Tag Archives: Canoe Cove

Tanker fire was scarey waterfront event


If the word “Seekonk” means anything to you then you probably were in Charlottetown in June of 1963.

On 7 June 1963 a small Irving Oil tanker called the Seekonk was moored across the end Railway Wharf in Charlottetown getting ready to take on a cargo of gasoline for Stephenville in Newfoundland. A fire broke out in the stern section of the ship housing the galley and crews quarters. The fire quickly overwhelmed the crew and the Charlottetown fire department was called to the scene. Although the vessel had not yet taken on its cargo the potential explosion of the vessel was a serious threat. Owing to the extreme heat of the blaze, cramped spaces below deck and a number of small explosions it could not be extinguished and as the firefighters tackled the blaze Deputy Fire Chief Gordon Stewart ordered an evacuation of Water Street from Queen Street to Weymouth as well as Notre Dame Academy.

Not wishing to expose the firefighters to undue danger he called for volunteers and soon had enough single men to make a dedicated assault on the fire. Flames on the deck were extinguished but below decks it was a different story. The hull grew so hot that the water around the burning section was boiling. After an hour and a half no progress had been made and fearing an explosion the Chief stood down the firemen and asked the Department of Transport vessel Tupper, also in port, to move the Seekonk away from the wharves.  After a session of bureaucratic dithering permission to act was received. The Seekonk’s anchor cables were cut with acetylene torches, harbour pilot Jack MacDonald attached towing cables to the bow of the tanker, and the Tupper slowly turned the Seekonk and pulled her through the harbour mouth and beached her on Governors Island. The evacuation order was lifted and life in the city returned to normal.

Mettawee_class__schematicAt the time of the fire in Charlottetown Harbour the Seekonk was just twenty years old but it already had a service record which saw it journey halfway around the world and back as part of the U.S. war effort. It was one of thirty-four small, single-screw aft-engine diesel powered gasoline tankers which were constructed for the U.S. Navy as the Mettawee class of ships. The ships in this class were all named for small rivers, the Seekonk running through Rhode Island. Launched on 24 May 1943  the Seekonk  was 213 feet long and 37 feet wide but drew only 17 feet, making it ideal for shallow harbours and multiple small ports. It carried about 1200 tons of cargo, usually gasoline or aviation fuel. Its war-time crew numbered 62 men under command of a naval lieutenant and as it was destined for use in combat areas it carried a number of armaments including a 3 inch gun and several anti-aitrcraft gun stations for defensive use.  In spite of carrying dangerous volatile cargos none of the Mettawee class were lost during the war.  .

Seekonk in wartime. Not armaments on the vessel

Mettawee class tanker in wartime. Note armaments on the vessel

After fitting out and shakedown training the Seekonk’s first voyage was in convoy to Aruba in the Netherlands West Indies where it loaded its cargo – aviation gasoline, and departed on 2 April for the Panama Canal en route to the South Pacific war zone. It arrived in New Guinea on 1 June  For the rest of that year it operated off the coast of New Guinea where it came under attack from Japanese planes and managed to shoot down some of the attackers. Early in 1945 the Seekonk was part of the armada of ships liberating the Philippine Islands. It provided fueling services for a number of the amphibious landing craft and other ships for several of the Philippine landings. The vessel remained in Philippine waters until the end of hostilities providing support to minesweeping activities. She provided a similar duty in waters off Vietnam as part of a mine sweeping task force which cleared Haiphong Harbour and the Hainan Strait.

Seekonk awaiting sale in San Francisco

Seekonk awaiting sale in San Francisco

The return of the Seekonk to American waters was plagued by engine failures and it took from 21 December 1945 to 26 February 1946 (part of the time under tow) to cross from Hong Kong to San Francisco where she was decommissioned, disarmed,  and made available for disposal in August of that year. There was a post-war glut of vessels on the market and it was not until January 1949 that the Seekonk was purchased. The buyer was Newfoundland Tankers Ltd., a subsidiary of Irving Oil, and the ship was subsequently transferred to Irving Steamships Ltd.

Seekonk under Irving ownership

Seekonk under Irving ownership. This photo shows her in Toronto in the early 1950s.

Under Irving ownership she was first used in 1951 on the Great Lakes on charter to the British-American Oil Company but by the mid-1950s she was being used to supply Irving facilities in the Maritimes and Newfoundland.  She was a frequent visitor to Charlottetown and Montague. In 1955, for example, early onset of winter saw the Seekonk being used to transfer fuel to the Railway Wharf from the larger Irvingbrook, anchored off St. Peter’s Island, which had been  unable to enter Charlottetown Harbour owing to ice conditions.


Seekonk aground at Governors Island

After the derelict ship had burnt its self out on Governors Island the hulk was towed to Buctouche New Brunswick where there was an Irving facility.  In May 1964 the Charlottetown Guardian carried a story that the fishermen of  Canoe Cove had approached Irving for the burned-out hull to replace a breakwater which had been carried away by the ice. The 14 boats fishing out of the Cove were at the mercy of the elements. While Irving agreed to the proposal the costs of towing it into position and dredging and filling the hull with sand were considerable and the plan was abandoned. A month later the Seekonk was towed from Buctouche to Sydney Nova Scotia where she was scrapped.


About 20 nautical miles west of Charlottetown lies the village of Victoria. Like many of the harbors on Northumberland Strait it is fighting a losing battle against the moving sands which threaten to choke out the channel which has become increasingly narrow and shallow. Up until a few years ago there was annual sailing race from Charlottetown to Victoria and from Summerside to Victoria but as boats grew larger many could not enter the harbour except at high tide and the race has not been held.

Even the local fishermen seem to abandoning the port. There are only three boats fishing from the harbour today although there are a couple of locally based sailboats. There are two substantial wharves giving shelter from all but a south-east wind and at low tide the sandbars effectively block the waves. Much of the channel is carved out by the tidal action funneling through the bridge but the opening is too far to the south of the wharves to prevent the harbour from silting up.  Dredging is necessary but that harbour authority may lack the resources to do a proper job and so the existence of the port is threatened.

 Much of the charm of Victoria is that it has retained much of the appearance of the 18th century village that it was when first laid out in its four-block grid pattern by a Victorian property developer. The old saw that “poverty protects” help keep the village intact as its economic importance declined. The trend was reversed in the 1970s as a number of tourist attractions, led by the Victoria Playhouse made the community a destination and small businesses dependant on the tourism trade – inns, bed and breakfast establishments, craft shops and artists studios were established.  I indulged in the complete Victoria experience, a swim in the harbour,  dining a the local pub and taking in a play at the theatre the first evening and enjoying a fine meal at the Landmark Cafe the second night. The village thrives in the summer but in winter there are fewer than fifty inhabitants as many of the residents are “from away”. One of the charming aspects of life in the village that many of the residents take advantage of the seaside site to have a daily swim, either at one of three beaches in the village or just off the boat launch slip at the foot of the main street. The seasonal attractiveness of the community also threatens its uniqueness as nearby farmlands have been sub-divided and new development has departed from the grid pattern of the old village.

The channel leading into Victoria is barely 20 feet wide in spots and although well-buoyed there are a number of sharp turns required to avoid the moving sand-bars.  The favoured side of the wharf is the east which offers good protection from the prevailing winds.  There are a couple of small resident yachts and several fishing boats in either active commercial or recreational use.  The wharf has running water and a public washroom is available at the community beach. Wharfage fee is a flat rate of $20.00 per night and the wharfinger offered every assistance.

On the way up to Victoria  I left Charlottetown against the tide and southerly wind and motored to St. Peters Island where turning to the west made both the tide and wind favourable.  I passed quite close to the St. Peter’s Island light which marks a shoal extending quite far to the west of the Island. Although I had marked a safe passage as a waypoint on my GPS I was still surprised how quickly  the bottom rose up. The sail was a very pleasurable beam reach and got me to the village wharf in a little more than six hours which I considered to be excellent time.  The wind was forecast to be high the following day and so I decided to stay put and take full advantage of the shelter.  During the first night the wind did come up and created a chop in the harbour. It was my first night tied up to a wharf  with a riding and falling tide, usually I was at a float or finger pier that floated on the tide, or else I was moored off.  My mooring lines would have to allow for the six or more feet of tidefall and could not be tightened or else I would be suspended as the tide fell.  Added to that I was uncomfortably close to other boats tied up ahead of and behind me on the wharf.  The chop in the harbour overnight meant that my tender was continuously banging against the hull (even with fenders) and at 3:00 am I had had enough and rowed it over to the beach to drag up on the sands.  I did not pass a pleasant night.

The wind moderated through the following day and my second night in the port was very calm.  I awoke at about 5:00 am and threaded my way out of the harbour to open water as the sun rose.  By 8:00 I had motored as far as Canoe Cove in a flat sea. I anchored off and rowed to shore to see if my friends Craig and Kay wanted to go with me to Charlottetown.  I am afraid that I disturbed their morning lie-in but after a well-appreciated breakfast  we set off to complete the voyage. Unfortunately both the wind direction and force conspired against us and except for about 10 minutes under sail it was a motor trip  all the way in. Good company always makes the trip shorter and we were tied up by 2:30 in the afternoon having dined aboard.  I was well pleased with both the boat and myself.