Gilbert and Billy’s Excellent Adventure Afloat

The incident came to the public’s attention innocuously enough through a report of a stolen yacht. On the morning of 17 June 1933 Frederick Morris looked out of the window of his large house on the Dundas Esplanade on the Charlottetown waterfront and saw something was amiss. It was what he didn’t see that bothered him. Normally his racing yacht, the Zenith was moored just off the shore. The Zenith was painted white and was sixteen foot overall, seven foot beam and a twenty foot mast. She carried a single mainsail and no jib. Fred Morris was a keen yachtsman and one of the stalwarts of the sailing scene in Charlottetown. He was to become one of the longest serving commodores of the Charlottetown Yacht Club.

Satisfying himself that the boat has not simply broken off her mooring he reported the theft of the boat to the R.C.M.P. and arranged for a search of the harbour area to be made by motor boat.  Later that day it was learned  that the missing boat had been was spotted in Northumberland Strait off Point Prim by the ferry steamer Hochelaga and was reported to be heading to Nova Scotia with two aboard.  

Charlottetown Guardian 19 June 1933 p.1

The minor theft became page one news over the next few days. By the following day the police, after discarding the suggestion that the thieves had been a couple of Nova Scotia vagrants who had been noticed in the city and had previously been housed in the city’s lock-up, began to connect the disappearance of the yacht with the report of two boys reported missing from their homes. Gilbert Moore, aged 14, and Billy Dowling, 10, had last been seen on Wednesday the 16th and Gilbert’s bicycle was also missing.  It was suggested that the boys had gone off on a fishing trip and a misadventure had taken place but they would soon return. Over the weekend the two boys and a bicycle had been traced to Borden where they had been overheard inquiring about the next boat to Nova Scotia. It was presumed that they had snuck themselves and the bicycle onto a boxcar and had secretly gotten across the Strait on the ferry.  By this time the Zenith had been found  near Cape John on the Nova Scotia shore across from Charlottetown. Two boys, one short and one tall, had been seen going ashore from the boat.  

Charlottetown Guardian 17 June 1933 p.1

Several days later, notwithstanding the speculation about crossing on the ferry or the presence of Nova Scotia vagrants, the mystery was solved as the two missing boys were found in Port Elgin and sent home by the R.C.M.P. 

However the story that emerged told of an odyssey which stretched over five days and saw the boys cover several hundred miles over three provinces and Northumberland Strait.  On Wednesday afternoon the boys decided “to get out and see the country” and set out for Borden with Moore pedaling and Dowling on the handlebars, but on reaching the ferry terminal they learned that last crossing of the day had already departed for Cape Tormentine. Returning to Charlottetown they abandoned the bicycle at Crapaud and accepted a ride on a truck going to town. Instead of returning to their homes they set out for Victoria Park and spotted Morris’ boat about 1 a.m. 

Charlottetown Guardian 20 June 1933 p.1

Neither boy had ever sailed before.  When asked how he did it, Moore said he had read about it and he just held the rope and kept heading into the wind so the boat would not turn over.  After making their way in the dark to the harbour mouth they spotted the Point Prim light and headed toward it reaching it about dawn. With the hills of Nova Scotia visible on the horizon they began to cross the strait but with a wind shift and rising tide they were carried west and reached a point near Bay Verte, New Brunswick before they were able to head back they way they had come.  They spent Thursday night aboard the yacht sailing along the Nova Scotia coast and at about 11 o’clock in the morning on Friday they beached the craft at Long River, near Cape John. They began hitchhiking toward New Brunswick and spent nights and bummed meals at farmhouses along the way, giving fictitious names and claiming to be from Cape John.

On Monday their luck ran out and both boys, who by this time had become separated, were found near Port Elgin by the R.C.M.P.  They were put on the boat at Cape Tormentine, arrived back in Charlottetown on the 6:30 train, and were sent back to their families a little more than five days after their adventure had begun. There is no record that charges were brought against them. 

Asked by the police why he would want to take a ten-year-old along Moore simply stated that he had wanted to come along.  Moore’s explanation reason for the exploit was that he had an urge to see the country. 

It was generally conceded by experienced sailors that the boys had been very, very fortunate in the weather they encountered.  

 

 

1 thought on “Gilbert and Billy’s Excellent Adventure Afloat

  1. petefloyd

    Great story. I have a similar one but not as colourful. The urge was the same: to get off the Island and see the mainland for an afternoon. 15 years old from the Base in Summerside, my buddy and I hitched to the ferry and took the crossing to Tormentine. The winter of 1971…we hadn’t counted on pack ice and the ferry having to try a couple of times to get through the ice. We arrived back home at 11:30 at night in deep trouble. 15 year old boys who wanted to get out and see the world. My guitar was taken away for a week; a huge punishment for me. Parents eh? They know what gets you. By the way, I have some pictures from 1935 or so when the Rocky Point Ferry the Fairview was under construction, one of them showing the engine before it was installed.

    Reply

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