Kathleen Flanagan Photography
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Joe Cracker and the Sinking of HMS Tribune in 1797

When the British ship HMS Tribune approached the Halifax Harbour on November 22, 1797, the captain was persuaded by the ship-master that it was unnecessary to wait for a local pilot to guide the frigate into the harbour.  At about 1 o’clock in the afternoon, Tribune struck the Big Thrumcap shoal off the southeast end of McNab’s Island.  Distress signals were quickly run up, and several boats set out to aid the stricken ship.  Many others were prevented by strong adverse winds.

Most of Tribune’s guns were thrown overboard, in an effort to lighten her weight so she would float free with the rising tide. These efforts were successful and Tribune managed to get off the shoal by 9 o'clock in the evening.  By then, she had lost her rudder, and there was water in the hold. The crew manned the pumps and seemed to be gaining on the leaks, when the area was hit by a violent gale and the rudderless ship was carried towards the western shore near Herring Shore. At half past ten, she lurched over and sank.

More than half of the 250 people onboard were lost immediately.  These included women and children as well as some of the men who had come aboard at McNab’s Island to join the rescue efforts. Nearly a hundred survivors managed to climb into the rigging.  As the night wore on, many dropped off from cold and exhaustion, and were swept away. Throughout the night, Herring Cove residents built fires on the nearby shores and called out to the survivors, but the seas were too dangerous to attempt a rescue.  At 8 o'clock in the morning, a 13-year old boy named Joe Cracker jumped into a small skiff, rowed out to Tribune, and managed to rescue two of the survivors, who were so exhausted they had to be lifted into the skiff.  Joe Cracker’s efforts galvanized others on shore.  They put out in larger boats and rescued the remaining survivors.  Only 12 survived. 

The great loss of lives was due to several causes.  The ship-master’s refusal to accept the assistance of a local harbour pilot was the initial mistake, compounded by the captain’s decision to throw the guns overboard on the vessel’s lee side.  When the winds mounted to gale force, the ship was battered against the guns, leading to the intake of water.   But the main cause for so much loss of life was the captain’s refusal to allow the crew to leave the ship, even when it was clear that the situation was dire. 

 An estimated 250 crew and rescuers lost their lives when HMS Tribune sank on November 23, 1797 in the Halifax Harbour near Herring Cove.  After briefly serving with the Royal Navy, Joe Cracker returned to Herring Cove to fish.  A plaque commemorating Joe Cracker is located at Tribune Head.