Tuesday, May 21, 2019

The Island of 500 Shipwrecks: The Radio Scene on Sable Island

Sable Island National park Reserve
The primitive wireless station on isolated and lonely Sable Island played a prominent part in the events associated with the sinking of the majestic passenger liner Titanic, and the rescue of the survivors back more than 100 years ago.  Attention was focused on the major part played by the Cunard liner Carpathia in rescuing the survivors, and Sable Island wireless was one of the readily available stations for the reception of information from the Carpathia, and thus the onward transmission of this same information throughout the North American mainland. 

Sable Island is a narrow crescent shaped Canadian island in the North Atlantic, 100 miles off the coast of Nova Scotia.  The island itself is simply an extended sandbar 26 miles long, though it is no more than just one mile wide at its widest.  The highest hill rises to only 85 feet high, and the total area is only 13 square miles.  The very name, Sable, is a French word meaning sand.

Sable Island is sometimes described, almost humorously, as the world’s fastest moving island, due to the erosion and build up of the sandy areas caused by fast moving ocean streams, together with the nearby eddy currents, and North Atlantic storms.  It is here, the geographers tell us, that the cold Labrador Current meets the warm Gulf Stream, and this weather patterning produces a lot of fogging, as well as sometimes the warmest temperatures anywhere in Canada.

Sable Island has also been described by mariners and ship passengers as the Graveyard of the Atlantic, due to the fact that historians estimate that more than 500 ships have been wrecked against the island since European exploration of the world began more than 500 years ago.  These multitudinous wrecks at Sable Island, they say, have cost the lives of 10,000 North Atlantic travelers.

The Portuguese were the first European explorers to discover Sable Island, in 1520; two hundred years later horses, Shetland Ponies, were introduced from nearby Boston; in 1873 two lighthouses were installed, one at each end of the island; in 1901 the Canadian government planted 80,000 trees, all of which died; and even though settlements have been established at times on the island, these days there are only half a dozen official residents on the island.

During his famous visit to Newfoundland and Canada in 1901, Guglielmo Marconi suggested to the Canadian government that Sable Island would be a logical place to establish a maritime wireless station.  Three years later, the Marconi company in England did install a primitive wireless station on this island, with a spark transmitter and a crystal set receiver. 

The actual location for this new wireless station was close to the West Lighthouse, and on the coast facing Canada.  The original callsign for this station was SD, the first and last initials of the station’s location (Sable Island), as was the case with many of the other land based Marconi wireless stations.  In early 1912, the callsign was amended to MSD, with the letter M indicating a Marconi station; and after World War 1, it was granted a Canadian callsign VCT.

Back during the year 1923, Mr. M. J. Walsh was the wireless operator on Sable Island, and on June 30, his wife was about to give birth.  Operator Walsh received relevant information by wireless in Morse Code from an American Coast Guard cutter that was traversing nearby, and he informed the person who was acting as mIdwife on the island just what to do.  Baby Augustine Walsh was one of only two recorded births on this island.

Just two years later (1925), the wireless station was closed.  However eleven years later again (1936), the Canadian government re-opened a maritime communication station on Sable Island, and this new radio station was given the callsign VGF.  But, soon after the beginning of what became World War 2, VGF was closed (in the early 1940s) as a security measure for the protection of the rather exposed radio staff on the island.

Then on April 23, 1951, Ernest O’Hara, together with his wife and four children, were taken to the island by the Canadian Coastguard ship HMCS Edward Cornwallis where Ernest was the Radio Officer in Charge.  This was the third occasion for the installation of a maritime communication station on Sable Island, and the O’Hara family spent 20 months on this, their lonely and isolated island home. 

Both Ernest and his wife Margaret were also amateur wireless operators with the Canadian callsigns VE1AG and VE1YV.  Many years later, the two oldest daughters, Mary and Sharon who were seven and six years old at the time, wrote a book about their adventures on Sable Island.

In 1998, 75 year old Augustine Walsh made a return visit to the island whereon he was born, and he stated that the original wireless station building where his father was previously employed was almost entirely covered by the shifting sands of sandy Sable Island, with only the chimney poking above.  Then ten more years later again (2008), the now 85 year old Augustine Walsh made a second return visit to the island of his birth, and he stated that there was nothing visible anymore; the entire wireless station building was completely covered by the shifting sands.

These days, radio communication with Sable Island is associated with the weather station on the island, and also with the National Parks personnel living on the island.
(AWR-Wavescan/NWS 532)