The issue of safety in the fishery is a relatively new concept. Fishermen’s work is long, difficult, and often dangerous. Especially when the weather is poor, the conditions on board a boat can be perilous. Over many years, attitudes towards safety have changed and equipment and safety techniques have been developed to make fishing a safer profession.
In the early days of the fishery on Prince Edward Island, safety was not considered a major concern for fishermen. Some people may be surprised to know that many fishermen couldn’t even swim. Lifejackets, lifeboats, and other safety equipment were non-existent. A fisherman’s only protection in a storm was his boat and his oilskin clothing. With only sail and manpower, would-be rescuers trying to reach a boat in distress had difficulty in travelling any distance especially in stormy conditions.
Lighthouses served as an early navigational and safety device for fishermen and all marine traffic. Initially constructed of sturdy timber and equipped with a bright oil-burning lamp, lighthouses functioned as a warning beacon in treacherous conditions. Some lighthouses warned of shallow water or dangerous landforms, while others guided boats safely into harbour.
Before joining Canada in 1873, the Prince Edward Island government maintained nine lighthouses with salaried lightkeepers and eight minor lights which were unmanned.1 Many of the manned lighthouses were built with living quarters attached. The lightkeepers maintained the lighthouse in good order and kept the light burning. Today all of Prince Edward Island’s lighthouses are unmanned and are serviced by road, helicopter, or boat. However, many were still manned until the 1960’s and the Wood Islands lighthouse, which was built in 1876, was automated only in 1989.
By 1914, five lifesaving stations were established on Prince Edward Island. A typical lifesaving station consisted of a wooden building with sleeping quarters and a watchtower. To reach sailors in danger, the lifesavers were equipped with a lifeboat on a launching system. Originally these men used oars but in the 20th century, motors came into use to increase their rescue range and speed. Many of the lifesavers were fishermen who volunteered to work part-time at the lifesaving station 2.
In the twentieth century, the Canadian Coast Guard Service manages search and rescue operations on PEI. Using modern communication, new technology, helicopters, planes, and boats, the Coast Guard is well-equipped for successful rescue operations. However, when one of their own is in danger, fishermen continue to volunteer to help, whatever the conditions.
1. Canada. Dept. of Transport. Appleton, Thomas E. Usque Ad Mare: A History of Canadian Coast Guard and Marine Services. Ottawa: Queen’s Printers, 1968.