Chase of the Niagara, War of 1812

By Jurgen Braunohler

Chase of the Niagara
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.

The Franklin Expedition, 1845

By Jurgen Braunohler

The corpse of Petty Officer John Torrington stared out of his grave, eyes open after 135 years buried on Beechey Island in the Canadian Arctic. His coffin had turned into a block of solid ice, and he was so well preserved that, with his mouth open, the archaeologists nearly expected him to say something.

But he and two other dead crew, with some structures and items, were all that was left of the expedition commanded by Sir John Franklin that vanished after 1845 trying to find a way through the ice-choked Canadian north. Since then, numerous search expeditions, in the words of Stan Rogers’ song Northwest Passage, have sought to “find the hand of Franklin reaching for the Beaufort Sea.”

Sailing vessels have cruised the Canadian Arctic since the time of the Vikings. Numerous explorers tried in vain to find a route to the Pacific through the Northwest Passage. Roald Amundsen was the first to transit, sailing from 1903 to 1906 aboard his big gaff cutter, the Gjoa. Earlier, however, Britain’s Royal Navy was busy, gradually trying to chart every mile of the passage from both ends. At last, a comparatively short stretch remained unexplored. Franklin was ordered to chart it and complete knowledge of the passage. He would have to navigate just over a thousand miles through it and survey little more than three hundred to close the gap.

Tall ship in ice
Tall ship in ice illustrated by Jurgen Braunohler

In 1845, John Franklin was already 59 years of age and had served in the Royal Navy since his early teens. He had explored the coast of Australia under the command of his uncle, Captain Matthew Flinders, and fought in several battles. In addition, he was Lieutenant-Governor of Van Diemen’s Land (Tasmania) for seven years. Franklin had been to the Arctic three times, twice in Canada. Britain’s forty- year push to survey the passage was coming to a close, and Franklin was given his assignment, for which he needed a special ship.

HMS Erebus was a former bomb vessel. To withstand the recoil of the mortars she had to carry, she was built exceedingly strong. This made her much favoured for punishing Arctic exploration voyages. To further suit her to the task, she was also equipped with iron hull plating, interior insulation, and a steam engine scrounged from a train yard, with a propeller shaft that could be raised and housed while sailing. Customarily, these full-rigged ships were altered to three-masted barques, with a fore and aft rigged mizzen mast. This meant fewer crew were required and stretched out the food supply on a long voyage. She was joined by a second such ship: HMS Terror, under Captain Francis Crozier.

On May 19, 1845, Franklin got his two ships underway from Greenhithe, England and headed up the Channel to Aberdeen and the Orkney Isles to resupply. Then, with a complement of 129 officers and men, it was westwards across the North Atlantic to the Davis Strait and up the Greenland coast to Disco Island. She met with two whaling ships, the last that any Europeans saw of Franklin’s ships. The ensuing tragedy would be learned from a buried letter and from talks with Inuit who witnessed it. Meanwhile, the crews were glad of the heating from the ships’ steam engines as they entered Lancaster Sound, reached Cornwallis Island, then headed south to winter at King William Island.

In September, 1846, the pack ice moved in and cut off all escape. The first few men died of botulism in food and lead poisoning. More died from the cold and sickness. In June, 1847, John Franklin died. Still the floes held the ships in their grip. When the crews abandoned the vessels to walk south without asking
local Inuit for help, all vanished. The ships were crushed and sunk by the deadliest ice trap in the Arctic, the largest maritime disaster in Canada’s north. The result was the longest Canadian polar search operation ever. It led to discovery of the passage, and, finally, the sunken HMS Erebus was spotted in Victoria Strait on September 7, 2014.


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