Maritime Tales of Lake Ontario excerpt Find the book at Rivers End Books Oswego,or at other bookstores near you or order on line from www.chimneybluff.com or Amazon.com
Shipwrecks are a part of Lake Ontario's history. But so is innovation, wealth building, heroism, and bungling on a grand scale. You'll find examples of each of these actions in this collection of historic incidents and personalities who once worked on and by the waters of this Great Lake between 1728 and the present.
I've never been involved personally with a real shipwreck. But many years ago nature gave me a hint of what it feels like. I and my small sailboat were running for shelter trying to beat an oncoming thunderstorm. I was about a hundred yards from the bay shore on a sultry summer evening when the squall struck. I had taken my sails down and had the throttle wide open on my three horse outboard as I scurried towards the shelter of the land when the first gust slammed us. It immediately shoved the bow of my boat off course and turned me broadside. My boat heeled sharply under bare poles as the windage of her rigging and mast acted as a sail. The wind then got under the boat's bottom, flipped her over, and dumped me in the drink. My little outboard was still running when it and I hit the water.
As I paddled around the capsized boat in the warm bay, (in an uncharacteristic fit of foresight I had put my life jacket on previously) I kept saying out loud I don't believe this! Things had gone out of control in a moment. I found it difficult to swim against the wind and six inch chop. Unnerved, I grabbed the stern and hung on. Within minutes I was rescued and my swamped boat taken in tow by a sympathetic cottager with an outboard skiff who had watched the whole fiasco. I was told afterward that a nearby anemometer registered a 70 mph gust.
My “shipwreck” was short lived. The only damage was to my ego and the only loss was that of my boat's rudder. Since then, I've ducked other summer squalls as I've tried to avoid trouble on the big lake. Others have been less successful. A couple of years ago, a fellow drowned in seven feet of water in Sodus Bay. He had gone overboard on a fine sunny spring day on purpose to free a fouled prop and underestimated how cold the water still was.
I've never found a victim's body either, though I know people who have. I am a summer sailor and most of the shipwrecks I've seen would more properly be termed mishaps. I once saw an upside down helicopter that was kept up by it's landing pontoons. The crew had all been rescued hours before. I walked around a friend's beached 22 foot sailboat near Pultneyville that had drifted ashore after the rudder broke and have observed derelict wrecks abandoned on the shores of a couple of Caribbean Islands. Accidents do happen. Usually very quickly.
The subject of shipwrecks depresses most sailors who try hard to keep the side of the boat with the sticks on it pointing up. But shipwrecks make for compelling literature, and the events before during and after a wreck can be educational. Shipwrecks, unlike plane and car crashes, are also often fairly drawn out affairs. The Titanic, whose end still fascinates us a hundred years later, took two hours to sink. This allows ample time for all sorts of intense human action and interaction. We are still fascinated by the story of the Titanic's end and that of her passengers and crew. Lake Ontario thankfully never lost a large passenger steamer like the Titanic in open water. But smaller disasters just as gruesome occurred here. The end of the steamer Ocean Wave that burned off Prince Edward County on a cold April night in 1853 comes to mind. About seventeen of the 23 passengers died in the fire fueled by the wooden hull and the melted butter cargo that ran in flaming torrents off the ship's sides.
I believe we should preserve historic shipwreck literature for lessons it teaches about the lake and our relationship to it. The lake is often overlooked by non-boating residents and policy makers in the region, yet it still matters. It's still important and not just to south shore fruit farmers or town tax assessors. Once thousands of people with transportation industry jobs made a good lake related living here. Today lake shore real estate development and energy production continue to produce profits. So why write a book about 19th century shipwrecks? They are grim reminders of the limits of technology. Though we no longer move cargo around the lake with engine-less schooners, today's transportation and energy production systems can still fail. Lake Ontario with its shoreline fleet of aging nuclear reactors could be the scene of the next Fukushima. We are blessed with some of the oldest commercial nukes in North America here on the lake.
Shipwrecks, simply because they were so unusual, were well documented in their time. What is not told to us is the aftermath....
For more on shipwrecks, war, and treasures and wealth on a freshwater sea pick up a copy of Maritime Tales of Lake Ontario from a bookstore near you or order from Amazon.com or chimneybluff.com