Maritime History of the Great Lakes
Brothers Meet: Schooner Days CLXVII (167)
Toronto Telegram (Toronto, ON), 22 Dec 1934
Full Text
Brothers Meet
Schooner Days CLXVII (167)

"BEAT the Woodruff or lose the battle."

These were Capt. John Sullivan's double-barreled sailing orders when he was promoted to the newly launched lake "barque" or topsail schooner Mary Battle, of St. Catharines, in 1872.

They came from John Battle, owner of the Mary Battle and owner also of the Jane C. Woodruff, similar "barque," which Capt. Sullivan had been sailing for the past season. He had made a great reputation for fast passages in the Woodruff. His elder brother Pat, succeeding him in the command of her, was keen to improve on that record.

John Battle, shrewd Thorold shipowner that he was, knew that neither of the Sullivan boys would let grass grow on a vessel's keel. He was resolved to put their zeal to good use. The more trips they made the better the returns.

Brother John did not stop to question whether the battle mentioned should be spelled with a large B or a small one. He promised he would beat his previous command if he had to dismast his new one doing it. So season after season those two "barques" raced, till they were a byword for business on the lakes.

In the late winter of 1874-75, both the Mary Battle and the Jane C. Woodruff were chartered to load square timbers at the River Wye, on the Georgian Bay, for the new harbor cribs at Goderich. As soon as the ice let the lockgates swing in the Welland Canal the hopeful pair started forth for the upper lakes from their winter berths in St. Catharines.

Winter had lingered late. They started on Monday, the third of May. They had headwinds all the way up Lake Erie and again up Lake Huron, after towing up the rivers, so that it a week before the pair of them, going neck and neck, got into Georgian Bay.

At daylight on the morning of the 12th of May, brother John, in Mary Battle, sighted brother Pat, in the Jane C. Woodruff. Just a fleeting glimpse, but sufficient to show him that Patrick was having all the trouble with Jane that he was having with Mary. Both vessels were bothered by floating ice and fog, and were groping their way. By 8 a.m. the Battle was stuck fast in the ice cakes. The fog had shut the Woodruff out of sight, but soon afterward she too jammed in the pack and stuck.

At dinner time the wind increased in sharp squalls and gusts, from the south, southwest, west and northwest, settling down to a hard blow from the latter quarter. This broke up the pack and the vessels were dimly revealed again at about two miles distance.

Each had double-reefed her square topsail, and otherwise shortened down, but with this fresh access of strength in the wind they prepared for really heavy weather. The reefed topsails were clewed up, mainsails double reefed and mizzens close-reefed. Those great high-sided wooden wagons, empty as beer barrels the morning after, rolled down in the puffs until their skippers were ready to make affidavit—as they afterwards did—that they were on their beam-ends. They were out of control. The great angle of heel lifted their rudders up so far that they had little grip on the water.

Two men grinding away at the wheel of each could not keep them straight, and in addition to their involuntary zig-zags in the puffs, they had to wriggle back and forth to avoid the ice-pans.

Land loomed up ahead through the flying rags of the shredded fog - Christian Island and only two miles away.

The Mary Battle, on the starboard tack, and making a generally southwest course, was heading for it. The Jane C. Woodruff, on the port tack, was heading off from it. Captain Pat had discovered the land on his lee bow, quite close, and had tried to tack to avoid it. His ship missed stays, and got in irons and fell off on the old tack again, so he wore her around before the wind. In jibing the foresail, that is, swinging it from one side to the other, the foresheet parted. The Woodruffians rove off another one without getting their brains beaten out by the flailing boom. Then the flying-jib sheet parted, and they hauled down that triangular pinion of canvas, and, as Patrick deponed afterwards, "stood out north and by east, blowing very hard and gusty, a great deal of sea. Found vessel would not answer helm properly, but kept canvas on to work off shore.

It was while engaged in this praiseworthy endeavor that he again sighted his brother's ship staggerinh in towards the land with the same zeal with which his own was staggering out—and Brother John sighted him. The Mary Battle was really running away with John, for he had tried to keep her off for Collingwood, but she would not answer her helm. So he settled the foresail down to reef it, to see if he could get her in hand with less canvas. The battling Battles were engaged tying in the reefpoints when Brother John, mounting the rail at the fore-rigging, saw the Woodruff also running wild between him and the land. She was heading towards them and coming fast.

"Never mind that reef! Get both anchors over the bows and overhaul the chain!" roared he. "If this heartscalding harridan won't mind her sails or helm she'll have to answer her mudhooks."

Brother Pat was of similar mind regarding the Woodruff. "Hard up y'r helum!" he roared to the men at the wheel. The vessel swung off a little and came back again. "Settle away y'r mainsail! Settle away your mizzen! Lively, boys. Coupla hands on throat and peak halliards, and everybody else on the downhauls! Down with thim sails, and stand by y'r anchors! What the -

The reefed sails were bunched and bloated between the lifts and lazy-jacks, but coming down hand over fist, when Patrick's oration was cut short with the most astounding CRASH!!!

The Mary Battle's jibboom speared in over the Jane C. Woodruff's knightheads till the cap of the one vessel's bowsprit struck the cap of the other. Then twang! went chain bobstays, jibboom guys and bowsprit shrouds. The Woodruff's bowsprit and jibboom leapt in the air like a tossed lance, and swung back against her with all their sails and gear. Crunch! Crash! went the foremast over the side. Whack! Thud! the two hulls came together like charging bulls meeting brow to brow.

The Battle's stem caved in the hawse-hole chock of the Woodruff and split the stem head, bursting the victim open forward like a split peapod. The two met port bow to port bow, stems eighteen inches apart.

Tommy Sullivan was mate with Brother John aboard the Battle. Pat Fahey was mate of the Woodruff. The crews were Brennans, Flynns, Murphys, Horns, and all the scions of royal families of Erin who had settled on the banks of the Welland canal. Their chorus of Hibernian hallelujahs and plain Canadian hells and damns could be heard in Collingwood, 20 miles away, above the crash and roar of parting chains and riving oak, and rending pine, and tearing sails.

Splitting the row like a butcher's cleaver came the stentorian hail of Brother John from the topgallant rail of the Mary Battle:

"Pat are yez hurted? Is anny body hurted?"

John Sullivan was as well-spoken as any professor in the University of Toronto, but great emotion brought the ancestral brogue right up from the depths of his warm Irish heart. He might bless his brothers by all the saints in the calendar and some on the index ex-purgatorius, but he would lay down his life rather than harm come to his mother's sons. You shall hear sometime, if you survive this saga, how he went after one in Lake Superior, years later.

"Nobody's hurt!" bawled Patrick in return, "but I must say, Jawn, you're the most injanious hand in the five Great Lakes at making your vessel come in stays."

Very strangely, although she had torn out all her own headgear, the Mary Battle had suffered no hull or spar damage with the exception of a cracked-off cathead. And the shock of the collision threw her head around on the port tack, off-shore, which, as John Sullivan made affidavit afterwards, "we could not have done otherwise."

Free of the land at last, the Mary Battle hove to, and drifted down into a solid ice-field, while brother Patrick, finding all his damage—and that was plenty—was above water, courageously tried to run for Collingwood.

The Jane C. Woodruff, wallowing in the trough with a raffle of broken spars and torn sails over the bows, would not steer now at all, so he got a kedge over the stern, with a long line on it, to swing her round before the wind. But the kedge could not catch bottom, and she would not swing, and they had to cut the line and lost the anchor.

Next they lowered the smaller of the two bow anchors, with forty fathoms of chain, trying to bring her head to wind, but even that did not fetch her up. There is deep water off the Christian; more than 240 feet, anyway. They cut away the tangle of spars and gear, and the Woodruff sidled down into the pack where the Mary Battle lay.

The ice was so thick and stretched so far that the two crews built a fire and set up a blacksmith's forge on it between the two vessels, and pounded and hammered away at twisted chain-plates, burst gammon- irons, parted chain-shackles and such like smith work, straightening out the effects of the collision as would be done in a shipyard.

The Battle was soon in reasonable shape; but the Woodruff had much more to get done. She had hoisted a flag of distress, and this, or the fire on the ice, brought the tug Mary Ann snorting out from Collingwood by nine o'clock that night. The damage was so serious that Collingwood could not handle it, and the vessel had to be towed all the way down to Port Huron, to get her bows pushed back into place, and a new foremast.

Before she went there, the brethren repaired to George Moberly, notary public by royal authority duly appointed in and for the County of Simcoe, and entered a "protest."

That seems putting it mildly—but have you ever read a marine protest? The mariners "on their solemn oaths did depose, declare and say" what has been already related. Whereupon Mr. Moberly "hath protested and by these presents doth most solemnly protest, against all and singular the cause and causes operating as aforesaid to the serious detriment of the said cargo, sails, rigging and other gearing, and more especially against the storm and heavy winds and gales, high and dangerous seas, experienced on her late voyage, bound as aforesaid."

It sounds quaint, but it is done to this day, an old seafaring custom to qualify for such consolation as the courts can give by way of damage or insurance. The "protest" the owner made to the brothers was brief and to the point.

"It's a strange thing, gentlemen," growled John Battle, "that with the five Great Lakes to choose from, and a thousand vessels sailing them, you two could find one spot where you had to put my two vessels at the same time."

"Well, Mr. Battle," quoth brother John, with a sly glance at Patrick, "sure we were on the starboard tack in the Mary Battle, and that gave us the right-of-way."

"And, Mr. Battle," said brother Patrick, with a sly glance at John, "John here will tell you that if it wasn't for the belt I gave him with the Woodruff the Mary Battle would be on that starboard tack yet on the shores of Christian Island."

"And that's the living truth, Mr. Battle," said John, "and you'll remember you told me to beat the Woodruff if I had to dismast the Battle—but to be sure you'd rather I dismasted the Woodruff if one of them had to take a trimming." "That wasn't the way I put it," said Mr. Battle with a twinkle but there's no beating the Irish in argument or anywhere else. Go back to your jobs, boys. And the Lord have mercy on your vessels."

It is a pleasant reminder of those far-off times on the lakes—sixty years ago now—that Miss Eileen Battle, student at St. Joseph's College, Toronto, and granddaughter of the Thorold shipowner, was recently chosen by the Ontario Paper Co., Thorold, to officiate at the christening of the motor ship Thorold at Hull, England.




Sir,—I have taken a lot of pleasure in reading Schooner Days in The Telegram, and was interested in last Saturday's picture of Reefing the Mainsail of the Flora Carveth. Here is the story of how her sailors saved the lives of G. Thompson, H. Blakey and W. Gordon, of Oshawa.

We had a home-made sailboat. The keel was oak, the ribs were made from hoops off an apple barrel and covered with canvas, then painted. We had many a good sail close to the shore when the wind was not too strong.

One day we got blown away out in the lake. The wind got worse, and we could not get in. Some of the men on shore tried to launch rowboats, but they got swamped. Then the sailors lowered their boat from the Flora Carveth, which was in the dock, and came after us. We were about two miles out by this time. They had eight men in their boat. When they got near us they asked if we needed help. We said yes. One man stood up and threw us a rope, which landed in our boat. When we got to shore there was a large crowd to see us.

We offered to pay the captain, but he refused to take anything for it. I would like to know what became of the Flora, and if this story is of any use to you, you are welcome to it.

Yours truly,


C-o. Dominion Regalia Co., 55 York Street, Toronto.



Friend Rowley Murphy's Schooner Days Christmas card—a reminder of the Guido and Island Queen in the time of the stonehooker trade thirty years ago.

Snider, C. H. J.
Item Type
Date of Publication
22 Dec 1934
Language of Item
Geographic Coverage
  • Ontario, Canada
    Latitude: 44.835277 Longitude: -80.195277
  • Ontario, Canada
    Latitude: 44.4834 Longitude: -80.21638
  • Ontario, Canada
    Latitude: 43.75008 Longitude: -81.71648
  • Ontario, Canada
    Latitude: 43.90012 Longitude: -78.84957
  • Ontario, Canada
    Latitude: 43.11682 Longitude: -79.19958
  • Ontario, Canada
    Latitude: 44.7501 Longitude: -79.84966
Richard Palmer
Copyright Statement
Copyright status unknown. Responsibility for determining the copyright status and any use rests exclusively with the user.
Maritime History of the Great Lakes
Powered by / Alimenté par VITA Toolkit

My favourites lets you save items you like, tag them and group them into collections for your own personal use. Viewing "My favourites" will open in a new tab. Login here or start a My favourites account.


Brothers Meet: Schooner Days CLXVII (167)