The crew was aware that a hurricane was raging along the New England Coast when they left Ramea in southern Newfoundland. It was not a concern, however, as such hurricanes generally head out across the Atlantic before they ever hit Canadian waters. Hurricane Helene, however, was not typical! She turned inland toward the coast of Cape Breton, causing havoc on Nova Scotian shores. Reaching Scaterie Island, just off the coast of Cape Breton, the captain navigated the ML Fort Walsh around the island to wait out the storm.
Scaterie Island is small and narrow, about ten kilometers long. It is an unforgiving environment with little habitation. One lone lighthouse keeper lived on its western shore. Scaterie’s shore-line is mostly rock bluff with a few small beaches scattered along the way.
Derek explains: “From four o’clock in the afternoon of September 28th until nine the next morning, we ran up and down the inner coast of the island. At 9:00 a.m., the eye of the storm passed over us. It was dead calm for twenty minutes… not enough time to navigate across the straight to the nearest port of Loiusburg.
When the eye passed, the back end of the hurricane came swirling around the island and we were caught in the thick of it. Scaterie Island’s inner shores were now exposed to the full force of the hurricane. We were blown around with great force and it became increasingly clear with each passing minute that we were going to have to abandon the ship if we were to survive the storm.
Suddenly, we recognized that we were just off a small beach area in Hatchett Cove. Weighing the loss of life against the loss of a ship, the captain made a critical decision: we headed straight to the beach, deliberately running the ship aground. The crew was directed to jump off the bow. I stopped two who were about to jump over the side of the ship as such an action would likely be fatal - the hurricane could batter them against the ship before scooping them out to sea.
For the same reason, we did not put on life-jackets. They would have made us buoyant and vulnerable to the force of the hurricane, carrying us out to the open sea.
With all thirteen leaping off the bow and into the shallower high-tide waters, danger still lay ahead because we had to negotiate our way through several feet of water while wearing heavy boots. Each ponderous step found us beaten down by the waves crashing on the beach. But we all made it to shore safely. We walked about two and a half miles to the lighthouse where Eliza Campbell greeted us. She had seen us pass by the Island and so was not shocked to see the bedraggled crew standing at her door.
We were very well received by Mrs. Campbell, a warm, grandmotherly type of woman. She exchanged our wet clothes for some from her late husband and set ours out to dry by her big stove, along with our wallets and cigarettes. We learned that her husband had been the lighthouse keeper for many years, but when he died in 1942, she took over.
Eliza fed us… ravenous, we ate a month’s worth of potatoes at one meal. We stayed that night with Eliza, safe, secure and happy to tell many tales. We had a lot of laughs that can only come when you have faced grave danger and are now safe and sound. The sleeping arrangements were a source of merriment as there were thirteen of us and three vacant beds in one of the little cabins near the lighthouse.
We stayed five days on the Scaterie Island, de-storing whatever we could move from the ML Fort Walsh, taking it all to the two ships, the ‘Wood’ and the ‘Irvine’, which were now anchored off-shore.
In the court martial that followed the sinking of the ship, I was called as a witness along with others. The captain may have been reprimanded but there were no significant penalties as the action taken was the only one that could have saved all thirteen lives. Of course, the RCMP suffered the loss of the ship, but it was a very old ship, and no ship, no matter how expensive, is worth more than one human life.
I never was in contact with Eliza Campbell again but my mother wrote her a letter, thanking her for the huge part she played in saving her son’s life.”