. The weather had been so severe during the night, that the ice had to be chopped out round one of the bodies into which it was frozen solid. After starting the lead back, I went on again to the Light Keepers.

    The bodies received Christian burial in the little plot North of the Main Station; yesterday morning. In the afternoon word was brought in by the patrol along the North Shore that another body had washed in about 3 miles Eastern. I had just returned from the wreckage, light having gone up in the morning, and brought back the only survivor of the sad disaster. The third body had Christian burial this morning, in the same plot.

    In answer to questions in his own language, we learned from this survivor, who proves to have been the first mate, […] that the severity of the storm drove the vessel out of her course, and carried her toward the Island, and when they saw the light and discovered their [chance], and following it took off, they were struck by a heavy wave, and the vessel was thrown on her beam […]. The crew was seven in number, one being an apprentice boy. Four of them were immediately washed away, and he with the captain […] The boat at once capsized and they were washed ashore in the surf.

        […] I send you in the accompanying box all the effects I have found. The box came ashore containing the papers that are now in the bottom of it. I have placed above them in the box the letters we found on the captain’s person, with the sum of four hundred Francs […].

    Much praise is due [to the] keeper of the West End Light, for the prompt manner in which at the risk of his own life, he set out alone, and brought word to me as soon as possible, as I could not afterwards with my men, without the greatest difficulty, quickly find the wreck. I would also mention the prompt action and willing obedience of the men.

Yours respectfully,

        R.J. Boutillier


Sable Island has been the site of over 350 recorded shipwrecks since 1583, with many more not recorded. Before the life saving station was established in the first years of the 1800’s, most of the shipwrecks there weren’t even known about. In fact, as the Island is shifted around by the ocean, more and more shipwrecks and artifacts from the early wrecks are brought back into sight. It is thanks to the brave people, like R.J. Boutilier and his crew, working together on the fatal and fertile crescent that so many lives have been saved and so many of the wrecks reported in detail like the one above.

My week of transcription wasn’t completely filled with danger and mourning, though. I was able to transcribe quite a few more very interesting letters; more about what to do with the wild horses, the mention of the installation of telephones, and even a request for a teacher for the children on the Island! I can’t wait for the progression of these stories so I can share them with you!

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Smooth sailing everybody,