Posted by: alexhickey | March 15, 2023

The Iron Buoy © Alex Hickey

Imagine yourself at the helm of a fishing schooner whose crew is casting its lines from the wharf. You are departing on a trip to the Grand Banks. Your only source of power is the wind. There is no engine to rely upon. Nor is there a tugboat to render assistance. If lucky, you might catch a breeze right there at the wharf. If not, how will you get the ship away from the wharf and out into the harbour where the sails can catch the wind?

Unlike a dory, you cannot stick a pair of oars over the side and row. A mid-size schooner, such as the Marion, would be approximately 70 tons, about 65 feet long, 20 feet wide and draw about 8 feet of water. Setting such a vessel in motion from a dead still position at the wharf presents a challenge. You have thirteen crew men who have done this before – how is it done?

You could drop your dories into the water with two men in each, daisy-chained together, and have them tow the vessel out into the harbour. That has been done many times. Below is a picture of the Robert Max being towed this way in St. John’s Harbour.

Robert Max. Maritime History Archive Public Photo – Memorial University

Or, you could do it differently.

In St. Jacques harbour, west of Pitman’s Brook, there used to be a large floating object. Secured by an anchor system whose claws were embedded in the ocean floor, the object would rise and fall with the tide, swing with the currents and bob up and down with the waves. Residents were accustomed to hearing the metal clang of the anchor chain against the object all through the day and night, so much so that most of them no longer noticed the sound. It was part of the background music to daily life. Some said they could predict bad weather by the sound.

This was an Iron Buoy – an innovation that makes all of the sense in the world when you know how it worked. Though painted regularly, rusty brown patches continually appeared; none of them serious enough to penetrate the thick hull. It resembled the buoy illustrated below. You can see where the anchor chain was attached.

Round, and oblong with a tapered end, it measured approximately eight feet in length and five feet in diameter. It was made of cast iron, and assembled with rivets. This buoy is variously referred to as ‘nun buoy’ or ‘can buoy’ although a true nun buoy was tapered at both ends. The term ‘nun’ is said to be derived from the name given to an old English spin-top type toy which held a similar shape. Though typically used as a navigational aid to direct vessel traffic through a waterway, this buoy was dedicated to the need to move sailing schooners out into the harbour. At its top was a large hoop designed for attaching ropes. A sailing vessel would attach a rope to this buoy and use its hand-operated windlass or deck winch, to slowly pull itself out into the harbour until it caught the wind.

Time brings about change whether we like it or not and the days of sail powered vessels came to an end leaving many of the schooners to rot by the shore and the skills, tools and devices that shaped them, to fade. The Iron Buoy, however, remained anchored in St. Jacques harbour for many years. Dories would tie to the buoy during evenings when the squid were running, one to the buoy and others to each other in succession. It was useful to local boat owners such as Edgar Dyett who frequently moored the White Knight there or Philip Hynes who also used it to moor his boat as well. Then, there were the occasional visitors such as the seaplane shown below which found it a convenient place to secure anchor while dropping off its passenger, Harry Young, in the 1940’s.

Seaplane being secured to the Iron Buoy 1940’s

One dark night during a storm the Iron Buoy succumbed to rust. Its shackle broke from its chain and anchor, and the buoy drifted out the harbour. It came to rest on the beach in Louis’s Cove. George Hickey approached the captain of the coastal boat, Bar Haven, and asked if he would retrieve the buoy. The captain generously agreed. The buoy was transported to the government wharf and deposited at the eastern side of the wharf where it has been sitting ever since. Several generations have run their hands along its rough side in their walk along that path, oblivious to its importance in the sailing history of the community.

The Iron Buoy at rest near the St. Jacques Harbour Authority Wharf

This wasn’t the only Iron Buoy in St. Jacques Harbour. There was another positioned outside the entrance to Burkes Cove. The demise of that Buoy began on a Halloween night in the 1930’s when several enterprising young dare-devils used the buoy as a base for a bonfire. The heat from the fire either melted or burned the seal at the top of the buoy. Over time the buoy took on more water until it eventually sank. It is probably still attached to its anchor assisting the ghosts of schooners to start their voyage out the Bay.

Gone now are all of the fishermen who used those Iron Buoys to get their schooners away from the dock. Gone too are their schooners and their wharves. We are left to ponder the remnants and remember in the words attributed to Lord Nelson, those ‘wooden ships and iron men.’


  1. Thanks Alex,I always wondered about this.

  2. Thanks for the education!

  3. Great information and historical story. Loved it

  4. Very nice was great when St Jacques was an important place for fishing schooners

  5. I love your wonderful stories, Alex. I can picture it all as I read. 🙂🙂

  6. I loved reading this alex nice history lesson

  7. Hi Alex;Again,you take me back to where I came from,teaching me historic facts that I never knew.

  8. Great story…I love reading your stories.
    Thank you for the hours of research and sharing .Great pictures too!

  9. Very interesting,Alex. I never knew this.
    I used the photo a few years back in a video I did for my song, Grand Banks Fishermen. I managed to transpose it unto Belleoram harbour,not seamlessly I might add.

  10. Another captivating story about the history of St.Jacques.
    Bravo. Is the 2 story house in the background of the picture of the sea plane tying up to the bouy the old Alec Hickey homestead? It looked familiar.

    • Tony: No it isn”t. Similar. That house was located about 350 metres farther along the road towards the government wharf. That has was demolished some years ago. The Hickey house you recall is still standing.

      • Thanks for the reply Alex. Nice to know that the Hickey house is still standing. For the short time I spent in St. Jacques I have a good few memories of the times I spent with the Hickey family. Your mom and dad were so welcoming and accommodating to me at a time when I was in need. have a good day.

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