Reenactment of Battle of Sackets Harbour, 1975

Jurgen Braunohler remembers sailing Playfair in reenactment of Battle of Sackets Harbor, Summer 1975:

The following week I found myself aboard Playfair. While some cruises went eastwards through the Thousand Islands of the St. Lawrence River, all of mine went well out into Lake Ontario. I’m only guessing that as a petty officer in the making, the more challenging stuff was deliberately
being thrown my way.

At any rate, a boisterous, overnight passage took us around Prince Edward County to Cobourg, where we had shore leave. We also lowered the topsail yard to work on it, an involved operation.  [Drawing of Lowering the topsail yard of Playfair, by Jurgen Braunohler]

Then we sailed east in nice weather, through the Murray Canal into the Bay of Quinte and on to Kingston.  [Drawing of View of Playfair, by Jurgen Braunohler]

We dropped anchor in Presqu’ile Bay for the night before motoring through the canal, where we had a game of rigging races: to see who could climb to the fore masthead and slide down again the fastest.

The nice weather followed us through the Bay of Quinte and once more I was busy with the leadline and other things. I generally preoccupied myself with every job I could find. Petty Officer Bruce Hunter called me his leading seaman and the role pretty much stuck to the end. On passing Belleville, we had a little drama in waiting for the bridge to swing open, as we sped before a fairly good breeze. The horn was blown and all hands were ordered to stations. But that bridge opened in the nick of time, with traffic backed up in both directions. Sightseers lined the rails, snapping pictures as we stormed through, our lower yard arms just clearing the bridge girders.

We sailed all night to Kingston and on our departure from there, headed through fleets of dinghies preparing for the sailing Olympics the following year. Boisterous conditions greeted our beat out into Lake Ontario, to Main Duck Island, were we anchored for the night.

Departure came very early the next morning, along with an unusually thorough clean-up on deck, as we headed for Sackets Harbor, New York. Pathfinder could be seen scudding along to weather, off our starboard quarter, with Galloo Island in the distance. Both ships sailed into Sackets Harbor, where we re-enacted the War of 1812 Battle of Sackets Harbor, the first major naval engagement of that conflict. We had very little wind for this and when it died altogether, had to motor along slowly and just look like we were sailing. Then Playfair’s engine quit, so we wound up being towed by Pathfinder.

Aside from that, the effects of the re-enactment were startlingly realistic. First of all, the booming cannon fire from shore, from several guns. Even though none of it was real, it felt just slightly disconcerting having cannon aimed at one’s ship. Groups of locals armed with muskets crowded our decks and returned fire. The noise notwithstanding, the concussions or shockwaves that assaulted our ears caused enough pain that we shoved wads of cotton in our ears. Then the drifting battle smoke nearly obscured the large spectator fleet that surrounded us. But I could still just make out fire control parties on shore stamping small grass fires.

Somewhere, someone must have been shooting off firecrackers, for the air was full of shrieks and whistles. It certainly scared the fish, for a large one jumped right out of the water and landed with a colossal splash almost right next to me, as if it was a cannon ball! Up to this point we had not been doing very much, just handling sails as needed. That was about to change.

In 1812, the British squadron from Kingston (which we represented) was repulsed by American defences. Those included a battery of cannons on shore, as well as the brig Oneida, using it’s own broadside battery from a moored position. When the British, led by HMS Royal George, suffered damage, they retreated. Therefore, it was our job to look like we had lost. To that end a small fire was
lit in a metal bucket on Pathfinder’s deck, to send up some smoke to show we were beaten. But that fire got a little out of control and melted the bucket. Soon, officers prancing around with fake swords were now dashing about with fire extinguishers. Our own officers soon yelled at us and now we chanted “Heave! Heave!” in unison as we hauled on the towline to come alongside and render assistance.
But before we got there, someone on Pathfinder grabbed an oar from a dory and used it to fling the bucket overboard.

After a long shore leave, during which the entire town turned out to celebrate and we were the guests of honour, we got underway just before midnight. Although we could have sailed, time was of the essence to get back to Waupoos on time, so we motored. With our engine still broken, that meant that Pathfinder towed us all the way home. It was a long night watch from 12 to 4, with little to do, but not free of incident. While crossing the shipping lanes in foggy conditions, I had to give a yell when a large freighter crossed our path at high speed, requiring evasive action. Aside from my nerves, all was good. I was also not tired anymore.

[Years later, Jurgen writes about  the “Battle of Sackets Harbor” for the Flotilla Newsletter. The article is provided here: ]

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