Table of Contents

Title Page
Catching the Wave - A Wreck Rediscovered
Good Legends
The night of 29-30 April 1853.
Treasure Ship?
Table of Illustrations

The story of the Ocean Wave doesn't end with the relieved and grieving survivors sailing off into the sunrise. It was one of the worst disasters on Lake Ontario to date and answers were demanded to a variety of questions. What had the Scotland been up to? But finding the sailors aboard the Scotland guilty or innocent was only secondary to the real question at hand.

Contemporary ad for the Ocean Wave
The editor of the Ogdensburg Sentinel struck quickly home at the key problem.

"...being a vessel of British bottom, [the Ocean Wave] was not subject to the judicious steamboat law operative on vessels on this side [of] the line, in respect to floats and preservers, nor can we gather, from all the accounts we have yet heard of the calamity, that she was in the least supplied with life preservers, and other conveniences to aid sufferers to keep afloat, in a catastrophe of this kind."52

The question was one of responsibility:

"If our inference that she was not thus furnished is correct, no amount of apology will shield the owners from the justice of the severest censure, nor excuse the wanton and criminal neglect. They rest under a fearful responsibility, for it is more than probable that, had the vessel been properly equipped in this respect, the list of unfortunate victims would not have been so long, nor so many hearth-stones rendered desolate."53

What had the operators of the Ocean Wave done in terms of passenger safety? She carried two life boats on her upper or hurricane deck, common practice at the time. But, as one Kingston newspaper would point out, they were very difficult to get at.54 There were no steps leading to that deck. The purser had climbed a netting to the upper deck. Indeed, many of her contemporaries appear to have even had a permanent ladder. In this case the problem was not access to the lifeboats (the crew had reached them), but rather that they were quickly destroyed by the fire.

The Ocean Wave carried a variety of fire fighting equipment. On the main deck there was a "fire-engine". How exactly this apparatus was supposed to work was not clear. Did it rely on steam from the main boilers? How did you bring it to play on a fire on another deck? In any event, it didn't work. Despite the desperate ministrations of the engineer, the captain and one of the male passengers, the fire engine accomplished nothing. It was located next to the engine room and the kitchen,55 the highest risk locations on board. But with virtually all night time illumination being supplied by open flame of one sort or another, the risk of fire was spread throughout the sleeping quarters and saloons. In any event, the Ocean Wave appears to have burned from the top down, and any effort to use the fire engine was futile. The balance of the fire-fighting equipment consisted of a series of buckets scattered about the vessel. The ones on the hurricane deck had been brought into play by the second mate at the onset. They obviously made little impression on the conflagration, spreading as it was under the deck. With the crew speculating that the fire was the result of hard cinders blowing out of the chimney, the question was naturally asked, had the Ocean Wave no screens to prevent these sparks blowing out onto the deck? Captain Wright's answer was that there were screens at the top of the chimney, and dampers as well, but that somehow the sparks had escaped. What was never answered clearly is how a spark light enough to be drawn up the chimney would not have blown overboard in a wind strong enough to require the Emblem to reef her sails.56

Awkward questions were also asked about the watch kept on board. The mate of the Magnet, James Malcolmson, said that it was customary on board his vessel to have one person on duty to look after the lights in the Saloon, Mail Room Office (the Magnet was in the Royal Mail Line), Cabin and elsewhere.57 Captain Wright argued that, in fact, he had had four men on duty besides the special watchman.58 He didn't expand on what the other duties of these men happened to be but he may have had in mind the mate and wheelsman in the pilothouse, the engineer in the engine room, and the waiter on duty in the main saloon. Certainly the coroner put the principal blame on the inadequacy of the watch being kept, but his jury was reluctant to pin the blame on those crew who had died in the conflagration and were thus not in a position to excuse their actions.59

Perhaps the most serious concerns were over the absence of alternative methods of preserving life. Only one person appears in the story wearing a life-preserver. Indeed this may well have been a fatally poor choice on his part, as he died from exposure shortly after being reeled in by the fishing boat.60 The rest of those who survived used a mixture of planks and barrels, and in the case of the captain a carpenter's trestle, to stay afloat, or else they swam around to where they could get a grip on the rudder or the braces.

What was then to be done to prevent another such disaster? The Globe, ignoring evidence that some screens were in place, demanded immediate legislation to compel their usage.61 If Captain Wright was correct in saying that screens were installed, perhaps the answer was more explicitly that such screens needed to be routinely inspected to ensure that they were, in fact, still secure. The fire earlier in the season is the first clue that the Ocean Wave may have sustained some damage to her screens, perhaps over the winter.

The final say in the matter went, not to the coroner's jury but to the legislature of the Province of Canada, then in session in Quebec. One of the stories in the Toronto papers had Henry Sherwood, a leading Tory of the day, at the last minute deciding not to take the Ocean Wave down the lake on his way to attend the current Parliamentary session.62 In itself, this was a wise choice as the Magnet left Toronto later, and in any course of events would have arrived in Kingston sooner. One of the pieces of legislation to which the Legislature was giving its attention that term was a bill with the inelegant title of "An Act to amend the Act, intituled, An Act to amend an Act, intituled, 'An Act to compel Vessels to carry a Light during the night, and to make sundry provisions to regulate the Navigation of the Waters of this Province." First introduced in the Legislative Assembly the previous September, so low was it in terms of priority it had yet to be considered by the Legislative Council. On June 10, with the end of the session in sight, it made a brief appearance, was amended by the Council, passed back to the Assembly, amended again, and passed back to the Council. It was absolutely the last piece of business conducted by the Legislative Council on June 14, 1853 before its members were summoned to the Assembly where the Governor General (obviously without seeing the bill) gave it Royal Assent.63

The provisions of this act went directly to the heart of the safety problems identified in the Ocean Wave incident. They required at least one metal, fire-proof lifeboat capable of "sustaining" 50 people either inside or clinging to life-lines secured to the gunwales. There must be life preservers or a float for every passenger on board, which must be kept "in convenient and accessible places". No reference was made to the crew in this regard. A way must be provided for passengers to escape to the upper deck in case of fire or other accident. Finally, the legislation permitted orders-in-council regulating the numbers of passengers permitted on vessels. While these regulations were not unknown in other waters, they would not come soon enough to help the innocent victims of the Ocean Wave disaster.


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This article originally appeared in FreshWater. Underwater photography courtesy of Northern Tech Diver.