December 20, 1922
Gallant Deed of 96 Re-Told
A battered steamship fifty-two men in open boats a terrific gale and wind a brave skipper and his crew formed the nucleus of a never-to-be-forgotten tale.
A wild winter storm, a rugged coast, fifty-two driven to the life-boats from a battered steamship, a fishing schooner with a resolute skipper and a sturdy crew; these formed the ground-work of a long-to-be remembered tale, in December, 1896.
The George S. Bontwell, a Gloucester fishing schooner under the command of Captain Zacharie Surette, sailed from that port early in December, 1896, to Seal Cove, Grand Manan, for a cargo of frozen herring for a Philadelphia market.
About the same day, the steamer Warwick sailed from Glasgow, Scotland, for St. John, N.B., and after encountering storms with which she battled for sixteen days, grounded on the ledges off Grand Manan.
The great billows lashed into fury by the wintry gale dashed against the doomed ship as she crunched and groaned under their great weight. Immediately she began to go to pieces.
She was an iron steamship and boat after boat was stove in as the crew attempted to lower them.
With death staring them in the face the crew finally succeeded in launching two life-boats.
The crew was divided, 25 in one boat and 57 in the other, in command of the captain and the first mate.
It was intensely cold with a blinding snow-storm and a high wind, and the men saw the utter impossibility of making the shore.
The plight of the ill-fated ship was seen by the lighthouse-keeper who made an appeal to Captain Surette, then in harbor about three days. The captain responded instantly, declaring his intention of going to the rescue of the doomed steamer. He called for a volunteer crew. Every man of his crew promptly offered to go with him and so, close-reefed before a northeast gale of wind and snow, the little schooner and her gallant crew set sail.
When they sighted the ship the seas were breaking over her, mast high, so that Captain Surette knew that no living creature could be aboard her.
He, therefore, as the squall lifted for a moment, scanned the horizon for a boat, and espying one, bore down upon it.
It was impossible to get near enough to transfer the men who were almost helpless from cold and exposure. The fishermen sent out a couple of dories but finally the captain had to run out a line from his vessel over the iron support of the air tanks on the life-boats and lasso each man. One by one were the shipwrecked men drawn through the rough icy waters to safety. The mate who was in command of the life boat then gave Captain Surette directions concerning the course of the other boat.
Taking this course the fisherman soon overtook the other boat and the same method of rescue was adopted.
The whole crew of fifty-two men was snatched from a watery grave that seemed to be open to swallow them.
The staunch little vessel lay to, as the services of the crew were necessary to restore life to the exhausted sailors.
Cabin, forecastle and forehold of the schooner were filled with the half-dozen men and strenuous efforts were made to revive them.
Tearing their quilts and blankets into strips the crew of the Bontwell began chafing the frozen limbs of the rescued with them. For four hours they labored until they themselves were exhausted and then they stood in for the shore.
The people of Seal Cove turned out in a body and gladly assisted the gallant captain and his crew in transferring the frost-bitten sailors to the quarters provided for them.
As a result of their experience some of the ship wrecked men lost hands and feet but fortunately no loss of life ensued.
The underwriters who hastened to the scene, drew up a memorial in which they set forth the gallant act of Captain Surette and forwarded it to Her majestys government.
In Acknowledgment of his heroism, the British government presented Captain Surette with a beautiful and useful gift, which was well deserved and which he prizes highly.
This gift, the writer had the pleasure of viewing.
It consists of binocular glasses of superior make, with a handsome leather case in which to carry them. They are enclosed in a white wood case, bearing on a gold shield the following inscription: "Presented by the British Government to Zacharie Surette, master of the schooner George S. Bontwell of Gloucester, Massachusetts, in acknowledgement of his humanity and kindness to the ship-wrecked crew of the British steamship Warwick, which stranded off the coast of New Brunswick on 31st of December, 1896.
Captain Surette went to the States from Nova Scotia when quite young and now resides in Gloucester, Mass.