Hochelaga on the Rocks

The headline in the 10 May 1924 Charlottetown Guardian was dramatic –Hochelaga aground off Governors Is.  On the previous day a fishing boat had towed the Hochelaga’s lifeboat into Charlottetown with three of the steamer’s crew and the four passengers aboard.  The boat had been found rowing toward Charlottetown after it had been ordered ashore  by Hochelaga Captain J.W. Carter of Halifax. The steamship was hard aground on the west side of the isolated island in Hillsborough Bay.

Hochelaga at dock at Pictou. Note the autos in the stern of the steamer

Hochelaga at dock at Pictou. Note the autos in the stern of the steamer

The Hochelaga was a familiar sight in Charlottetown harbour between 1924 and 1940 as it carried on a regular daily service between Charlottetown and Pictou.  It had been a private yacht and then a Royal Canadian Navy patrol vessel before being purchased by the Hochelaga Shipping and Towing Company of Halifax.

On this particular voyage it encountered thick fog, a rare occurrence in Northumberland Strait, and had to grope its way into the bay. As it was early in the shipping season the buoys marking the channel had not yet been set out owing to the continued presence of ice in the Strait. In contrast with today with global positioning, depth sounders and radios the Hochelaga was essentially running blind. Even when it got into difficulty it could not communicate with land and hence the surprise when the crew reached shore with their tale of woe.

Governors 2Governor’s Island runs east and west with long reefs extending a mile or so beyond the actual Island.  To the east the reef takes the form of a sandbar but to the west it is much more dangerous as the sandstone raises to near the surface much more abruptly.   in 1939 the reef was not specifically marked although in later years it would be the site of an offshore oil well which now has a yellow can buoy on location.  Instead,  safe passage is to the west of Fitzroy Rock in line with the reef but further to the west.  In order for the Hochelaga to go aground it must have been more than a mile off course. Compounding the difficulties the steamer hit at or very near high tide. The momentum would have carried it on to the rocks and with the falling tide efforts to extract itself by reversing the engines proved fruitless.  Although the newspaper reports suggested the Hochelaga was on a bar of gravel it was, in fact,  hard rock that held the vessel.

Early the following morning the Dominion Public Works tug “Fredericton”  was dispatched to the scene but was unable to free the steamer which by now had a pronounced list owing to the falling tide. Although Captain Carter and the 18 member of the crew were in no danger they had spent an uncomfortable night. The “Fredericton” returned to port in the assumption that a larger tug would be required to free the steamer.

Instead, at the time of highest tide at 2:20 pm, Captain Carter tried one more time ‘just for luck”  and succeeded in backing the ship away from the rocks and proceeded into the wharf as if nothing had happened except for a 24 hour delay in the schedule.

This is but one incident in the history of a remarkable vessel whose service as a ferry to PEI was her longest, but by no means most significant chapter.  This column will have more to tell about the Hochelaga in months to come.

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