The gales of November

You could say I’m from these parts. I was born at the Collingwood General and Marine Hospital, founded in 1887 as an eight-bed facility which, despite the fear of communicable diseases, was one of the few hospitals on the Great Lakes that would admit sailors. I was pretty young at the time so don’t remember meeting any sailors, but perhaps that’s where I was infected with my fascination with these waters.

So of course, on a recent visit to Bearly Used Books in Parry Sound, my eye was drawn to a copy of Into the Blue: Family secrets and the search for a great lakes shipwreck, by Andrea Curtis. Now I like family secrets as much as the next person, but it was the story of the shipwreck itself that I found most compelling..

On November 22, 1906 the J.H. Jones set out on its final journey.

On November 22, 1906, the packet steamer J.H. Jones sets out from Owen Sound on its last run of the season. It’s calm enough in the harbour, but out in the open waters of Georgian Bay, the gales of November are blowing up waves steep enough to capsize a steamer the size of the J.H. Jones. Somewhere between Cape Croker and Lion’s head, the ship disappears, claiming the lives of all on board.

Those are the bare facts. But Curtis weaves together fact and fiction to recreate the last journey of her great grandfather James Victor Crawford, who was captain of the steamer and who made the decision to set out into the gales. Here’s her imagining of how the story begins.

“Jim Crawford strokes the soft whiskers of his moustache with one hand, and grips the door frame of the wheelhouse with the other. The dull light of midday makes the long fingers of land on either side of the Jones look naked and sharp. The sky is low and there are reports of big waves out in the open, but the storm should be passing. Jim tugs his hat down over his ears and goes back inside.”

The wreck of the J.H. Jones off Cape Crocker.

It’s a fascinating read and a compassionate portrait of a man who made his living on the unpredictable waters of the Great Lakes and paid the ultimate price.

Chris and I have often sailed past the place where the J.H. Jones went down and have experienced firsthand how changeable these waters can be. On my first journey up the coast of the Bruce Peninsula, we set out on a calm, foggy morning, listening to the mournful sound of a foghorn somewhere offshore, a laker, no doubt, making its way to Tobermory.. But in the night, the winds came up and the seas built until we were forced to run for shelter into Wingfield Basin, through breaking surf across the narrow opening. I was terrified and did the only sensible thing: once we were safely anchored inside: I threw up on the deck.

After reading Into the Blue I was hungry for more. Fortunately, I’ve discovered the Ginger Press Bookstore and Café In Owen Sound which carries—and indeed publishes—a large selection of local books. A grim-looking book called Weather Bomb 1913: Life and death on the Great Lakes immediately caught my eye. As a sailor, I have more than a passing interest in anything called a weather bomb.

The SS Regina had a crew of 32 men. None survived the white hurricane of 1913.

I will confess to having read and re-read the 50-page prologue several times now. In it, author Bruce Kemp uses his skills as a fiction writer to recreate the last days of the SS Regina, a steel freighter out of Montreal, fully loaded and on its way to the head of the Great Lakes. Small by today’s standards at 250 feet in length, the Regina was top-heavy with a load of sewage pipe lashed on the deck—not ideal for heading out into the storm of the century.

Over the course of four days in November of 1913, the seas raged, the winds blew, and heavy snow fell on the Great Lakes as two storms joined to bring about the greatest natural disaster ever suffered on the lakes. A dozen big ships were lost with all hands and dozens more suffered serious damage. The death toll as a result of “the white hurricane” was estimated at 256, but that only included those aboard the big ships. The final count was probably much higher.

Here’s a description of conditions on board the Regina at the height of the storm:

“Just before ten the first wave struck. It came out of the night roaring above the wind like a freight train beyond control. No one on the bridge could see it. The first indication that this wave was different was when the crew felt the boat start to lift its forefoot. They rose straight up, like they were riding an elevator. Then the wave slammed into their port bow. It rocked the boat far over to starboard and washed across everything with solid green water.”

In Kemp’s imagining of events, that wave was the first of “three sisters” to hit the ship. The second blew out the windows in the wheelhouse and again rolled the boat over on its starboard side, but it managed to right itself. The third wave submerged the ship completely then dropped it on its side in the trough. It was over in a minute. “The Regina fluttered like and autumn leaf to the bottom of the lake and came to rest on her starboard side.”

Thanks to Gordon Lightfoot, there’s probably not a Canadian born who doesn’t know how fierce the gales of November can be. These two books, both available on Amazon, will bring them to life for you.

Not a bad way to cool off on a hot summer afternoon.

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