Sable Island: Tales of Tragedy and Survival from the Graveyard of the Atlantic


144 pages
Contains Photos, Maps, Bibliography
ISBN 1-55439-010-9
DDC 971.6'99




Reviewed by Richard Wilbur

Richard Wilbur is the author of The Rise of French New Brunswick and
H.H. Stevens, 1878–1973 and co-author of Silver Harvest. His latest
book is Horse-Drawn Carriages and Sleighs: Elegant Vehicles from New
England and New Brunswick.


At first glance, Sable Island—which begins with an account of Sir
Humphrey Gilbert’s disaster in 1583—appears to be yet another grim
chronology of the more spectacular wrecks that this treacherous sandbar
has claimed over the centuries. But then, in Chapter 6, we are
introduced to “The Governor Sir John Wentworth,” who in 1801
commissioned a study on the “potential for a full-time lifesaving
station on the island.” The result was a bill passed by the Nova
Scotia legislature that led to the formation of the Sable Island
Lifesaving Establishment (SILE). Bertin provides vivid accounts of how
the island’s treacherous sandbars and the area’s terrible weather
combined to ensnare scores of vessels and how SILE members managed to
rescue a remarkable number of them.

Chapter 11, “The Samaritan Dorothea Lynde Dix,” tells of a famous
New England humanitarian who travelled to Sable Island in 1853. She
witnessed how the lifesaving crew not only rescued the captain and crew
of a small schooner but rowed back through the mountainous surf to
unload her cargo before she disintegrated. Dix persuaded wealthy friends
to contribute enough money to provide the SILE crew with metal
double-hulled lifeboats. Shortly after they were delivered to Sable, the
lifeboats were used to save all 163 passengers and crew after the
715-ton Arcadia foundered in a fierce storm.

Readers will also learn just how much manual labour it took to keep the
lights burning on Sable’s lighthouses a hundred years ago, how
passenger pigeons failed to bridge the communication gap, and how the
Sable Island horses, destined for removal, were allowed to remain after
a popular outcry prompted Parliament to pass legislation in 1961
protecting these hardy creatures. In 2005, Nova Scotians convinced
Ottawa that the best way to preserve Sable Island would be to establish
a manned weather station. What an upbeat ending for this remarkable
island and this most informative history. A great read.


Bertin, Johanna., “Sable Island: Tales of Tragedy and Survival from the Graveyard of the Atlantic,” Canadian Book Review Annual Online, accessed July 24, 2024,