When most people think of Sable Island, they often think about the horses, the bird watching, and that it’s a sandbar in the middle of the ocean. Yes, it is all of that, but there are so many untold stories of why Sable Island is so important. Here is why Sable Island is important to me:
In the early 1940s (close to the end of World War II) there was a boat called the Independence Hall traveling across the Atlantic Ocean carrying brass, aluminum and other raw materials for the allied war effort. However, the ship ran aground off Sable Island and sank on March 7th, 1942, where it sat for 25 years waiting for someone curious and hardworking enough to come and find it. That someone was my Papa, Barry Lohnes, and his friend, Jim Ritcey.
People knew about the wreck full of brass but were often too scared to find and collect the brass because it was an extremely dangerous job. Papa and his wife Patricia (Nanny) were very young at this time and needed the money. Papa decided to apply for a job at Maritime Divers where he went to Sable Island in search of the wreck with the company. They looked and looked and looked but they were unsuccessful with their search for the wreck. After a few days, they decided to give up and head back to Halifax.
A few months later, Papa was fired from Maritime Divers so he decided to go back to Sable Island with Nanny, Jim and a few other people in search of the lost wreck. When Papa and the crew started heading to Sable Island, they quickly realized that Papa’s small, little wooden boat called the Francine and Jean would not be strong enough to get through the ice. Papa had to go out and purchase a new boat known as the Saint M, a heavily built ocean-going scallop dragger. After they purchased the boat, the crew headed back out.
Once they arrived at Sable Island they searched for the wreck. It was Papa who finally saw it. The crew stood up on the boat and realized that the sand had polished the brass – very cool. After that, they dove into the water to collect as much brass as they were able to, by hand. Papa and the crew had fabricated a prop wash to clear away the sand that was covering the brass. The crew had to make modifications to the boat every time they went back for more brass. The crew would dive for brass, then even it out almost everywhere on the belly of the ship. The only place where brass wasn’t stored was in the engine room.
After each brass run, the crew would unload the brass from the boat and send it to the scrap dealer. Unloading the brass was heavy and dirty work. This routine was repeated as often as possible for a long time depending on the weather and hurricane season. The crew was only caught in one hurricane with a full load of brass. Everyone stayed up in the wheelhouse with Papa and the crew, driving all night long. Papa could not try to go around the waves because the boat would tip over. They had to go face into them and pull back the throttle. They had to ride the waves.
Seven guys had to be fed three meals each day, plus soups and hot chocolate on their diving breaks. They dove for long hours. In fact, they dove for so long that there was severe chafing on their joints from the sand, but that didn’t stop them. Nanny was the cook. There was no refrigeration, only a fisherman stove and a tiny oven. Each time before the run to Sable Island, Nanny would fill three grocery carts with things like canned goods and chips. She could not get things like fresh fruit or dairy products.
On one of the last brass runs, the weather held lovely. Papa and the crew were able to get a full load of brass, but the food ran out. They only had a few canned goods that would last them the ride home. The crew started heading back then suddenly came across a fishing boat. None of them had any money on them, so instead they paid the fisherman a sheet of brass for a cleaned codfish for the crew. Nanny then cooked it and everyone had a meal. The fish was sweet and fresh. It was the best fish the crew had ever had. Unfortunately, nobody remembers the fisherman’s name. But will always remember the taste!
During the brass runs, nobody really slept, too scared because the ship was so heavy with cargo. After long, long nights they always arrived safe and the cargo never shifted. After the brass was getting depleted, there were large aluminum ingots and metal coils.
With all of the money that Papa had made, he and Jim decided to create a company. The two were sitting down beside a house in Woodside, Nova Scotia, trying to think of the name when Papa spit out the words “Dominion Diving” because at the time, Canada was not an independent country from Great Britain and it was called “The Dominion of Canada” The word Dominion had some very interesting meanings so the two decided to call their company “Dominion Diving.”
When Papa and Jim told people that they were going to start a company, everyone laughed and thought that it would never work. This story just proves that if you put the right amount of work into something, you can really achieve anything. Nobody knew that just collecting all of that brass would create a huge, still-thriving company, Dominion Diving. Once the company started getting lots of jobs, they put Maritime Divers right out of business! To this day Dominion Diving plays a very important role in the ongoing research, the exploration and scientific information that is gathered from Sable Island.
Late 1960s near Sable Island. The crew of the Saint M show off a piece of their treasure. From left to right: Barry Lohnes, Patrica Lohnes, Irskin Mattatall, Bowinkle Swinimar, Steve Woodworth, and Jim Ritcey.
Thank you very much for the information from Nanny (Patricia Lohnes) and Dad (Robin Lohnes)!
Sophia © 2021
Gaetz Brook Junior High, Grade 7 – age 12. Porters Lake, NS
Sable In Words 2021
Youth Writing Contest, 10-13 age group
Sable Island Institute
See Dominion Diving, October 2012 for an account of Dominion Diving’s more recent activities at Sable Island. Since 2012, the company has provided the sealift service transporting equipment and materials to and from the Sable Island National Park Reserve.