Survivor Recalls Sinking of the Novadoc - November 11, 1940
From Great Lakes Shipwreck Society, Newsletter, Feb. 22, 2001.
The days surrounding November 10 have long been known on the Great Lakes as an infamous time of shipwreck, a time of year that bids the mariner use extreme caution, regardless of the advanced state of navigational technology or weather prediction.
Among the three ships lost on Lake Michigan in the Armistice Day storm of 1940 was Paterson Steamship Co.'s 250-foot canaller NOVADOC, "doc" meaning Dominion of Canada, and "canaller" indicating that the ship was small enough to fit through the locks of the Welland Canal.
Lloyd H. Belcher of Mississauga, Ontario is one of those to survive the NOVADOC. Mr. Belcher has written to the Shipwreck Society with his account of the sinking.
The NOVADOC sailed light from Montreal to Chicago, taking on a load of sulphite coke bound for Port Alfred, Quebec. "When we arrived at Chicago, we loaded first and cleared Monday morning at three o'clock. As we went by the Coast Guard Station the Captain yelled for the weather report but they had none so we went right on out the breakwater slowly as it was a bit foggy. The glass was going down all the time and the wind was from the southeast but we had no idea that it was going to get as bad as it really did."
Captain Steip sailed the NOVADOC along the eastern shore of Lake Michigan to seek the lee, but the wind shifted to the southwest and began to increase dramatically.
"It was no use trying to make for the west shore as we were too far out in the middle. The waves were getting too big to make the piers at any of the ports on the east side of the lake, so the Captain decided to turn the ship around and let us ride the sea out. We sent word down to everyone to stand by as we were going to turn around and we would likely roll heavy. We turned the wheel hard-a-port and asked for a second ring but the ship just laid in the trough of the seas and rolled."
The crew of the NOVADOC knew they were in serious trouble. Waves were mounting the port quarter regularly and there simply was not enough power to turn the ship. Like it or not, the little canaller was headed for its destiny near Little Sable Point, just south of Pentwater, Michigan.
Little Sable Point features one of Michigan's most attractive lighthouses, a tall, red-brick structure that is still functioning, on a wild, isolated beach in Oceana County. That evening in 1940 it was manned by Lightkeeper William Krewell, who could see the masthead lights of the NOVADOC outlining large arcs as she rolled in a tremendous following sea.
"The Captain put the engine at half speed astern to see if that wouldn't stop us from going onto the shore, but we kept getting closer and closer. From then on we tried in vain to turn the ship around but it was impossible. The waves were just like mountains and the only time we could see that tall lighthouse was when we were on top of a wave. When we got close to the light the back wash of the surf from shore turned us around and we were then heading into the waves for the first time. Immediately the Captain thought he had a chance to save his ship so he rang full ahead. Soon as we started into it the first big waves came over the wheelhouse and broke all the front windows in it. The wheelhouse then was full of water and everyone had cuts and bruises from the broken glass and wreckage."
The NOVADOC finally ran aground at about 7 pm that Monday evening, immediately breaking in half, severing all electric lines, and submerging both halves of the ship in the sand. Waves continued to batter the ship and soak the crew. Most of the crew spent the night huddled in the Captain's cabin forward until "just before daylight the port door caved in forcing us all into the Captain's office. Our only hope then was that the wall between his office and the rest of his quarters wouldn't let go as we had no other refuge. We felt the walls getting weaker all the time so we put boards up against it to prop it up hoping it would hold until we were rescued. After daylight came we noticed our lifeboats had been washed away so the only way we could be rescued was aid from shore.
"About 9:30 in the morning we noticed three men on the shore walking up over the hill so we tried to draw their attention by waving a sheet out the door. At last they saw us so they went back over the hill and about an hour later there were about a dozen men coming down to the shore. During the day the crowd got bigger and soon there were hundreds of people there but no one would dare come out in those raging waters. As we were only 700 feet from shore we tried to shoot a line to the shore but had no success.
"We kept sending up rockets to let the people on shore know that we were still alive. As darkness came on for the second night we saw that we had no chance of being rescued that day so we all sat around hoping for the best. By this time we were cold and getting quite hungry as we had nothing to eat for two days. The mate then found a pail and made a little fire in it to warm us up a bit. We broke up the chairs and furniture for wood and when that was all gone we started on the walls - we had a little axe with us so we broke up the walls with it. On shore they kept a fire going all the time to try to encourage us and to let us know there was nothing to do but wait until help arrived. During that night the sea had gone down and when daylight came the Captain went down to the after end of the boat to see who all was there. We knew there was someone there as they were throwing water out the porthole. When they came back up forward we found to our sorrow that the two cooks had been washed overboard and that one fireman was almost all in from exposure.
"After 36 hours of waiting, a little fishing boat called the THREE BROTHERS under Capt. Clyde Cross and crew members Gustav Fisher and Joe Fountain came out to our rescue. That was the happiest day of our lives to see help coming. Capt. Cross and his two crew members were very brave to come out to rescue us in heavy seas such as we had, I remember Gus Fisher telling me years later when we visited him, that he paced up and down the shore, knowing some were still alive on board the crippled ship, and just couldn't stand it any longer, saying they just had to get out there to see if they could rescue anyone."
The WILLAIM B. DAVOCK and the ANNA C. MINCH were also lost in the 1940 storm, not far on Lake Michigan from where the NOVADOC stranded. There were no survivors from either of these two ships, and as the MINCH had lost her stern, it was thought that they had collided in the wild seas.
Screw propeller NOVADOC. Official Canada No. 149465. Of 1,934 tons gross; 1,151 tons reg. Built at Wallsend-on-Tyne, Great Britain, in 1828. Home port, Fort William, Ont. 252.8 x 43.3 x 17.8 Owned by Paterson Steamship Lines, of Fort William, Ont.
List of Vessels on the Registry Books of the
Dominion of Canada on December 31, 1935