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Whale of a Tale Series: Haunted Isle Adventures on Wrecks of Nova Scotia

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SS Atlantic
SS Atlantic

In the summer of 1998, I led a group of divers to investigate the lone St. Paul’s Island of Nova Scotia in the Cabot Strait: an abandoned island where numerous shipwrecks were lost, and hundreds of soles conceded to the elements. There is an eerie feeling rendered for those whom have explored the island. Here the souls of hundreds of shipwreck victims remain, perished by drowning, starvation, and the bitter cold. Those shipwrecked victims that made landfall onto the island in the early months of winter, were destined to fend for themselves on the frozen atoll. St. Paul’s is an exposed rock where low conifers take on elongated forms in the constant wind and deciduous trees topple in the precipitous hills. Animal life is non-existent except for the marine life of the surrounding sea. Rabbits were once introduced to provide sustenance for the shipwreck victims, only to become nourishment for the bald eagles that scan the shore. Victims built bonfires to signal the shore residents. Regrettably, the winter ice flows prevented any chance of rescue during those harsh winters. Victims were forced into starvation on the desolate isle until the spring thaw. Then, evidence of cruel losses would be discovered, where desperate souls were reduced to eat their belts and shoes or chew on roots and bark until their demise. It wasn’t until the later 1800s when lighthouses were constructed on the north and south points in an effort to prevent further tragedies and provide stores for survivors.

Article and photos courtesy Gene Peterson

Our group was briefly marooned on this deserted island when a violent storm engulfed us. We were wafted by 60 mile per hour winds, and mountainous seas that broke over the small island. The two boats that transported and supported us left for safer shelter on the mainland. Due to the treacherous seas and riotous conditions the crew was unable to contact us. They were forced to depart without being able to retrieve our group. The night of the storm our only zodiac was located at the bottom of a 40-foot cliff on a spit of gravel beach. It was securely anchored and tied off to the shore, but If the tide rose, it would take a beating in the rocky surf. We believed this would be unlikely because of the prevailing wind direction, but I remained concerned. Our only means of transportation back to the boats and safety could be destroyed with a change in wind direction.

At one o’clock in the morning, my anxiety was realized. The wind direction did change. Gusts near hurricane force had blown down several tents and snapped poles. The rain was relentless and those of the group in conventional tents were soaked while struggling to hold down their temporary shelters. Throughout the night, one could hear recurrent cursing and tamping of hammers. The construction work of our fellow camp neighbors was constant, as they attempted to rebuild their makeshift dwellings. Lines were tied to trees and rocks were used as ballast to secure stakes and poles. The modern expedition tents designed to withstand higher winds were flexing to the ground and popping out their fasteners. My tent partners Lynn DelCorio, Gary Gentile, and I were awakened and unnerved by mother nature’s unleashed fury. Several times wind gusts flattened our tent and snapped down upon our heads. When subsiding, it would then spring back into position. The effect was like being in a parachute collapsing and inflating. The whipping lines pounding against the tent’s shell sounded much like the lashing of sheets on a sail boat bashed by a storm. Blowing off the nearby cliff could be a reality, if the wind got more intense.

Unable to sleep, I abandoned the tent and took vigil crouched over the cliff with my spotlight. I scanned the jagged shoreline below me. Destructive forces were bearing down on our little craft. White breakers were crashing over the rocks taking gigantic leaps as the wind power-washed the cliffs eroding the shore line. It was a fearful demonstration of an incredibly violent sea. Like a vision, I momentarily imagined the terror shipwreck victims must have experienced after their sturdy vessels careened into the ominous rocks and then were pounded into splinters on the shore. An estimate of more than 400 ships had met their fate on the rocks of this island. One such ship, the Norwegian, a steamer, had driven itself up on the rocks on June 14, 1863. Five hundred passengers survived by scaling the treacherous high cliffs, including an immigrant woman in labor. That night miraculously, she gave birth on the barren island and all five hundred-one souls were saved.

Other ships that struck the island were not so lucky. With fully rigged sails they smashed into the piercing rocks, split open their hulls and left the shores littered with dead. Some were lost in fierce storms during hostile cold months making their rescue impossible.

Diving Summer 2002
Diving Summer 2002

Now, we would be tested mentally and physically by similar forces. By mid-night, the storm had reached full intensity. The ocean now washed over the beach and was smashing the zodiac with its motor up against the razor-sharp walls of the beach crevice. Decisive action needed to be taken at this moment or the vessel would be obliterated by the crashing surf that was devouring the shoreline. Without a signal, the group was on hand. Apparently, a mutual anticipation of the necessary duties was realized. In the pitch-black, all able bodies were perched over the cliff gazing down at the riotous sea attempting to crush the boat. Instinctively, we knew what must be done. Unrehearsed, yet working in regimented unison, my comrades began the arduous task on the dangerous glassy rocks. Equipped with grapnel and lines, the team scaled down the sheer granite wall, as the rolling surf broke over us. We held fast in our tenuous positions, anchoring lines and hauling up gear mechanically. The earsplitting wind, rain, and showering waves were thunderous. Essential commands were shouted to reinforce the safety of those dangling precariously on the cliff.

Boldly, in the tumultuous storm, members bounded like mountain goats, securing and fastening down lines. Momentary lulls in the wave sets allowed for a short struggle to gain ground and stabilize the zodiac. John Galvin seized the moment, jumping into the wobbly boat as it buckled and pitched with each bounding wave. He decisively unfastened the motor mounts as ferocious waves pounded the zodiac against the rocky cliff. The beach was gone, and the water had risen over our heads as we held the boat off the rocks. We barely managed to stabilize the boat as John hefted the heavy 25-horse motor over his shoulder. Incredibly, he bore all the weight of the unwieldy motor. Pure adrenalin coursed through his veins as he and the rest of the group hauled the burden up the cliff. His amazing strength was undeniable.

Now to save the boat itself, the whole group simultaneously pulled and lifted the vessel up the rock wall inch by inch. Ingeniously, Greg Modelle drove a grapnel into the earth and anchored the boat into a position safe from the savage sea. At ease, we stood in awe of the amazing feat we had just performed. There was no doubt of the necessity of this risky undertaking. Afterwards, we smirked at each other upon seeing the unique sleeping attire that some of us remained in for the event. Appreciating that our task was complete, we retired to our shelters with pride. The camaraderie we shared on that cliff will long be remembered.

Nearly 250 miles to the south, a granite monument marks the area overlooking Sandy Cove. Here, just south of Halifax Harbor marks the site of one of Nova Scotia’s most tragic disasters, the wreck of the S.S. Atlantic. Considered one of the finest luxury steamers afloat, the Atlantic was 435 feet long and displaced 3,707 tons. She had a 41-foot beam and a hold depth of 36 feet. Her hull was framed with angle iron, three iron decks eight feet high reinforced by wooden bulkheads and there were seven watertight compartments in the ship. The vessel was powered by four, two-cylinder steam engines and could average better than 12 knots on Atlantic crossings from Europe. In addition, she was stepped with four auxiliary, ships rigged masts 150 feet in height. Her interior was securely fitted, making the long passages relatively comfortable, despite the large volume of passengers she regularly carried.

Her master, Captain John A. Williams was considered one of the most competent officers in the world and was well liked and respected in Europe and America. Her crew was well disciplined and there were four other officers on board at the time of the sinking. There were 931 passengers on the ill-fated voyage from Liverpool, England to New York.

Her departure was on March 20, 1873. The seas were calm, and the trip was uneventful for the early part of the crossing. Then, on the evening of the fourth day, a storm developed. The ship began to pitch and heave with greater intensity each hour. The ocean became mountainous, raging furiously for the next three days. To maintain the speed in the storm more coal was used. After four days of pounding at sea, the coal bunkers were dangerously low, and Captain Williams diverted the ship to Halifax to take on more fuel.

On the night of March 31, the Atlantic steamed toward the red light of what Captain Williams believed was Sambro Lighthouse. Captain Williams failed to consult his chart and he mistakenly headed his ship toward the jagged rocks of Peggy’s Point Lighthouse.

At 2:40 a.m. on the morning of April 1, 1873, the steamer crashed into the rocks off Peggy’s Point Lighthouse. The horror of the disaster was unfolding below deck as the hundreds of mostly women and children desperately failed to reach safety as the steamer rolled over on her port side toward the sea. More than 300 hundred drowned almost immediately and another 262 succumbed to the bitter cold and dropped from the decks, rigging and spars into the icy water. It is most unfortunate that the ship rolled toward the open sea instead of the rock covered coast. Some of the domed may have been able to reach safety had the ship rolled toward the shore.

Captain Williams was severely censured for his neglect of duty and lost his license for two years. A lenient penalty was imposed on him for his noble efforts to save lives after the disaster and for his previous unblemished record. The tremendous loss of life, over half of the passengers on board, made the Atlantic’s sinking the greatest sea tragedy to occur at the time, in North America.

In September of 1981, John Moyer, Gary Gentile and I boarded a lobster boat owned by Harry Bartlet in Propect Cove. I researched the Atlantic’s sinking and we traveled over 1200 miles to this remote harbor to explore this famous wreck. I was anxious to see the wreck site of the once luxurious White Star liner that was now lying in these shallow waters.

Harry Bartlet’s boat was unique. Unlike the typical dive boats of modern times, Harry’s boat had little in the way of comfort, shelter, or space. It did feature a sapling ladder, a moss-covered bow, and a weathered life ring for safety. Harry would often tow a smaller skiff, just in case this sturdy craft foundered. The best thing about Harry’s boat was the location. It was a 15-minute ride to the wreck of the Atlantic and a buoy was in place marking the site. We suited up, lowered our gear with a hoist, donned our doubles at the dock and enjoyed the short ride. After Harry lassoed the buoy, we rolled off the stern and plunged to the wreckage scattered below. Here wolffish postured themselves at high points on the rocks where the broken hull extends from the waist high shallows to depths of 90 feet. Piles of broken china laid strewn mixed throughout the rocks and wreckage. Occasionally, an intact piece of china or a crest washed out from beneath the sands. Dead eyes, portholes, marble decorations, organ keys, assorted brass valves, and assorted parts laid strewn in the rock crevices. Ironically, several St. Christopher metals have been discovered. The most exciting discoveries have been the occasional gold coins.

Gene, Gary, and John
Gene, Gary, and John

On a later occasion, Harry failed to lasso the buoy after several attempts. Feeling Harry’s growing dismay, Gary Gentile touted, “Harry, if you can hook it, we can dive it.” With breakers surrounding us and a distressed captain manning the helm, we bowed out lest we sink our boat over the wreck. Gary was referring to the noted quote by the “grandfather of wreck diving” Mike DeCamp. Mike’s exclamation denoted the swaggering attitude of New Jersey wreck divers. It doesn’t get much better than this when creating a legendary adventure.

Over the years, I have returned to the wreck on several trips. Surprisingly little has changed, although sadly, Harry, “host of the SS Atlantic” has long passed. Today the waters are consistently clear, cold, and the intimidating wolffish that guard the wreck remain.