Maritime History of the Great Lakes
Two Try for Cobourg: Schooner Days CCCCXC (490)
Toronto Telegram (Toronto, ON), 5 Apr 1941
Full Text
Two Try for Cobourg
Schooner Days CCCCXC (490)

by C. H. J. Snider


LATE trips in the fall always had an attraction for our veteran mariner, Capt. John Williams, now well away in his eighty-fifth year. He sometimes turned a pretty penny by them, for the freights were good, and sometimes two-way.

He often had to do some maneuvring to get to windward of his good wife on such occasions, for Mrs. Williams had a very deep concern for her truelove's well-being, and was always eager for him to lay the vessel up before the hard winds of December unloosed their fury with rain and snow and frost-fog.

Once, in 1901, when he had brought the Straubenzee in with a load of coal at the end of November, he expected to strip her for the season, for the Augusta had gone ashore at Port Credit in the same gale which brought him in to Toronto safely. Many other vessels had been in trouble, and the papers were full of stories of hardship and disaster. But he had a good rate on barley to Oswego offered him, with a second freight of coal back. He went home while the schooner was lying loaded at the elevator, but hadn't the courage to say he was going to make another trip. Instead, he asked his wife to come uptown to see the vessel. As soon as they got over the rail he told the mate, casually, "Oh, just get her swept down and tidied up," as though another voyage was not to be thought of till spring.

"Oh, captain, have you heard—" began the cook, full of tales of the tribulations of the Augusta and her crew, and Capt. Williams cut her off with "Yes, as you say, put the kettle on now and Mrs. Williams and I will have a bit of tea at five o'clock."

They chatted happily about the season's work and winter's prospects until Mrs. Williams "had to be getting back home," and Captain John said he was sorry he couldn't go with her, but he would have to stay with the schooner that night.

As soon as she was gone the mate began to tell how bad the weather prospects were, with this wind in the north and canting, and so forth; but John had his own ideas, cast off his lines, and sailed out. He was down to Oswego and unloaded and loaded again by the time the wind went easterly, and this brought him home the first week in December, with double freight money in his pocket.

"God forgive you, John," said his half-owner, Peter Arnot, "for the white lies I had to tell poor Mrs. Williams when she reproached me for sending you down the lake again at this time of year. You don't know how it hurt me."

"Not so bad that you won't take your share of this double-freight, eh, Peter?" asked John dryly.

But there was one last trip—-it was in 1899—-John wouldn't take. Peter thought it was a good chance, a load of slack for the Toronto Electric Light Co., just a short run to Charlotte and back, less than a hundred miles each way. John said no, he had said he wasn't going out again, and he wasn't. He himself didn't know why. Peter was agreeable. He left the handling of the schooner entirely to her master and half owner.

So a smaller rival, the Wave Crest, went down for the load, or part of it, jumping at the chance; the round-sterned Wave Crest, with the jaunty yacht-like profile. (There was a schooner-yacht Wave Crest on Lake Ontario later, but this was years before her advent.) The Wave Crest loaded and left Charlotte on Dec. 2nd. That night she blew out all her four jibs off Thirty Mile Point and had to turn back for Charlotte for shelter. Capt. Mercer, of Port Hope, was sailing her, and her owner, J. A. Turner, of Peterboro (tents, sails and awning maker), was aboard. Running back in the snow they sighted a light which they thought was the one on Braddock's Point, twelve miles from Charlotte. They hauled her to the southward, and with so little headsail she went wild and clawed in on the beach at Oak Orchard, fifteen miles away from where they thought she was. She struck hard, and her sternpost was driven up through her deck. The crew soaked their mattresses with coal oil and carried them to the crosstrees and burned them there for distress signals; and next morning a fishboat got out and took them off, almost dead from exposure.

Mr. J. J. Wright, manager of the Toronto Electric Light Co., went down to see if ship or cargo could be saved. Neither could be. The wrecking outfit from Kingston only got as far as Charlotte, and the schooner broke up. The wreckers sued for their bill, hut the owner counterclaimed for damages for non-fulfilment of contract — and won.

"Something told me not to take the Straubenzee down for that load," said Capt. Williams forty years afterwards, "and I guess I was told right."

The little old Garibaldi, then on her last legs, went down after what was left of the load at Charlotte—-the Wave Crest could not carry all the Straubenzee could have taken—-and was back safely with it by Dec. 6th. Probably her last freight after fifty years' service. Navigation was open late that year, for the stonehooker Rover came into Toronto harbor on Dec. 18th. But Capt. Williams had no regrets. He had his inner counsel, which negroes have taught us to call hunches, and he abode by it cheerfully.

But three years later he had no compunction about a late "last trip."

IT WAS getting on in the fall of 1902 when Capt. Williams got a charter for coal from Oswego for Cobourg and Port Hope at 90 cents a ton. This was a lucky break, due to the lateness of the season and the difficulty of getting a vessel to carry broken lots of cargo to two ports, neither of them easy of access in fall gales. Cobourg was a lot worse then than it became a few years later, when the Grand Trunk car ferry trade necessitated an enlarged, better-lighted and deeper harbor. It was a narrow hole to get into, with decrepit wooden piers and an L sticking out after you got halfway in, making a second narrows before you got to the little inner basin. Port Hope, seven miles to the west, was a better spot to take, if you hit it right, but the long wooden piers there made a narrow entrance with a tongue at the end of it splitting the place into two harbors. In bad weather it was hard for a sailing vessel sometimes to clear that tongue, or fetch up if she did succeed in clearing it. So 90 cents a ton was money well earned, even if 25 cents a ton was the summer rate from Oswego to Toronto, a considerably longer distance. Ninety cents meant over $600 for the Straubenzee's freight.

He got down to Oswego, loaded, and started up the lake, hanging on to the south shore for smooth water. He got as far as the Devil's Nose, when the wind came down so heavy and raised such a sea he knew there would be no getting into either Port Hope or Cobourg, on the other side of the lake. So back he ran to Charlotte, twenty miles. While the Straubenzee lay in shelter the Jessie Drummond passed down outside for Oswego. She, too, had a charter to load coal for Cobourg.

When the wind lulled the Straubenzee hauled out again for Cobourg, crossed the lake, and fetched in to within five or six miles of the place, and two miles off shore. Coming about for the final tack the fore-gaff carried away as she rolled in the confused sea. The broken spar went through the sail, tearing it rather badly, and there was nothing to do but lower the foresail and strip it from the spars for repairs. A lot of water was flying, and the decks were pretty wet, and they had to drag the sail aft and into the cabin to do the sewing.

Without the foresail the Straubenzee could not beat to windward, even if Cobourg was only five miles away, and if she had got there she could not have gone in; it was black night and rather dirty, so Capt. Williams settled away some of the after canvas and turned back for Presque' Isle on the north shore, twenty-four miles to the eastward of Cobourg.

By the time they had the foresail pretty well sewn up the Straubenzee lurched in past the tall lighthouse that has marked the point ever since 1840. With his board partly down and his anchors ready Capt. Williams let her go on in until her forefoot touched the sand above Salt Point, perhaps at the Calf Pasture shoal. To make sure she did not blow out as one Garibaldi and the Belle Sheridan had done, to be wrecked on Bald Head across at Weller's Bay, twenty-two years before, he carried out one anchor well ahead, with plenty of chain, left the heel of the board down on the sand, set an anchor watch, and turned in for what was left of the night.

There was not much dirt in the weather, and when the wind swung around to the eastward he was all ready for it. The gaff had been fished, that is, put in splints, the foresail repaired, and bent to the spars again, so he lowered his yawlboat—the souvenir of the Idaho's disaster—and with it weighed the unneeded anchor and brought it aboard. A lot of work for six pairs of hands, for the donkey engine, though willing enough, could neither sew wet canvas, fish broken spars, nor weigh anchors from a yawlboat. All it could do was heave in chain. Capt. Williams always carried a small kedge on the quarter at the mizzen rigging and this he lowered into the boat and sent out astern, with a good line on it.

But with an extra ton of anchor and chain now on board the Straubenzee just refused to pull her foot off the bank. The water must have lowered a little, for she was fast on the sand, and all the grunting donkey engine accomplished was that he brought the kedge, home, line and all, without budging her.

Capt. Williams began to wonder if he would have to jettison some of the coal, but before trying that remedy he ran his kedge out again and threw both the bower anchors overboard with all their Chain. This lightened her by three tons, not much as compared with her seven hundred ton cargo, but some fraction of an inch of draught. Then he hauled the mainboom and fore-boom out as far as they would go,and brought them back again, so that she rolled a little. Every time she rolled she wallowed a little deeper bed for herself and every inch she gained on the soft bottom he hove her back a little with the line on the kedge. Presque'Isle is a sticky spot even for a yacht. All one can count on is a twelve foot channel, with three fathoms here and there. For a schooner drawing eleven feet it is very much of a flytrap, but the old boys used it as a harbor of refuge!

At last the Straubenzee came clear, and the heel of the centreboard was again lowered to hold her from drifting while sail was made and the anchors got on the bows again. So out she started for the third time for Cobourg. By this time it was the second of December.

It was late when they got away and the wind was light from the eastward but making all the time. Before dark, which comes soon when we are close to the shortest day in the year, he got two reefs in his mainsail and reefed the mizzen, too. He could not be far from Cobourg, but it was invisible in the dusk. Then he saw the scanty street lights as he stood on, but no distinguishing gleam of lighthouse, red or white.

"If I can't make out the lights better than this," said Capt. Williams, "I'll jibe her over and let her run for Toronto Point and come back when this clears up."

Yet he hated -to do this, after getting so close, for the Jessie Drummond had loaded coal in Oswego for Cobourg, and if she got the dock ahead of him it might be Christmas before he got the Straubenzee unloaded and home.

As a matter of fact it was cold enough for Christmas—nine below zero—the morning Capt. Williams did bring the Straubenzee home, in a north wind that would freeze the ears off a brass monkey. But a lot happened in between, which shall be told next week.

Snider, C. H. J.
Item Type
Date of Publication
5 Apr 1941
Language of Item
Geographic Coverage
  • New York, United States
    Latitude: 43.25506 Longitude: -77.61695
  • Ontario, Canada
    Latitude: 43.95977 Longitude: -78.16515
  • Ontario, Canada
    Latitude: 43.65011 Longitude: -79.3829
Richard Palmer
Copyright Statement
Public domain: Copyright has expired according to the applicable Canadian or American laws. No restrictions on use.
Maritime History of the Great Lakes
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Two Try for Cobourg: Schooner Days CCCCXC (490)