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Speedwell Sped Well, 14 May 1938.

Schooner Days CCCXLV (345)

By C.H.J. Snider


"THE WORST blow I was ever in?"

Bobby Dale, of Brighton, eighty this summer and as keen as eighteen, looked out over the waters of Presqu'isle Bay and the vista of seventy years sailoring, and said slowly:

"I don't know that I was ever in anything much worse than that time the Belle Sheridan was lost across there at Weller's Bay, and the Zealand foundered with all on board, and the Norway drowned her crew, and all the other vessels had such a hard time. That would be the Sunday of the 7th of November, 1880.

"I was eighteen then. I was in the Speedwell, Young Capt. Jim Ewart, of Cobourg, was sailing her, and his brother Alex was sailing the Twilight. The Speedwell and the Twilight were schooners owned by the Ewarts of Cobourg, and Hagarty [Hagerty - Ed.] and Grasett in Toronto; short, chunky fore-and-afters, grand carriers, but the devils to steer. The Speedwell would turn around and poke her jibboom through her own mainsail. They were both built over yonder in Prince Edward County and were supposed to be twins, but they weren't, though much of the same model. The Twilight was built at Picton in 1873 by Jack Tait, and the Speedwell was built in South Marysburgh two years later by George Dixon.

"We both loaded grain in Toronto at the old Northern elevator for Ogdensburg. Twilight got away first. The Thomas C. Street, a fine big barquentine that had made three trips to the Old Country, got loaded ahead of us, with 23,000 bushels of No. 1 wheat, a big load even for her; but a strong northwest wind lowered the water and she couldn't get but that day, so we both towed out together Saturday morning after the Twilight. The propeller Zealand dropped into the place at the flour elevator and loaded that day, and came after us in the evening.

"It was light to moderate on the north shore all that short November day, and by midnight we were only sixty or seventy miles down the lake with the lights of Port Hope and Cobourg in sight. I was called to the wheel at twenty minutes past nine. It wasn't my trick by rights, but we were short handed, and they thought I could coax her along. The Speedwell was trying to walk all over the young fellow whose trick it was, as she did with everyone. She certainly could be mean. There was only myself and Walter Maitland and this young fellow I speak of in her, forward, although she usually had four men. The cook was a Kingston woman. We had an American mate. I forget his name if I ever knew it. He said he had been in big vessels up above, though he came from Ogdensburg and was supposed to be a good one for the river.

"I could see he didn't appear to know much about Lake Ontario weather. You could hear something hot was coming, a low moan and a roar far away and growing, and feel it too, the way the sea started to run ahead of the wind.

THE HARD-STEERING SPEEDWELL, which earned every sailor's blessing, including Bobby Dale's, who steered her this night, and Capt. John Williams', who owned her afterwards. She was burned in Toronto Bay in June, 1896. This Charles I. Gibbons picture of her, made twenty years before when she was painted white, shows her with a squaresail and raffee, although she is generally remembered as plain fore-and-after. (Snider used a black and white copy of this print; our image is from a private collection.) Click for enlargement.

"I told him we were going to catch it, but he paid no attention, so I stuck my head in the companionway and called to the Old Man to come up. It was his watch below. This woke the cook, and she woke Capt. Ewart, who had turned in, but before he was out on deck the first of the squall struck us from the southwest.

"It was a snorter, and with everything on her the Speedwell was about unmanageable for a while we had to get in both the gafftopsails and clew down the jibtopsail and of course squat the mainsail and foresail. While we were at it she jibed the mainsail all standing. It is a wonder it didn't take the mainmast out of her, but all that went was four or five mast-hoops. They burst with the strain. We settled the mainsail down more and jibed it back, for to carry it on the starboard side would have fetched us in on the north shore. After jibing it back we stowed it altogether and settled the foresail to the first reef. Then with the staysail and standing jib set we went boiling down the lake.

"Capt. Ewart kept sail on her to run her ahead of the seas. The sea came right in with the wind, and it seemed to take no time to make up. We were in water up to our ears. It came spilling aboard over the taffrail and washed the mainsheet off the wheel grating. That was an ungodly mess to straighten out, working up to your knees in water all the time and sometimes over your head. One sea caught our Ogdensburg mate. I had one glimpse of him, straddle of a fender, riding that sea like a Hawaiian surf-boarder. I thought it took him clear over the bows, but the fender jammed between the paulpost and the knightheads, and he hooked his toes under the windlass, and there he hung for dear life.

The Old Man — Jim Ewart, was young then, but every master is "old" — was on the cabin top, hanging on with his arms around one of the peak halliard blocks of the main gaff. He was the only dry man aboard, for she would fill up to the rail and the water would spill back overboard when she rolled.

"She's going straight under and never coming back!" he called to me when he saw the water boiling in at both ends.

"Don't tell those fellows forward that," I yelled, "or they'll let go their hold and drown before their time."

"I was at that wheel from twenty minutes past nine that night till three o'clock the next afternoon, with the exception of a short while Walter Maitland relieved me, and I was helping rig a burton to see if we couldn't heave up our centreboard. One enormous sea had washed the provision box off the deck, where it was bolted forward of the cabin and hurled it against the iron centreboard winch and smashed that. The box weighed a ton, for one-half of it held our meats and groceries, and the other held our big lines. When the winch broke the centreboard dropped. We couldn't heave it up with the winch gone, but we knew that the board dangling around under her bottom would break off. We tried with a burton from the mainmast head, but we couldn't budge it. And with the Speedwell rolling and writhing, and sashaying around in the sea the board buckled under her and broke off. She was always a brute to steer, but you can imagine what she was with twenty or thirty feet of splintered board waggling around under her. By this time we were down off the Scotch Bonnet, and it was daylight, between 7 and 8 in the morning. It was just by God's mercy that we cleared Long Point in the end, for the schooner was almost out of hand. The wind hauled to the west and to the northwest, and that just let us go clear. But I've never seen that point so close aboard as I did through the lather of breakers that Sunday forenoon. Long Point is the farthest south the Prince Edward Peninsula projects. If you clear that you can keep on going.

"Last I saw of the big Thomas C. Street she was blowing across our stern, with every sail she had streaming in rags and patches from her yards and gaffs. Fine No. 1 storm canvas blew out of her like so much brown paper, and she was quite unmanageable. She had a high monkey rail all round her, for her ocean voyaging, and she was full to the top of that rail, for she had no sail to keep her running off from the seas. Her crew were busting the bulwarks out of her with sledges and windlass brakes and capstan bars, to free her decks of water. Sometimes she had a hundred tons of Lake Ontario above her hatches. Loaded as deep as she was, it was a wonder she did not founder. Yet she came up each time, and would have pulled through if she had only had any sail left to save her. She drove in on the beach above Wellington, a total wreck. Her crew got off alive, sliding down a lifeline that they sent ashore by swinging the heaving line from the yard arm of the foreyard, braced up sharp next the shore.

"All through the night that cook of ours was up and busy making sandwiches for us. From where I was at the wheel I could hear her being banged from one side of the galley to the other, and sometimes clear across the cabin, as the Speedwell rolled. There would be a crash of dishes and knives and forks and spoons, but every now and then she would bang on the companion scuttle, and I'd yell: 'Wait a minute!' or 'Now's your chance! according to whether a sea was coming or not. When I'd say 'Now's your chance!' we'd pull the slide back quick, and out would pop her, dishpan full of sandwiches and the coffee pot, and we'd grab for it and close the scuttle before a sea could pour down and drown her in the cabin. She was a grand woman.

"By daylight that wild morning we could see nothing of the Zealand's smoke. We, of course, did not know it, but she had foundered with all on board, 16 men, somewhere astern of us. And we could see nothing of the Norway, for she had rolled over on her beam ends and drowned a crew of eight. She was loaded with square timber, and floated. It was the Mary Taylor that sighted her, water-logged, but still floating, next day. The Snow Bird and the Wood Duck were ashore, under the guns of Fort Ontario at Oswego; driven right up on the beach. The Twilight had lost every stitch of her foresail and had as close a call as we had on Long Point.

The Baltic had lost her mainsail, gaff and boom and most of her deck load of lumber. We came up on two vessels; one was an American, and seemed to be making good weather of it. The other was yawing all over the place and made the Speedwell's steering stream-lined in comparison. We passed her close, and saw she was towing a big stick of timber astern. She was the Great Western of Port Hope, and she had lost her rudder in the gale. But her Old Man had got this drag out over the stern, with a line to each quarter, with a tackle on it, and by heaving in and easing off he was making her steer some sort of a course; she fetched into Kingston, or at least to safe anchorage under the Snake, or at Four Mile Point there. The Bermuda was being pounded into kindling wood at Port Granby. Sixteen vessels had been in sight just before dark Saturday night, and by Sunday evening every one of them had been damaged and some would never sail again and 30 good Ontario sailormen had sand in their shirts.

"We ran on down the river, went into Clayton to get straightened out and cook a meal. It was our first hot food since supper the night before, when we anchored at 3 o'clock Sunday afternoon—and my long trick at the wheel was over.

"So on to Ogdensburg. When we got unloaded we came up the river and went to Oswego for a load of merchandise and a new centreboard. We loaded all sorts of hardware, groceries and dry goods, but it was a fine light cargo, just ballast. The Twilight had towed back to Kingston to lay up for the winter, after unloading at Ogdensburg.

"We got well up to Toronto Point, bucking a stiff nor'wester, iced up all round, when the shackle of our dolphin striker parted and she took three big jumps. (The dolphin striker is the picturesque little spar which projects down from the bowsprit end. It forms a strut extending the rigging, which keeps the overhanging jibboom from twisting up and slackening the headstays.)

"With the flying jib and jibtopsail stays all slacked up we had to downhaul those two sails, and as she jumped in the seas the foresail went into four pieces. It was frozen stiff with flying spray, and when it shook it just flew out of her.

"Then, of course, we had to reef the mainsail to balance the small amount of headsail we had left, and run her off before the gale. We couldn't beat her into port, although port was in sight. Capt. Ewart thought to make Presqu'isle. 'You'll never work in there with the sail you have left' I said, 'you'll wind up on the beach beside the bones of those others.'

"'Well,' he says, 'We can go to Kingston, though it's near a hundred miles more and we can get a foresail there which we can't at Presqu'isle. So on to Kingston we went.

"As we passed Presqu'isle we could see the spars of a schooner that had tried to do what we knew better than to try. She had luffed up to the point as close as she could, and anchored, and she was dragging across to Weller's Beach. When we got to Kingston Capt. Ewart read in the papers about the Belle Sheridan being lost there on the beach with all hands but Jimmy McSherry, and we thought of what our fate might have been.

"In Kingston we got our jibboom re-rigged, and got the new foresail that had been made for the Twilight. She wasn't needing it just then, for she had been stripped for the winter. They said her foremast head was split to the elbows, with the strain her foresail had put on it in the gale before it blew out of her.

"So we started out again, and this time we made Toronto. None too soon, either, for winter had set in early and the bay was frozen. We managed to get in through the entrance where the water was open and anchored there. The crew walked ashore next morning over the ice of Toronto Bay."


THE HARD-STEERING SPEEDWELL, which earned every sailor's blessing, including Bobby Dale's, who steered her this night, and Capt. John Williams', who owned her afterwards. She was burned in Toronto Bay in June, 1896. This C.I. Gibbons picture of her, made twenty years before when she was painted white, shows her with a squaresail and raffee, although she is generally remembered as plain fore-and-after.

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