Over the Waves: RMS Nascopie

This week I was looking for a story that would bring us back up to Northern Canada, and as I looked around I found the story of this ship. While reading up on it, I learned more about a part of Canadian History that I previously didn't know that much about. From the banks of Newcastle-on-Tyne where she was built, to a reef outside Cape Dorset where she would come to rest, this ship lead a colourful and important career for one of Canada's largest merchant groups. This is the story of the RMS Nascopie.

Ship Stats

The SS Nascopie. Image from ucalgary.ca.

  • Nationality: British

  • Length: 87 metres

  • Beam: 13.3 metres

  • Draught: 5.3 metres (fore) 6.7 metres (aft)

  • Weight: 1,870 tonnes

  • Speed: 14.1 knots

  • Year: 1911

Built by Swan Hunter & Wigham Richards, the Nascopie was launched on December 7, 1911. Fitted with an icebreaker bow and 5/8 inch steel plates, she was designed to service the icy northern waters. Initially, she was jointly owned by Hudson's Bay Company (the majority holders) and Job Brothers of Newfoundland. She spent her first year afloat sailing as a coal and supply ship between the UK and St. John's. In the winter of 1912 she was assigned to sail with the seal hunt. The end of the seal hunt would mark the end of her joint ownership - Job Brothers gave up their minority share, and HBC took over as sole owner.

That July, Nascopie embarked on the first of what would be 34 voyages through the Hudson Strait, serving as a supply ship for HBC's northern outposts. Her route took her further and further north every year - one year she reached the shores of Greenland. She acted as a way for the office of HBC in the United Kingdom to keep their locations in North America stocked up and their staff comfortable.

SS Nascopie. Image from ucalgary.ca.

Supply ship wasn't her only role- she was called upon on multiple occasions to participate in separate and unique tasks. During the First World War, she was almost purchased by the Russians in their scramble to acquire ice breakers for their coast line. They bought the SS Bruce and the SS Lintrose from Reid Newfoundland Co. in St. John's, and were in negotiations with Nascopie's owners Job Brothers for her and their other ship, SS Beothic. Additionally, they approached A. Harvey & Co (another St. John's company) about purchasing three of their ice-capable ships; SS Bellaventure, SS Bonaventure, and SS Adventure. In the end, all of the above ships were purchased except for the Nascopie.

It worked out for the best, because in 1916 she was instead chartered by the French government to act as a supply ship on their behalf. Outfitted with guns for defence, her tasks took her between France, Russia, Newfoundland, and the United Kingdom.

In 1916, she was en route from Russia to Newfoundland when she encountered a U-boat in the waters off of Murmansk. Rather than surrender, Nascopie turned and faced her assailant with guns blazing. The U-boat disappeared and it was long believed that she had succeeded in sinking it (it had actually turned and fled!).

SS Nascopie. Image from the McCord Museum.

After the First World War, she returned to her roll with HBC, but was still occasionally chartered out by other agents for specific tasks. One in particular was in 1921 - she was requested to set sail for Loppen, Norway. Upon arrival, she took on a freight of 550 reindeer, destined for the fields of Baffin Island. The local caribou population had begun to decline, and it was believed that the reindeer would thrive in the environment, providing the local Inuit population with food and furs as the caribou disappeared. While seeming to be a great idea in theory, in practice it was a fantastic failure.

She also played a role as a rescue vessel, saving the crew and passengers of another HBC ship, the SS Bayeskimo in 1925, and the crew of the sinking SS Florencia in 1929.

In the early 1930s, the then 20 year old ship sailed to the shores of Androssan, Scotland, where she'd been launched, and was put in for a three year extensive refit. Upon completion in 1933, she was assigned to the HBC Canadian office in Montreal, QC. That same year, she sailed on her first tourist voyage, taking paying customers up into Northern Canada. Though the first couple of trips were relatively small, by 1939 she was carrying passengers of such esteem as members of the Canadian Group of Seven. The annual tourist trips ended in 1941 out of concern for the effect they were having on the local Inuit population.

With the start of the Second World War, RMS Nascopie was once again outfitted with defensive arms - a 3.7" naval gun and anti-aircraft gun were mounted to her decks. Her holds carried cryolite, used in the manufacturing of aluminum, from Greenland to Canada, in addition to her standard HBC duties.

Wrecked at Cape Dorset. Image from itk.ca.

On July 21, 1947, she was making her way into Cape Dorset harbour when she struck an uncharted and quickly rising reef. The ship was firmly grounded and half flooded, so she was declared a loss - the crew and cargo were safely evacuated and the ship was left on the reef. She sat there, being battered by the waves and currents for two months until a storm came up and broke her in two. Her already submerged bow disappeared below the waves, but her aft stayed put until another storm blew up on October 15, finally pushing the remainder of the wreck into the water.

The wreck remained undisturbed for 50 years, until 1997 when she was discovered by a group of SCUBA divers. They placed a commemorative plaque on her deck in memory of what she did when she was above the water.

Ships with a diverse history always draw my attention, but there's something extra about it when it is unexpected. I didn't know anything about the RMS Nascopie when I set out to write this article. I was pleased to learn that not only was she one of the Hudson Bay ships, helping to keep all of those outposts running, but that she was multi-purpose. No task seemed to strange, no request for charter too difficult to fill. It's always nice to find a vessel with a story as rich as those who owned, operated, and sailed her.

Until next week!