Sunday, August 8, 2010

Sable island : the graveyard of the Atlantic

Map: known shipwrecks since 1583

From Maritime Museum of the Atlantic

Sable Island, a 44-km-long sand bar about 150 miles east south east of Halifax, Nova Scotia, is renowned for its wild horses (position in the Marine GeoGarage).

For sailors, it was the graveyard of the Atlantic, an island hidden by waves, storms and fog that meant only death and destruction.
Since 1583 there have been over 350 recorded shipwrecks on Sable Island.
Very little now remains of the ships that were wrecked on the island: a shoe buckle, a few coins, ship name boards, timbers buried in the sand.

courtesy of Geographicus

Why so many wrecks?

  • Location: Sable lies near one of the world's richest fishing grounds. It is also near one of the major shipping routes between Europe and North America. Hundreds of vessels sailed past each year.
  • It's a very stormy place: Sable lies right in the path of most storms that track up the Atlantic coast of North America. Storms were extremely treacherous for sailing ships. Vessels were simply blown onto Sable.
  • Fog shrouds the island: in summer warm air from the Gulf Stream produces dense banks of fog when it hits air cooled by the Labrador Current around Sable. Sable has 125 days of fog a year. Toronto has 35.
  • The currents around Sable are tricky: Sable lies near the junction of three major ocean currents, the Gulf Stream, the Labrador Current and the Belle Isle Current.
There have been few shipwrecks on Sable since 1947.
Prior to then the sextant was the principal instrument used to fix a ship's position.
Sextants were accurate, but they worked by taking a sighting from the sun or the stars.
They were useless in dense fog or cloudy skies.

In bad weather, the captain navigated by "dead reckoning", using the ship's speed and direction to estimate his position.
But even in good conditions this was educated guessing.
Currents and storms confused the calculations of the best skippers.
Many accounts of shipwrecks report that the captain simply lost his way: he misjudged his ship's position and bumped into Sable Island by mistake.

After World War II radar and other advanced navigational equipment became widely used on commercial vessels.
Sable ceased to be a major threat to shipping.
Only one vessel has been lost since 1947, the small yacht Merrimac which sank on July 27, 1999.

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