By Jurgen Braunohler
It was life on a Great Lakes brig of the War of 1812. Grabbing the overhead handrail, I swung out of my hammock and immediately stooped as there was no headroom to stand up. In bygone times, this mess deck would have been crowded with men. Now I shared it for a few moments with another crew member; the bulkheads were lined with duffle bags belonging to other crew.
Topside, the flying jib-boom that extended the bowsprit was being rigged and run out. There were cannons. Giant sweeps for rowing the ship lay under an inverted boat. The two masts towered over a hundred feet to the royal yards. This was the brig Niagara, berthed at Toronto’s Harbourfront in August 1997.
Back in 1813, the Niagara was the flagship of the American squadron during the Battle of Lake Erie. In this most decisive Great Lakes naval engagement, Commodore Perry transferred his flag to the newly-built Niagara from her nearly-destroyed sister ship Lawrence and fired the winning shots. For the British, this resulted in the loss of their squadron, the city of Detroit, their army, and the control of Lake Erie. It also saw the collapse of their First Nations allies. The Niagara herself was later sunk and raised, then rebuilt four times before being restored to sailing condition in 1988.
Back in my dingy, I resolved to chase down and intercept Niagara on the morning of her departure to photograph the ship under sail.
After spending the night aboard Bonita, I was underway just after daybreak, running wing and wing before a stiff northerly. Then a fast reach sent spray sweeping the foredeck as we raced to make the rendezvous. Past Gibraltar Point, the wind heeled her until the side deck was buried in foaming water and the mainsail needed to be reefed. I chose instead to slack the main off enough to spill a bit of wind, while keeping her driving. But the Niagara was nowhere to be seen.
At 0900, I spotted the brig with binoculars. She was still tied up in the harbour. I had breakfast while keeping a lookout for her. Bonita was reefed and hove-to just west of the Islands.
The Niagara’s crew seemed to have had their hands full: first loosing then furling sails before dropping the end of the spanker gaff for repairs. She finally came out of the Western Gap at noon under topsails, with a gun salute from her or the destroyer Haida at Ontario Place. I took photographs while tacking towards the ship’s leeward side (to reassure her skipper that I was not heading anywhere in her path). The big vessel passed right in front of me for a stunning picture, but when a cabin cruiser ruined my last shots, I came about in pursuit.
The cruise took on the air of a real sea chase as Bonita strained to overhaul the fast-moving ship. Astern, a Wayfarer class dinghy was also in hot pursuit. Both of us were heeled over and reaching under full sail on starboard tack.
In 1813, this was the scene of another drama: the three-masted HMS Wolfe and her squadron were heading out in a gale to engage the American fleet. Her dismasting and escape to Burlington while under fire and being chased in wild weather was the pivotal Lake Ontario battle, known as the Burlington Races.
To return to my chase: the Niagara, having performed some maneuvering and sail-handling evolutions, gybed and headed offshore with her topgallants set. This was west of the Humber River and too far for me, so I came about for home as the Wayfarer had already done.
After falling in with the Seahawks in the Inner Harbour, and with a stop at their Algonquin Island site, Bonita battled strong gusts in the Outer Harbour, having logged some 20 miles by the end of the day.
In 1814, the Niagara showed up with a squadron in southern Georgian Bay to hunt down the schooner Nancy that was ferrying supplies to Macinac Island. When she left, the Nancy lay destroyed in the Nottawasaga River and two American schooners remained on patrol. (Her wreck would become a museum.) The two schooners were both captured in a night raid by the Nancy’s crew, leading, it is said, to the founding of a forgotten place named Schooner Town, likely the site of future vessels like the well-known HMS Bee.
See more articles in the January 2016 Flotilla Newsletter.