SAILING SHIPS AND NOVA SCOTIA SHIPWRECKS (May 24/02)

In 1887 the summer edition of a Valley newspaper listed 234 sailing ships that were built in Kings and Hants County between 1880 and 1886.

While it only covers a few years in the long period when sailing ships were the main mode of travel and commerce, this list gives a glimpse of the “age of sail” and an indication of the importance of seafaring and shipbuilding.

While surfing the Internet recently I came across another reference to the importance of sailing ships in Nova Scotia’s history. “In 1875,” it read, “Nova Scotia, one of the largest seafaring and shipbuilding communities on the ocean, had 2,787 vessels on its registers. With diverse communities clinging to a rugged coastline… Nova Scotians reached out to the horizons in sloops, schooners, brigs, clipper ships and iron-hulled steamers.”

This quote, which is from one of many sites dedicated to Nova Scotia history, gives us another glimpse of the province in the heyday of sailing ships. Many of those 2,787 ships sailed out of ports here in the Minas Basin. And while no accurate account exists that I’m aware, it’s probably safe to say that hundreds, perhaps even thousands, of ships once sailed out of this region, carrying cargo for destinations around the world.

For many of the ships that sailed from Minas Basin ports, there are tales of tragedy, hardship and shipwrecks. In an e-mail note to me several months ago, historian Dan Conlin, curator of the Maritime Museum of the Atlantic, wrote that Nova Scotia has a “staggering number of shipwrecks, over 10,000 by conservative estimates.”

Conlin said that some reliable estimates go as high as 25,000 shipwrecks along Nova Scotia’s coast. “Our earliest shipwreck dates back to 1583,” he wrote, “and we have several hundred wrecks from the 18th century, such as the remarkable collection of large warships sunk at Louisbourg during the two sieges there.”

The 1583 shipwreck Conlin referred to is undoubtedly the Delight, destroyed during a storm at Sable Island during the exploratory voyage of Sir Humphrey Gilbert. Conlin calls this the earliest shipwreck, meaning perhaps the first of any note that was recorded. According to several accounts, there are records of over 300 ships going aground on Sable Island; how many the shoals at Sable Island actually claimed will never be known.

Recently the tiny sailing vessel found in the mud in Wolfville harbour made the news. Perhaps incorrectly, this was referred to as a shipwreck. It’s possible the ship may have been set adrift and deliberately scuttled after catching fire at the wharf. I’m assuming that a “shipwreck” is a vessel that has sunk or has broken up on the shore after coming out second best during a storm.

It’s difficult to imagine that there may have been as many as 25,000 shipwrecks in Nova Scotia alone. However, we’re looking at a period of several centuries so it’s possible that this estimate is smack on. Conlin pointed out that the largest number of shipwrecks occurred in the period 1850 to 1950 “when shipping was at its peak.” It’s worth remembering, Conlin said, that shipwrecks still happen today, “not as frequently as in the past, but dozens every year large and small in our waters.”

Many of the shipwrecks on our coast have gone unrecorded and except perhaps for oral records passed from family to family, their stories have never been told.

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