"While men sail in ships there will be wrecks an Sable's greedy sands"
C, F. BLACKADAR
DOWN ALONG Nova Scotia and along the Atlantic shore, seagoing men will tell you that the lifesaving crews must stay on Sable Island. In other parts of the world the wireless and automatic lights have often replaced lifeboat crews, but that wall not be the case with the most dreaded “graveyard” of the Atlantic.
This is a mechanical age, but I wish to register my strongest disapproval of any move to take away the heroic men who guard the wild, wind-swept shores of Canada’s loneliest island. It is one place in the world where mechanism cannot replace men, and Death, grim and leering, is ever on patrol, ready to take advantage of any mistake that occurs. And that grisly ridge of insatiable sand, 110 miles southeast from Nova Scotia, treacherous, greedy and merciless, is a zone where one mistake spells doom.
Many writers have pictured the death sands and wild ponies of that lonely island, having paid the spot a brief visit or received their information secondhand, but I write from experience, the experience of years of nights on duty, listening to the howling winds about the East Light, thinking of the countless lives lost within call of the shore, imagining all the eerie things that can occur in such an area. I have seen Sable Island at its best and at its worst, in all the seasons of the year and for many, many years, and I know there will always be the danger of lives being lost there, no matter what mechanical aids the ingenuity of man may devise.
Not many years back there were three crews stationed on the island, but now, with so many mechanical aids guiding ships and spreading warnings, the crews have been reduced. But men wfio can handle lifeboats are still there, and should always be there, for while men sail in ships there will be w'recks along Sable sands.
The ghosts of more than 190 ships scud through the storm drift of that wild w'aste, and hundreds of fine sailormen sleep their last sleep along that bare stretch of stormbeaten sand. The fierce wrack and blasts of storms, the treachery of sudden winds and inexplicable currents, the
flotsam and jetsam of the elements have always been the dominant keynote of that death-ridden island of the sea.
Hardy Men Are Needed
yALL SEAFARING men will agree that the most experi1 enced and hardy men are needed in Sable Island crews, for the island is eighteen miles long and often there is no time to be wasted if human lives are to be saved. The story in the newspapers of September 14, 1937, bears out every statement I have made. Here are the headlines and text of the article:
“SABLE ISLAND’S SHIFTING SANDS TAKE ANOTHER VICTIM.
The National Fish trawler, Lemberg, out of Halifax, lies a battered wreck, gripped in the treacherous sands of Sable Island. Her crew of 27 men are safe, having been taken off the trawler by the island lifeboat men—another heroic and successful endeavor to their credit—but the 275-ton fishing craft is piled up on the North West Bar, another victim of the 'Graveyard of the Deep.’
“Distress signals flashed out from the radio room of the Lemberg shortly before two o’clock Sunday morning, and were answered by a United States freighter and another craft. Both the would-be rescue ships steamed at once to the Lemberg’s assistance, but were unable to get within miles of the wreck on account of the dangerous sand bars.
“All through the dark morning hours, while the seas battered away at the trawler, her crew were forced to remain aboard and trust that the life-saving crews would reach them. Those heroic men, whose only break from monotonous days and nights comes when a ship piles up on one of the bars, had to make two trips to the Lemberg before the last man was safely ashore. They were forced to transport their boat, which is manned by a crew of twelve, from one side of the island to the other before
the rescue could be effected. Then there were seven miles of rowing through the breakers from ship to shore and back again on each of the two trips.”
Supposing there had been amateurs to man the boats, or men without finest courage? It is no wonder that men of Sable Island crews are considered the finest of any who challenge the sea!
Charles Faulkner, the superintendent on the island, knows the need of omen, stout-hearted and strongmuscled, when a wreck is being battered on Sable Island’s sands. He came to the island in 1930 and had his initiation two weeks after his arrival when the Norwegian steamer. Nils, lumber laden, struck somewhere between East Light and No. 3 Station on the aftermxm of March 17.
Faulkner went at once to the wreck, which was twelve miles from the Main Station, but the captain stubbornly refused to leave his ship, and his crew of twenty men and officers stayed with him. So Faulkner and his men struggled back to shore and the long way to the station. It was midnight when they arrived, deadbeat, and tried to get to sleep, but the Norwegian captain called again. They retraced their weary way through storm and sea. and then, when alongside the wreck, found that the old sea dog had once more changed his mind. He would not lx rescued. Again the lifeboat headed shoreward and the long trip back was made. About midnight of the second night the wind freshened to a small northeast gale, and at three a.m. the Norwegian called again for help. For the third time the life-saving crew pulled through the breakers and reached the wreck, then sinking fast, and that time they were permitted to make the rescue. Every man reached shore in safety and they remained eleven days on the island before a steamer came to get them.
In the old days. No. 4 and No. 3 and East Light Stations carried life-saving crews, and these could put out from the nearest point as oas a wreck was located. This saved time, and often time meant life or death when the wind was Continued on page 27
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high and the surf running strong. Any man acquainted with the sea knows that a life-saving crew earns its pay one hundred times over, and they also know that the best automatic light ever constructed cannot answer an S O S. Anything men may invent will not remove the perils associated with that treacherous stretch of sand. So there will always be the lifeboat men awaiting a call, ready to risk their own lives for those in distress.
THE ISLAND extends, in hidden bars, for more than a dozen miles under the sea, extending from each end of the island, and those bars are like crescents of hidden destruction, positively unavoidable in a fog. Many present-day mariners will also tell you that some peculiar quality is possessed by Sable Island sands, that they will affect the best compass made if the ship gets too near. Along Nova Scotia’s shore villages, in the parlors of the fishermen’s homes, you will find among the other grim relics of the sea and the souvenirs from far ports, sealed flasks of yellow sand from Sable. And when the good wife shows it to a guest she will vent her hatred of those yellow grains that have sent so many fine schooners to their doom. The salt fishermen regard Sable sand as the very “dust of death,” and their saying of “sand in your shirt” is equivalent to the soldier’s remark about his “going west.”
The island has a fascination for all who have patrolled its shores. There is always a brooding mystery about it, as if the ghosts of drowned sailors were whispering in their sandy graves, and when the woolly fogs roll overhead and all sounds carry queerly, there is an eerie effect that a man will never forget. An immense number of wrecks girdle the shores. Year by year they have sunk into the mysterious, insidious sands until few are visible. They have vanished, brigs and barques and brigantines, schooners, ships and terns and steamers, sucked down to rot, plate and beam and mast, in the hungriest graveyard of the seas. And always there is room for one more to join the ring. Often bleached and weed-cased hulks are belched forth in some unusual tidal fury, seen for a few hours, then are drawn down again to their graves.
In New England records of the year 1738 there is this entry:
“Public notis. A. Le Mercier having went there with good intentions, horn cattle, sheep and swine and so forth, in order to help, succor and relieve such as may be ship-wrecked there; therefore all subjects within the Province are forbidden to harm, molest or interfere in any way with A. Le Mercier in settling and stocking Sable Island.”
The only visitors that come to Sable Island each year are the birds, and they make that pile of grey sand an interesting spot. By late October all will have gone but the plover and yellowlegs. Then there is the “Ipswich sparrow,” which breeds only on Sable Island. Many natural history students wish to buy the nests of these sparrow’s. Black ducks haunt the ponds and lagoons and, when the young are hatched, become quite tame. The shellducks and pintails also make visits to the island on their way south. Quite a few geese come along, and bluebills are late visitors.
They say that the ponies came to the island 200 years ago, though some writers have claimed that French first settlers left them there during the fifteenth century. The most popular legend has it that the French transport, L’Africaine, struck on one of the bars that runs from the end of the island. The great ship was held hard and fast, and as she broke up, many of the ponies, which belonged to the officers, leaped overboard and struggled to the
shore. There they have lived, surviving the wildest winters. When the storms sweep over the island in winter the coarse grass is all snow and sand-covered, but these hardy beasts kick and fut row out places where they can feed, and though some may die of starvation, the majority, through the years, survive. They are free and wild on the island, but those kept for patrol work are willing and knowing animals. If they were turned loose now they would not endure the winters, as being stabled has made them less hardy.
DESPITE ITS terrors of isolation, Sable Island is a healthy spot, and the chief test to men there is the mental strain. Old No. 4 Station was abandoned nine years ago. Near it there is a rude cross over the graves of four fishermen who were found on the beach, and the inscription reads:
“Sacred to the Memory of Four Unknowing Fishermen.”
Unwittingly some person hit upon a right epitaph, for no fisherman, knowingly, w'ould steer his course near Sable Island.
It is told that four centuries ago Frenchmen tried to establish a colony on the island, and there is a spot called “the French Gardens.” It is half a mile from the Main Station, East, in the centre of the island, which stretches eighteen miles from light to light. Many grisly tales are told about the fate of those first comers and it is legend that, on the 26th of May, if any person will play or sing the French national anthem the ghosts of those dead Frenchmen will rise and make merry. One midnight many years ago I was passing the French Gardens in company with several of the life-saving crews when one lad with a mouth organ offered to play the “Marseillaise.” His offer so startled the others that one man, seeing the fellow would really carry out his intentions, threatened him with physical violence. No man who is inclined to be sujxrstitious will linger about those Gardens at night.
The strangest thing about them, though, is their influence on the ponies. Time and again I have passed by that spot at night, even bright moonlight nights, and seen those faithful little animals halt and stand, rigid, apparently unable to move, and they would tremble when we tried to force them too near the ground. All the ponies were alike in that respect.
All the island is a graveyard. Any big blow will uncover bones at different spots, and it is unnerving to see a skull in your path, or a bit of human jaw with the teeth intact. This bothers some of the men, and there have been members of the life-saving crews who insisted on being returned to the mainland. When on night duty at East Light I took the place of a man who left because he was seeing, too often, the ghostly shape of the Sylvia Mosher, a Lunenburg schooner which was lost with all hands in August, 1926. Another Nova Scotia vessel, the Sadie Knickle, was also lost in that wild hurricane, which was so great that one schooner was driven clear across Sable Island bar, and so escaped destruction. Every man of the crew had
given himself up as lost, then mused to find that they and the vessel were still intact. Each time that the man whom I relieved saw the ghost of the Sylt ia Mosher, he said he could make out the crew busily engaged in hoisting her sails.
Then there is the headless horseman of the island who will escort lonely riders of the patrols. He will come alongside and your pony will shiver and try to bolt, then will go along peacefully, while you shudder and try to look away. But the rider without a head never interferes in any way and is really a safeguard, for no harm has ever come to a patrol thus accompanied . Over on the North East Bar there is “Smoky Hut,” once inhabited but long since vacant. There are many stories told of a murder enacted there, and at night smoke is seen issuing from its crude chimney as the ghosts within make attempts to burn all traces of their crime.
Others who are blessed with superstitious and imaginative minds declare they have seen balls of fire rolling along the beach at spots where many dead men have been found, but I can truthfully say that I never saw such things during all my stay on the island.
Narrow Escape of “Bluenose”
THEY SAY that the island is vanishing, that mysterious forces are drawing it beneath the sea so that it will spread itself like an enormous trap for shipping, but I do not believe such stories. It will never vanish for it is gathering in breadth eastward the same acreage that it loses westward, due to the fact that the north, west and northwest winds are dry winds, and though they dislodge the sand it finds placement farther east. While the south and southwest winds are wet winds, holding the sand and making the island wider in the cast.
Today there are only the Main Station, the East Light, West Light and Wireless Station being maintained. Before No. 4 Station was abandoned the shifting sands had covered the first story and its occupants were using the second-story window as an entrance. The next to lx* abandoned was Station No. 2, which was five miles distant from the Main Station. Mechanical devices play an important part in warning shipping, yet the Lemberg, was caught after flirting with Sable Island since 1914. There will always be need for a lifeboat ready and capable men to act as crew.
The champion schooner, Bluenose, is one of those which have narrowly escaped a sandy grave alongside the island. And the champion only won clear of the bar after an all-night fight during which she was so near the jaws of death that Sable sand choked the spinner of the taffrail log and lay thick on the deck of the Bluenose when daylight appeared. Captain Angus Walters had the Bluenose sixteen miles out, with a thousand feet of cable down, when he had his fight for life, and the great peril that reached him was “seas breaking from the bottom.” It is those seas that break from the bottom which have destroyed many brave schooners. The fishing boats follow the fish, and the fish follow the shoals for it is there that they feed. Every mariner reads his course in that dread zone by his sounding line, but in a wild storm Sable
sands seem to shoot out bars like a writhing devilfish, and it is then that the seas “break up from the bottom” on these sudden storm-formed bars or shoals.
Once a Ruffians’ Refuge
"XyfANY DARK deeds were committed ■*■*■*■ on Sable Island when ruffians used it as a refuge during the eighteenth century. It is said that the first humane institution there was established*in 1801, after the fate of the doctor of the Duke of Kent’s regiment, his wife and child, was made known in the writ ings of Judge Haliburton. They were lost in the sandy wilds after the wreck of the British ship, Amelia, during 1798.
On June 25, 1801, the Nova Scotia House of Assembly recommended that three families of good character be placed on the island, three buildings erected and livestock provided. This was done, two vessels with the families and supplies leaving Halifax October 1; and Captain James Morris, from Country Harbor, Cuysboro County, Nova Scotia, was the first superintendent. It is interesting to note that the site of those first buildings is now some miles under the sea, on the north side of the island, and about five miles from where the western end was at that time. Theie was an old house, then in the centre of the island, and new buildings were erected at the eastern end. Captain Morris, after experience with several wrecks, strongly advised the erection of three more stations, and in the years that followed these were constructed. It was during Captain Morris’s service that so many rescued men were housed with him that many of the ponies had to be killed for food, and they were reported as being better than ordinary beef.
The |x>nies have always been useful, and are invaluable on patrol during wild and stormy nights, for they can find their way when a man would be utterly lost. It is to lx hoixd that there will always be some of the breed available.
Those who have lived on Sable Island for any length of time will always wish to see it again. Every man who has been stationed there must lx credited with having performed a real duty, and even the weakest have been forced to undergo their share of exposure, out in heavy gales with stinging sands lashing the flesh and blinding vision. In the old days the only communication with the mainland outside of the regular calling of the steamer, was by carrier pigeon. Later, a small schooner was built, to lx used in an emergency. In those old days, too, any sick person had small chance of recovery if his was a serious illness, but all that has been changed. Two years ago a seaplane was sent to the island to take to the mainland the daughter of the superintendent who had been stricken with appendicitis, and during 1937 the wife of the superintendent was taken to Nova Scotia by the same method.
The worst disaster off Sable Island occurred August 24, 1927, when five schooners were claimed by those treacherous sand bars. An even hundred of the hardiest and finest fishermen went down to watery graves that night, and their wives became widows who hated, as so many have done, the yellow, insatiable sands of Sable. Those vessels were the Joyce M. Smith, the Uda Corkum. the Clayton Wallers, the Columbia, and the Mahala. The Columbia had been the pride of Gloucester. Mass., and had been built to race the champion, Bluenose, but Sable sands know no master, nor have they respect for any ship that sails the seas.
Yes, it is a fearsome island, a mysterious island, and it puts a spell on you that nothing on the mainland will ever take away. And while there is shipping along the Atlantic, there will be need of the lifeboat crews to cheat Sable of her victims. + + + * +