The Toughest Boat Afloat

With the economy of Prince Edward Island depending on her, the Abegweit shoves aside ice five feet thick to maintain her nonstop timetable. She might look like a luxury liner and steer like a yacht but she’s

DAVID MacDONALD November 15 1953

The Toughest Boat Afloat

With the economy of Prince Edward Island depending on her, the Abegweit shoves aside ice five feet thick to maintain her nonstop timetable. She might look like a luxury liner and steer like a yacht but she’s

DAVID MacDONALD November 15 1953

The Toughest Boat Afloat

With the economy of Prince Edward Island depending on her, the Abegweit shoves aside ice five feet thick to maintain her nonstop timetable. She might look like a luxury liner and steer like a yacht but she’s


IN THE HOT August days of 1950 when the newspapers were filled with black accounts of a nation-wide railway tie-up, the provincial premiers across the land called emergency meetings in the hope of getting the trains rolling again. On Prince Edward Island, where the trains were just as immobile as anywhere, Premier Walter Jones summoned his cabinet, pounded his desk and declared: “If we don’t got that boat running this island will go smack-dab to the devil!”

The vessel he was referring to only a man of Jones’ well-known bluntness would call if “that boat” was the Abegweit, the sleek seventhousand - five - hundred - ton ship that normally shuttled passengers, cargo, automobiles and entire trains across the nine-mile neck of the Northumberland Strait separating P. E. I. from New Brunswick. As Jones spoke, the Abegweit., owned by the federal Department of Transport but operated by the Canadian Nat ional Railways, lay idle at her berth. Her crew walked the picket lines.

For a week P. E. I.’s one hundred thousand inhabitants found themselves virtually cut adrift from the rest of Canada. A smaller ferry from Caribou, N.S., which with air travel remained the only slender link with the mainland, met a milelong queue of cars every time she warped into the dock at Wood Island, P. E. I. The island’s economy did a deep dive. Tons of farm produce for export began to rot in glutted warehouses. Fuel stocks dwindled; many bakers ran short of flour; grocery, drug, department and liquor stores were low on supplies. Canada’s pint-sized province had a kingsized crisis.

In the crisis, Premier Jones moved decisively. He produced a copy of the railway’s agreement with the striking unions and underlined a clause which provided that strike action should not apply in case of emergency.

“This is an emergency,” he proclaimed, thumping the desk again. “Any time that boat stops for even one day it’s an emergency!”

Jones, a lifelong Liberal who has since been rewarded with a seat in the Senate, notified Ottawa that unless the Abegweit was freed he would sue the

Government of Canada in the name of the people of Prince Edward Island “for every dime in damages we can trump up.” A rumor quickly flashed around Charlottetown — later confirmed by one of his ministers— that Jones was freely using the word “secede,” a nasty term that brought echoes of other troubled times in the island’s history.

Finally, at Ottawa’s urging, the Canadian Brotherhood of Railway Employees released the Abegweit’s crew and the big ferryboat— locals proudly claim she’s the biggest in the world—went back to work, a full day before the strike was settled in the rest of Canada. Life on the island soon returned to normal but the layoff confirmed one hard fact about the good ship Abegweit: Prince Edward Island can’t live without her.

This is best explained in cold figures. Eighty-five percent of P. E. I.’s imports and exports — total

value one hundred and fifteen million dollars—are ferried between the glistening red clay banks of Borden, on the island, and Cape Tormentine, N.B. Except in summer when she gets help from the SS Prince Edward Island, a tired relic of 1915 vintage, the Abegweit totes the entire load. Agriculture, the island’s biggest and almost only industry, leans heavily on her. So does the secondranking tourist business. Of the eighty thousand sight-seers who left five million dollars in P. E. I. last year, sixty thousand disembarked at Borden, most of them from the swank lounges or the salty decks of the Abegweit.

In short, she is of no less consequence to the island than sunshine and rain. “If we didn’t have our car ferry,” Graham Rogers, P. E. I.’s Director of Transportation, remarked recently, “the Garden^ of the Gulf would become a desert island.”

This cheerless prospect has heen troubling islanders for many years. Although Charlottetown entertained the Fathers of Confederation in 1864, P. E. I. stayed out of the union for nine years. It joined only on Sir John A. Macdonald’s guarantee that the federal government would provide continuous efficient boat service to the mainland, summer and winter.

Short of promising to halt the tides Macdonald could not have made a more impossible pledge. For the placid blue waters that separate P. E. I. from the rest of Canada in summer often become in winter treacherous grinding fields of ice. They present a sight that would shiver any Eskimo. Picture two vast slabs of ice, five feet thick moving silently, almost imperceptibly, together through a shrinking grey lane. When they meet the crash can be heard for miles. The edges of each slab buckle upward, tossing two-ton cakes like snowballs. The edges roll back till they form a ridge as high as a house.

To battle this seething white menace Sir John A. and his successors in Ottawa commissioned a series of overgrown yachts that tended to be stopped cold by any more ice than might be found in the average cocktail.

Indignant islanders reacted violently. Cut off for weeks and months at a time, they set up a rumble of protest that vied with the roar of the ice fields. Once they sued Ottawa for five million dollars and eventually collected one million. While federal boats froze in a vise of ice, the islanders fought their way across the floes in sledlike rowboats. Trapped miles from land by blizzards and shifting icepans, strong men went mad and weak men died. Many times over the years the islanders threatened to bolt from the union.

The current odds against such drastic action are so long as to rule out the possibility, in spite of Premier Jones’ angry words at the time of the rail strike. P’or the islanders of today, inured to relying on a boat for everything from coal to cornflakes, are supremely happy with the way the Abegweit delivers them.

For six years now, in good weather and bad, the Abegweit (rhymes with “late,” but seldom is) has been shuttling across the Northumberland Strait with timetable regularity. In a year she carries seventy thousand autos and two hundred thousand passengers. More than forty thousand railway cars clatter in and out of her cavernous hull, bearing grains, gasoline, medicines, farm machinery, clothing, building materials and the other staples P. E. I. does not produce. In turn they bring back the potatoes, livestock and pulpwood that the island must sell on the mainland to stay in business.

In summer the Abegweit works an eighteen-hour day; in winter, when roving ice packs chase all other ferries into hibernation, she works right around the clock, stopping only to re-load and change crews. Only once since she took on the job of supplying the island has the ice given her an even battle. That was in March 1952 when she took nine hours to ram, wriggle and chew her way past one of the worst frozen barriers ever seen on the strait. It was surprising, not that she finally broke through, but that it took so long. P’or the Abegweit is the biggest—and, presumably, best — ice-busting train ferry in the world.

She is three hundred and seventytwo feet, seventy-five hundred tons and seven million dollars worth of ferryboat that doesn’t look like a ferryboat at all. A few years ago Douglas MacLean, a Scottish deep-sea sailor who is now one of the Abegweit’s five captains, stepped off the train at Tormentine to seek a job aboard. “All I expected any ferry to be was a clumsy old tub,” he related later. “When I saw the Abegweit I nearly fell off the dock. I thought she was a luxury liner.”

Naïve landlubbers get the same impression. With her streamlined palegreen hull, spacious white upper decks and lounges walled in mahogany and oak, the Abegweit might be a Caribbean cruise ship.

In fact, people living around Borden and Tormentine, her terminals, often pass the evening crossing back and forth on the Abegweit’s moonlit promenades or watching a movie in the main lounge. As one man put it, “For the eighty cents return fare you get all the thrills of an ocean voyage without the pea-green complexion.”

There the similarity ends. For the

Abegweit has a gaping hole in her stem, a peculiarity not generally favored by other vessels. Through it roll freight and passenger trains, nineteen cars at a time, on to three tracks stretching the length of her hull. Below decks she is a sea-going railroad. Above, her main deck bears a striking resemblance to a downtown parking lot, with as many as sixty automobiles taking up space.

In one major respect the Abegweit is unlike any other icebreaker afloat. Sbe has four propellers, the conventional two astern and another pair poking out

from her bow. They do more than speed her ahead. When she wades into dense ice fields the unique forward screws suck water out from under the ice so the sheer weight of the ship may crush it. Failing this, the whirring blades slash it to pieces. Having four screws also makes the Abegweit, for all her bulk, as agile as a water spider.

Captain John Maguire, now retired, demonstrated this in 1948 when he took the ferry to Montreal for her first refit. As he neared the dock, several tugboats chugged out to aid him. He waved them back.

“Don’t be a fool,” one of the tug skippers yelled through a megaphone. “You can’t make it alone.”

“Can’t I?” Maguire hollered back. “Just watch.”

Chuckling to himself on the bridge, he pulled two levers and pushed two others controlling the ferry’s propellers. On the port side one screw turned ahead, the other astern. To starboard the same thing occurred, but in reverse. While the tug master’s jaw dropped, the Abegweit slid confidently into the dock —sideways.

Everything aboard the Abegweit t from the giant silver-painted screws to the silex in her modern restaurant, is run by electricity. Deep in her underbelly is a floating powerhouse where eight huge generators whip up nine and a half million watts of juice— enough to light a small city, enough to make the Abegweit more than a match for any ice field she has yet encountered.

As it’s explained by Captain Wylie Irving, the senior skipper of the Abegweit whose hair has turned grey in twenty-five years on the straits, an icebreaker manoeuvres much like a broken field runner. As he pulls out from the dock Irving scans the ice field, searching for an open lane of water or the weakest formation of ice.

“Then you head into it,’’ he says, “and pray you’re right.”

Nimbly, the Abegweit darts into an opening. Loose ice cakes are sucked into the whirlpool of her forward screws and washed astern. Sometimes the open water ends abruptly and tons of j ice jam in from both sides, wedging the ferry as in a vise. Irving pushes a button and calmly addresses a man in the control room below, the Abegweit’s nerve-centre. Soon the whole ship begins to rock sideways, like a great cradle, as heeling-tanks on both sides of the hull are alternately filled and emptied of sea water. Once this artificial rolling toppled two refrigerator cars on the train deck but the Abegweit struggled free.

The Passengers Pushed

Similarly, when a train rolls aboard j the Abegweit on an outside track, j automatic trimming tanks on the opposite side of the ship fill with water j to prevent the ship from listing. “They j aren’t really automatic,” Irving corrects. “You have to push a button ! first.” In truth, the Abegweit is a push-button wonder. By flicking a lever or turning a knob, the skipper may view the strait on a fog-free radar screen, cause a firedoor two hundred feet away to swing shut, or call up on the ship-to-shore telephone and relay a message to his wife about how he wants j his sirloin done.

Except when she runs into heavy ice | the Abegweit cuts across the strait in ! forty-five minutes, docking stern first at ! piers that look like crooked stone fingers poking out into the water. The j trail she follows was blazed centuries I ago by the Indians of Abegweit—the I Micmac name for Prince Edward j Island. They fixed runners on their j birchbark canoes and set off across the j ice to attend pow-wows in Maine and Massachusetts. As lately as 1915 the white man was still using roughly the j same method and cussing loudly about it.

The early settlers built sturdy iceboats, seventeen feet long, with sledlike double keels. They were equipped with oars, sails, ice-hooks, water and sea j biscuits. Crossing in packs of six or ¡ eight the boats each had a crew of six, j headed by a “commodore,” no less, and carrying a maximum of three passengers. A man paid two dollars to make the crossing but when the going got tough he had to get out and pull. Women, children and old men were j excused from work but paid four dollars for the privilege.

Passengers were issued rubber boots with their tickets. They needed them. When a boat struck rough ice the commodore shouted, “All hands out.” Crew and clients struggled into leather harnesses attached to the bow and stern and started hauling. If a man fell into the water his harness kept him from drowning. If a boat hit deep ! slush—lolly, they called it—two men would be hung over the side to do a '

treadmill tramp while the others rowed.

Frequently survivors returned with incredible tales of suffering and death on the ice. In 1855 two boats ran into a fierce blizzard halfway across to the island. It blew for days. The men huddled under one overturned boat and burned the other for warmth. When it was gone they lighted sacks of mail. James Haszard, an eighteenyear-old Harvard medical student, went mad and died. Another man, Joseph Weir, of Bangor, Me., killed his spaniel, drank its blood and ate the flesh.

When the storm let up a band of frozen half-crazed men trudged ashore dragging Haszard’s body behind them. Another man lost both feet and all his fingers from frost-bite and died later.

When the island finally joined Confederation in 1873 on Sir John A. Macdonald’s promise to provide a steamship that would end all that, his first choice, the SS Albert, was a monumental flop. She was succeeded in 1876 by the Northern Light, Canada’s first icebreaker. Running between Georgetown, P.E.I., and Pictou, N.S., thirty miles away, the Northern Light was helpless in more than four inches of ice. She was icebound for an average of sixty-four days each winter, once for three weeks at a stretch. Grumbling islanders went back to their primitive iceboats to keep mail and supplies running.

In 1884, after ten years of poor service, the P. E. I. legislature sent a crisp letter to Ottawa demanding damages of five million dollars. Ottawa ignored it. Rebuffed, the islanders wrote to Queen Victoria. She ignored them. But in 1901 they succeeded in collecting one million from the suit.

Tragedy continued to dog the little iceboats. In 1885 three boats, with twenty-two men aboard, were marooned for several days on an ice floe. Two men froze to death and another went mad. Later one of the survivors, Dr. P. A. MacIntyre, described the epic in a ballad:

One of the crew showed symptoms of his reason giving way,

Brought on by mental anguish and the hardships of the day.

Exhausted now were all the rest; our strength seemed quite to fail

Our clothes, wet through, were frozen hard, just like a coat of mail.

People awaiting iceboats to the island put up at Allen’s Hotel on Cape Tormentine, a gay hostel. From beams in a long cold ellchamber hung turkeys, chickens and sausage rings. Sides of beef browned in great brick ovens and rum was passed around to ward off the cold. One of the Allens played the fiddle while over the bare wooden floo'a young girl did “A Dance of the Strait”—her own interpretation of winter and the ice packs and the sweet coming of spring.

The battered Northern Light was retired in 1888 and islanders began demanding that the federal government dig a tunnel under Northumberland Strait. Political meetings around the island erupted with the chant, “Secede, secede!”

Ottawa replied by sending several more alleged icebreakers to placate the islanders, among them the Stanley and the Minto. In 1903 the Stanley stuck fast in eighteen feet of ice and the Minto went to her rescue. Haifa mile from the Stanley the Minto broke her propeller. The two boats drifted in the ice for two months before the Stanley broke loose and towed her rescue ship to port. Meanwhile, five hundred carloads of supplies and three thousand bags of mail had piled up at Tormentine.

A year later the P. E. I. legislature renewed its demands for a tunnel and the Charlottetown Patriot screamed that Cape Breton Island, served by a car ferry across the narrow Strait of Canso, was being treated better than P. E. I. The rival Guardian agreed. “P. E. I. must be treated as other provinces of the family are treated,” an editorial said, “or she will withdraw from the family.”

The islanders were still fuming in 1911 when a federal general election was called. Speaking in Charlottetown, Conservative leader Robert Borden promised to build a train ferry to serve P. E. I. if his party were elected. Liberals branded his offer “a cheap political bribe.” The Tories won the election and Borden, true to his word, promptly ordered the SS Prince Edward Island, the last word in icebreakers, built in England. Engineers began build ingmulti-million-dollar piers at Tormentine and Carlton Point. In tribute, the island terminal changed its name to Borden. German war prisoners were put to work during World War I to change the island’s railroad from narrow to standard gauge. The job wasn’t finished until 1930.

One of the Prince Edward Island’s skippers was Captain John Lefurgy Read, as able a mariner as ever swung a wheel—and one of the saltiest. Read’s father was a skipper whose wife sailed with him as navigator. Young Read went to sea at fourteen and was a full-fledged captain at twenty-one. To look older and command respect from his crew he affected a sharp Vandyke beard. Six feet tall, two hundred and thirty pounds at cruising weight, he was as arresting a sight as a billowing square-rigger.

Most of Read’s life was spent in icebreakers. In winter he ran from Nova Scotia to P. E. I. and in summer, when the ice vanished from the strait, he went gunning for more in the Arctic Circle. He didn’t bat an eye when one morning in 1916 he was ordered to sail the aged Minto to Archangel, Russia. Crossing the sub-infested Atlantic alone, the Minto was pounded by heavy seas. Food ran short and had to be rationed«. Warned that a mutiny was brewing, Read pulled a gun on the ringleaders and locked them up for the rest of the trip.

A year later Read took another icebreaker, the Mikula, to Russia. He had been given sealed orders about the course the Mikula was to take. Once at sea he ignored them: John Read could set his own course, wartime or not. Off Norway, the Mikula ran low on coal and headed into a small coastal town to stock up. The town was still talking about the capture the day before of a German submarine. Read enquired about it. Under questioning, the U-boat captain had said he was lying in wait for the Mikula as German spies had learned of her original course.

When Read arrived in Archangel the second time, Russia was on the verge of revolt. A peasant, mistaking his trim Vandyke and gold braid for badges of nobility, spat at him. Read knocked him cold. Russian police jailed the captain and the British consul had to bail him out.

Once when the Duke of Devonshire, Canada’s governor-general, took a trip to Prince Edward Island Read was given a printed address to present to him. At Cape Tormentine he sidled up to a man on the dock and whispered, “When’s ’is nibs coming?”

“He’s here.”


“Here,” said the delighted Duke. “I’m ’is nibs.”

In 1931 theSS Prince Edward Island was replaced by a bigger ship, the Charlottetown. Read was in command ten years later when it sank off the southwest coast of Nova Scotia and a federal court of enquiry held him culpable. His master’s papers were suspended for six months. It was a humiliating blow. He walked out of the courtroom sullenly and never went to sea again. He died three years ago.

The Prince Edward Island was dug out of mothballs to replace the Charlottetown and an attempt was made to teach men from the RCAF base at Summerside, P.E.I., how to operate the ancient iceboats, just in case a stray German bomber or U-boat knocked off the last ferry. The airmen proved incapable of the job and the idea was discarded.

With considerable fanfare the Abegweit’s keel was laid in November of 1944 at Marine Industries Limited’s sprawling shipyard in Sorel, Que. The entire hull of the super-ferry was welded. Experienced welders had to pass stiff tests to work on the Abegweit. Every inch of their work was photographed with gamma rays to detect flaws. She was the largest all-welded ship and the heaviest of any kind ever built in Canada—“a national achievement,” Premier Maurice Duplessis of Quebec called her. Her bulk posed a launching problem. When she was completed three years later she had to be moved sideways on giant rollers for six hundred feet, lifted onto a marine railroad—the biggest in the world—and gently lowered stern first into the Richelieu River. The launching took a day and a half.

In August of 1947, sun gleaming on her flag bedecked hull, the Abegweit wheeled down from the Gulf of St. Lawrence and into the Northumberland Strait for the first time. Sirens and ships’ whistles screeched a welcome as she nosed into Charlottetown harbor. In that city of little more than fifteen thousand people, twenty thousand islanders crowded along the waterfront, cheering and waving to the Abegweit. They’ve been getting along fine ever since.