Sable Island: Shipwrecks at the graveyard of the Atlantic

Sable Island is often called the "Graveyard of the Atlantic" and for good reason — there have been more than 350 shipwrecks recorded there since 1583.

The island, hidden by fog and storms, leaves little of the ships it wrecks. Here are 10 of the most notable shipwrecks on this deceptively dangerous island of sand:

1583: HMS Delight

HMS Delight is the first recorded shipwreck off Sable Island. It was sailing in company with HMS Squirrel — a frigate commanded by Sir Humphrey Gilbert, a British adventurer and explorer who served during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I.

The crews were exploring the waters around Sable Island when Delight's master, Richard Clarke, had a dispute with Gilbert over a safe course near Sable. Clarke submitted to Gilbert's orders and the Delight — the largest remaining ship in the squadron and the one containing most of the remaining supplies — went aground and sank on one of Sable Island's sandbars.

The water was too shallow for the Squirrel to offer assistance and most of the crew aboard the Delight drowned. Clarke led 16 people who managed to get in a small boat with one oar and they spent seven days at sea before reaching Newfoundland. Five days later, they were rescued by a Basque whaling vessel.

1737: Catherine

Catherine was a type of sailing ship called a snow, which was similar to a brig but used a small spar rigged behind the main mast to make it easier to handle the spanker sail.

After the Catherine was shipwrecked, more than 100 survivors made it ashore to Sable Island where they used the main sail of the vessel to construct a tent.

The ship's longboat had washed ashore and was somewhat damaged, but over the next two days it was repaired. On the third day the master, mate and others sailed it to Canso, where the residents of Canso then mounted a successful rescue operation.

1800: Francis

Francis, which was also a type of sailing ship called a snow, is the subject of one of the most enduring ghost stories on Sable Island.

Following the ship's sinking there were rumours bodies being looted and the possible murder of survivors from the Francis — so an officer was sent to Sable Island to investigate.

The officer reported finding evidence of looters salvaging valuable personal possessions but no evidence of murder. However, there were enough safety concerns that people began calling for a rescue station on the island.

A year later, Nova Scotia established the Humane Establishment on Sable, which went on to save hundreds of lives in the years that followed.

The rumours of looting and murder also inspired a fictional ghost story. It holds that a phantom woman haunts Sable Island’s beaches looking for the severed finger of her hand, cut off by the looters to remove her wedding ring.

1854: Arcadia

The ship Arcadia was carrying a crew of 21 men and 149 German passengers in addition to its cargo when it struck the northeast sand bar on Nov. 26 at 6 p.m. in dense fog and strong winds.

The mate and four sailors landed in the ship's longboat but were unable to get to the ship to collect the others.

Sable Island's life-saving crew discovered the wreck the next morning and using the lifeboat Reliance, they made four trips and rescued 80 people despite tremendous seas, strong currents and high seas until high winds and nightfall halted the rescue.

The remaining passengers were saved the following day — 170 people were rescued in all. Further trips recovered some of the passengers' clothing and a small amount of cargo before the ship was totally broken to pieces by the gale.

1894: Nicosia

The Nicosia ran aground in thick fog, as did dozens of other ships. While the ship was a total loss, all of the 18 crew members were saved.

The captain's son had a particularly narrow escape when one of the lifeboats capsized as he climbed into it. He hung on underneath, completely submerged while the lifeboat was hauled back aboard the sinking ship. As the lifeboat was righted, he popped up to be rescued for a second time.

1898: Crofton Hall

An example of a large iron hull barque, the Crofton Hall was owned by Chas. G. Dunn & Co.

Soon after the Crofton Hall went aground about five kilometres from the east spit on Sable Island, Alexander Graham Bell — accompanied by members of his family — visited the island and Bell wrote of the wreck in his diary.

Crofton Hall was also the third vessel for which the newly-arrived Lyle gun was used in a rescue off Sable Island. The gun was used to shoot a lightweight rope out to wrecks within 200 metres of the shore. The rope was then wound on a board so it would uncoil without snagging, and crews would use the rope to haul out heavier lines to carry a breeches buoy — a rope-based rescue device similar to a zip line.

1898: La Bourgogne

Owned by the Compagnie Générale Transatlantique, also known as the French Line, La Bourgogne was considered the fastest French liner of the 1880s and was one of the last transatlantic liners with both sails and steam engines.

After striking the British sailing ship Cromartyshire in dense fog, the captain of La Bourgogne attempted to beach on Sable Island but a sudden flooding of the engine room robbed the vessel of power. The evacuation of the sinking ship was chaotic and many passengers were forced to launch lifeboats themselves.

The Cromartyshire, meanwhile, was not damaged.

Many accusations were made against La Bourgogne's crew, including claims they beat passengers away from lifeboats. The liner's captain was last seen swearing and screaming on the bridge before he blew a final whistle as La Bourgogne sank.

More than 500 people drowned in the disaster. Almost half the crew survived but only a tenth of the passengers survived.

The crew of the Cromartyshire, who helped the survivors of La Bourgogne, were alarmed that there was only one woman among the survivors. An inquiry in Halifax blamed disorganization and panic for the huge loss of life aboard La Bourgogne.

1927: Columbia

Columbia, a famous rival of the schooner Bluenose, was lost in one of the infamous August Gales — a series of severe storms in 1926 and 1927 that ravaged the Atlantic coastline of Canada, Newfoundland and the United States.

Although Columbia was an American fishing schooner, many of the crew were from Nova Scotia. The Mayo family — George, his brother Ab and his father Joseph — were all lost aboard Columbia while another brother, Bert, was aboard a motor trawler and survived the storm.

The story is told that at the height of the storm, Bert was startled by an apparition of his brother George in the trawler's wheelhouse. The apparition apparently said, "Bert, we're all gone," and vanished.

A number of years after the Columbia was lost, a trawler working near Sable Island snagged wooden hull covered with seaweed and pulled it to the surface.

It was visible for only a few moments before it ripped loose and sank, but one of the trawler's crew is said to have recognized Columbia's name board.

1947: Manhasset

The Manhasset was the last vessel wrecked on Sable Island until the Merrimac was lost in 1999. After getting stranded on a sandbar, an engine room explosion rendered the vessel immobile.

A dozen crew members managed to land themselves in a ship's lifeboat but high surf prevented a return trip for the nine remaining crew. A tugboat managed to reach the remaining men and took them directly to Halifax.

When the island superintendent, Don Johnson, attempted to house the 12 crew members, they became belligerent and some drew knives.

Johnson was forced to draw his pistol in order to disarm the crew and encourage their co-operation, and the incident ended peacefully.

1999: Merrimac

This was the first time since 1947 that a ship was lost on Sable Island and it's the last known shipwreck in the area to date.

The Merrimac — a modern 12-metre fibreglass yacht with an auxiliary engine — was owned by Jean Rheault of Montreal and ran aground on Sable at about 2:00 a.m on July 27, 1999.

The crew of three, including Rheault, got into a life-raft tied to the wreck and soon discovered they were only a few metres from the beach at Sable Island. They were rescued by natural gas exploration workers doing seismic work on Sable and flown to Halifax the next day.

A few days later, Rheault hired a fisherman from Guysborough to salvage the hull but they were unsuccessful and were only able to remove fittings.

Within six weeks, the sand and waves had crushed and broken up the hull of the Merrimac, leaving it in small fiberglass fragments.