Northumberland Strait iceboat

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Two iceboats being hauled over ice during their crossing on Northumberland Strait (date unknown).

A Northumberland Strait iceboat is a rowing boat, typically 5 metres in length, 2 metres in beam, with runners fastened to the hull for dragging over sea ice.

Constructed of wood, similar to fishing dories built in Atlantic Canada and New England, the iceboats were operated in the Northumberland Strait during the 19th century and early 20th century, running between Prince Edward Island and the mainland provinces of New Brunswick and Nova Scotia during the winter months between December and April when sea ice made passage by non-icebreaking steam ships impossible. They were also used during the winter months to connect Pictou Island with mainland Nova Scotia, sometimes in conjunction with passages from Prince Edward Island.

Throughout the 19th century, iceboats became an essential link to mainland North America for Prince Edward Island, transporting both mail and passengers. Passengers would pay a premium fee to sit in the boat for the entire crossing, or a reduced rate if they assisted the crew. In addition to pulling ropes attached to the iceboat, hand-holds were molded along the outer gunwales which were used for hauling the iceboat over sea ice until reaching stretches of open water.

The greatest danger that iceboat crews and passengers faced was not the stretches of open water, nor the sea ice, but rather the heavy "slush" that would pool in areas of open water that were in the process of solidifying into ice. There are several accounts of boats becoming mired in these conditions and oars being broken during attempts to row through the slush. Wind and tide formed another danger as the fields of sea ice were prone to rapid drifting as a result of these forces. There have been accounts of iceboats being swept up or down the Northumberland Strait and landing far from their intended destinations. Strandings also occurred in which case iceboat occupants would huddle on the surface of an ice floe beneath the upended iceboat waiting for storms to pass, sometimes breaking parts of the boat off for fire wood to stave off the cold. Fortunately not many lives were lost during these perilous crossings.

outdoor interpretive iceboat display at Cape Traverse

The two primary routes for iceboats was between Wood Islands, Prince Edward Island and Caribou, Nova Scotia, (sometimes combined with a stop at Pictou Island, Nova Scotia), and across the Abegweit Passage between Cape Traverse, Prince Edward Island and Cape Tormentine, New Brunswick. This latter route, was known as the "Capes Route" and was the longest running iceboat service, operating from December 19, 1827 until 1917 when the icebreaking railcar ferry Prince Edward Island began service on this route.

Original Northumberland Strait iceboats are preserved at the Northumberland Fisheries Museum in Pictou, Nova Scotia as well as the Gateway Village tourism complex in Borden-Carleton, Prince Edward Island; an outdoor interpretive display can be seen in Cape Traverse.

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