PEI Maritime Stories

Whenever you’re talking islands, you’re going to end up hearing about ships. Sea shanties, naval battles, pirates; the seas around North America are rich with tales of battles, disasters, and eccentricities. PEI is no exception, with a wealth of maritime history that is waiting to be explored.

Have a look at a few select stories on PEI Ships:

The Turret Bell

We’re kicking off this list with the namesake of this site. By all accounts, the Turret Bell – 2211 tonnes, 237 feet long – was not an attractive ship. It was not intended to be an attractive ship, but it was often remarked that it was a “freak of naval architecture.” Its classification was a “whaleback steamer,” which describes (if you can imagine) a hull that is continuously curved above the waterline from vertical to horizontal. The idea is that when the ship is fully loaded, only the rounded portion of the hull (the “whaleback”) could be seen above the waterline, giving it an appearance that, by today’s standards, would be regarded as “unique.”

At the time, was claimed that this hull design would save forty per cent in fuel costs, but it didn’t take long for the design to prove to be a failure on both the deep seas and the Great Lakes.

As the Turret Bell entered the Gulf of St. Lawrence on November 2, 1906, it just so happened to sail into one of the worst storms in Prince Edward Island history. The ship was carried far off its course, landing her bow into the rocks offshore at Cable  Head, just outside St Peters Bay. It was the whaleback design, oddly enough, that kept the ship upright while in the shallow waters. It was one of many ships that saw disaster during that storm, including the Orpheus, Olga, and Sovinto.  Captain Murcassen of the Turret Bell and Captain Wiglund of the Sovinto would testify at the inquiries into the wreck of their ships that the barometer gave no indication of a coming storm, which lasted for days.

The full crew of the Turret Bell were rescued, and the ship stayed sitting in the shallow water of Cable Head for two years, defying a number of salvage attemps.  The ship became a local tourist attraction, attracting media attention all across the Maritimes and beyond.  The salvage effort required a new road be build to the site of the wreck, and The Turret Bell road still exists today.

Finally, after two years of attemps, The Turret Bell was finally refloated, the boilers were powered up, and she sailed away under her own steam.

Yankee Gale

We’re going to play through with the “storm” theme, because what’s a good ship story without some form of violence?

The Yankee Gale was a major storm in the Gulf of St. Lawrence near Prince Edward Island, Canada, that began on the night of October 3, 1851 and continued for two days, according to one captain’s log. It is sometimes regarded as the worst natural disaster in the history of the Maritimes.

The storm had a minimal effect inland, while being devastating to those trapped out on the water. Those that tried to sail past the island were blocked by Northeast gales, and those that attempted to hold their position had their sails torn away by the wind. While some ships were dragged towards the island and run aground, others (like those that dropped anchor) were capsized, or destroyed by other ships being driven into them.

The storm laid waste to local PEI ships, but the storm is most notable for wrecking a large portion of a New England fishing fleet that was in the area at the time (which gave the storm its name). In total, at least 74 ships were destroyed, and 150 crew were killed; the majority of which were the American fleet.

The Battle at Port-la-Joye

We’re going back a bit further in time for this one. The Battle at Port-la-Joye (AKA the Port-la-Joye Massacre) was a battle that took place on Prince Edward Island in 1776. The British were leading a company of men from Massachusetts, and the French were leading the Canadiens and Mi’kmaq.

The Míkmaq are a First Nations people indigenous to Canada’s Maritime Provinces and the Gaspé Peninsula of Quebec. At other times during conflicts that would envelope the region the Mi’kmaq assisted the Acadians in resisting the British during the Expulsion (mentioned in an earlier article.)

This battle was a part of King George’s War which was the North American front during the much larger War of Austrian Succession, and the third of the four French and Indian Wars. Along with this battle on Prince Edward Island, battles were fought in New York, Massachusetts Bay, New Hampshire, and Nova Scotia. Overall, the war took a heavy toll, especially in the northern British colonies. The losses of Massachusetts men alone in 1745–46 have been estimated as 8% of that colony’s adult male population.

During the Battle at Port-la-Joye, French officer Jean-Baptiste Nicolas Roch de Ramezay sent French and Mi’kmaq forces to Port-la-Joye where they surprised and defeated a company of 200 Massachusetts militia in two British naval vessels.

The fall of Port-la-Joye saw Île Saint-Jean return to control by France. This is part of a long and ugly conflict between the British and French, which involved resistance from the Mi’kmaq and the eventual expulsion of the Acadians from the region.


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