The term appears on none of the dozen or so charts of the area which have been printed since the early 1800s but anyone who sails in Charlottetown Harbour soon learns about the Three Tides. Just inside the protecting arms of the points of land bracketing the harbour entrance lies the meeting place of the three rivers forming the harbour itself. At the confluence of the Elliott, the York and the Hillsborough (otherwise the West, North and East) Rivers lies the Three Tides. Where the waters of the three rivers join before pouring out between Rocky and Battery Points the currents and tides form a boiling pot of changing currents which, when added to the tidal flows in and out of the harbour, can seize a small vessel and twist and turn it in its course.
It is not really a place of three tides but rather one of four currents, the river flows and the ebb and flow of the tide itself. Because of the confused seas it is the last part of the harbour to freeze and the first to thaw. At least it was, before the warmer winters and icebreaker and tanker traffic gave us winters when the harbour didn’t completely freeze. For the last century and a half newspapers used the three tides as the gauge for the closing and opening of the harbour. In 1852, for example, Haszard’s Gazette noted the harbingers of spring on April 20th : “Lilac bushes were in bud and the Three Tides quite opened…” although the ice at the wharves was still two or three feet thick. In late February 1902 the ice breaking steamer Stanley was able to get into the Three Tides and landed passengers and freight on the ice although it took additional time to get up to the harbour moorings.
The first appearance of the term “Three Tides” appears to have been in quarantine legislation in 1832 whereby vessels with emigrants or “contagious distemper on board” were forbidden to come further into the harbour than the three tides until inspected by the Health Officer of the colony. By 1860 the term appears to have been in common use as it appears in the 4th edition of Captain Bayfield’s St Lawrence Pilot: “The confluence of the streams of these three rivers, between Canseau Shoal and the mouth of York river, for the Three Tides , where there is excellent anchorage, used occasionally by laden vessels preparing for the sea… ” Forty years later a guidebook to the Maritime Provinces gave a more picturesque description of the area. “Charlottetown Harbor, at its entrance between the cliffs of Blockhouse and Sea-Trout Point, is 450 fathoms wide, and, in sailing in, York River running northward, the Hillsborough River eastwardly, and the Elliot to the westward, surround the visitor with beautiful effects, and as he glides smoothly over their confluence, or what is called the Three Tides, he will feel, perhaps, that he has seen for the first time, should a setting sun gild the horizon, a combination of color and effect which no artist could adequately represent.”
The Three Tides was a deep-water sheltered anchorage and in the years before sailing vessels had auxiliary engines ships would wait there for favourable winds and tides to carry them through the narrow harbour entrance. Today the scene has changed and one is more likely to see a cruise ship anchored there while its passengers are lightered to the city wharves occupied by earlier arrivals.
The site was not entirely a peaceful one. The combination of wind and waves could be hazardous for small boats and many drownings can be attributed to the strong currents of the tides which swept swimmers away from the sandy shores to deeper water.
The danger of the Three Tides was perhaps more serious in winter. The bushed ice road across the harbour to Rocky Point and up the West River passed near the three tides and because of the constant movement of water the ice formed late and thawed early. Those crossing with horses and sleighs (and later with cars and trucks) were very cautious and breakthroughs were not uncommon. When skating on the harbour became popular the Three Tides were a danger for those on blades. In 1946 a McNeill lad, carried away with his novel discovery that a sheet of cardboard could act as a sail on the ice was blown on to the thin ice and had to rescued by other boys who formed a human chain.
Today with an open harbour, boats less dependant on wind and tide and less awareness of the tides and currents, the Three Tides has faded in importance. But still, as sailboats race the courses in the harbour the skillful skipper must take into account the forces that the tides and currents exert on the boat as it passes through the boiling waters of the Three Tides.