Friday, April 03, 2009

The Ice Boat Crew

Prince Edward Island is a Canadian province consisting of an island of the same name. Located in the Gulf of St. Lawrence, it is west of Cape Breton Island, north of the Nova Scotia peninsula, and east of New Brunswick. Long before the Confederation Bridge was opened in 1997, which connects P.E.I. to Cape Tormentine, New Brunswick, ice boats assisted with the Island's mail service and passenger needs during the long winter months. Their use continued until 1917, when ferry service was finally able to provide dependable, year round service.

The ice boats were small (5 m. long, 2 m. wide avg.), and made as light as possible while maintaining their strength. They were equipped with runners on each side of the hull to allow them to be dragged across the ice flows and snow. Straps attached to the boats and to the crew allowed them to haul the boat, and acted as a safety harness should they break through the ice. Many accidents happened over the years, one of which occurred in 1885 when three ice boats were lost for two days, and their crews and passengers almost died.

Philip W. Farrell was one of the survivors of the 1885 saga, and wrote about it in the poem below (reprinted from the Island Register):

The Ice Boat Crew
You sturdy landsmen, one and all
Pray listen unto me,
Likewise you hardy sailors bold
That plow the stormy sea.
I want your kind attention
While I hereby do relate
The hardships of the ice boat crew
Upon the frozen Strait.

The month was Winter's coldest one,
As you presently shall hear,
The twenty-seventh of January,
and eighty-five the year.
Our ice boats three in number
With fifteen of a crew,
And seven more as passengers
Which numbered twenty-two.

Our friends conveyed us to the shore,
And there we bid adieu.
The dismal fate which lay in wait
was hidden from our view.
The wind north-east, the frost increased,
A raging storm prevailed,
Through blinding snow we were forced to go
And breast the blinding gale.

The afternoon was soon advanced,
we took no note of time,
With weary step and eager glance,
We looked for Cape Tormentine,
The blocks of ice were magnified
by piles of drifted snow,
And oft deceived our anxious eyes
For Uncle Tom's abode.

To reach the capes with light of day,
It was our hope and prayer
Our hopes were turned to bitter doubts,
Our doubts to grim despair.
Alas! the naked fact is out,
What now must be our fate?
For lost we are, without a doubt
Upon the frozen strait.

The wind was now at north-east
The frost below eighteen,
And bravely now we tried to breast
The driving blast so keen.
Imagine our condition,
And with me you'll agree,
Our thoughts will not be pleasant ones,
Upon the frozen sea.

We held a consultation,
then agreed were all our boys,
Since now we had no other course
To camp upon the ice.
And then a rude construction
With our boats we did prepare,
To serve us for a shelter
Through this night so bleak and dreare.

Our sufferings through all that bitter nite
No tongue can e'ver explain.
We hoped to see the morning light
And friends at home again.
We battled with the raging frost
and with the blinding smoke,
was a night of horror
Till the dawn of morning broke.

Our waterkegs were frozen hard
Since early in the day
And thirst and hunger side by side
Were come with us to stay.
We had not tasted food nor drink
Since six o'clock that morn,
And travelled on our aimless way
Beneath a blinding storm.

One of our crew showed symptoms
Of his reason giving away
Brought on by mental anguish
And the hardships of the day,
Exhausted now for want of food,
Our strength began to fail,
Our clothes were wet and frozen hard,
Just like a coat of mail.

The welcome dawn appeared at last,
And keen the wind did blow,
The frost intense kept sweeping past,
At twenty two below.
The sun came out and then went back,
As if it came to see,
Or mock our sad, forlorn state
In doleful misery.

No sight of land could yet be seen,
The storm did not abate
We moved our camp on safer ice
And patiently did await.
Until the hours of evening came,
It might be three or four,
The welcome land appeared at last,
Which proved the Crapaud shore.

Fond hope again, fresh courage came,
Within our sinking breast.
Our boys, though weak for want of food,
Desired to do their best.
Our baggage then we tumbled in,
Without a sigh or mourn,
And something like a sigh was heard,
Come home! it cries, Come home.

Our battle now for life began,
Despair was cast aside,
And bravely struggled every man,
His feelings for to hide.
No food or drink for fourty hours,
Exposed in our sad state
To one of Winter's fiercest storms,
The oldest can relate.

No wonder now our tottering steps
Were growing weak and slow,
We left our boats and grappled with
Our last and deadly foe.
This proved to be a strip of marsh
Tween us and solid land,
Where piles of snow were drifted high
From off the frozen Strand.

This was the saddest time of all
The trials that we went through,
For some so much exhausted were
Could not get through the snow.
But some got to the neighbouring woods
Were sheltered from the gale,
The rest got to the friendly roof
Before Mr. A. McPhail.

The neighbours soon assembled,
A thorough search was made
And those poor fellows left behind
To shelter were quickly conveyed,
A sorrowful sight we did present
To those good people's view
What hardship, cold, and hunger left
Of the hardy ice-boat crew.

The mother's loving kindness
Which in this home prevailed,
Bestowed on these poor sufferers,
By Mrs. A. McPhail.
A greatful heart shall treasured be
And like a star resplendant shine
Where time can n'er efface
To light her resting place.

Beneath the hospitable roof
The frozen ones remained
Till willing hands conveyed them
To their homes and friends again.
But long will faithful memory
Assist us to relate
The hardships of the ice-boat crew
Upon the frozen strait.

Thanks to Peter Harken and Bruce Kirby for sharing this story with Scuttleblog.

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