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Sunday, July 14, 2024
Sinking of The Foam, part 4: Almost 150 years on, the Foam is still part of RCYC sailing lore

The last word in our four-part saga of the Foam goes to the Royal Canadian Yacht Club, one of North America’s most respected sailing and yachting organizations. It was from the club’s sheltered harbour on Toronto Island that the Foam sailed, south to Niagara, on that warm July day.


History records the time of the loss of the Foam on the Niagara Bar, just offshore at Niagara-on-the-Lake, as 10:30 p.m. on July 11, 1874. That was the time V.W. Vernon’s watch stopped.

Vernon was one of seven young men, all from prominent Toronto families, who lost their lives that fateful summer evening.

The Foam left the Royal Canadian Yacht Club in Toronto mid-afternoon of that day, bound for Niagara-on-the-Lake.

The RCYC takes its history seriously. But the club’s archival records shed little light on the circumstances of the Foam’s sinking.

Karen McRae is an RCYC board member and chair of the club’s heritage and archives committee. She’s been sailing for over 50 years, more than 40 from the RCYC, and has completed the crossing to Niagara-on-the-Lake many times.

“Having come up to the Niagara Bar, I know how turbulent the water can be there when you get the current going against the wind coming across the lake,” she says. “It is quite easy to understand how a boat could be swamped or capsized in those waves.”

McRae believes the story of the Foam is quite well known by members of the club, particularly the older sailors. She remembers visiting the Foam monument and burial plot behind St. Mark’s church, many years ago.

“The Foam is such a fascinating story,” she says. “And a cautionary tale,” she adds thoughtfully.

“When you go out on the water, bad things can happen. And sometimes very bad things happen.”

But she believes it is highly unlikely the circumstances around the Foam would repeat themselves today.

“Boats are so much better designed, we have wonderful things like lifejackets, and we have radios, distress signals — all of which would prevent an incident like this from happening today.”

“One of things that immediately struck me was that they set off for Niagara at 3:30 p.m. So, they would be arriving in the dark. And didn’t have the benefit of weather forecasts, radar and so on.

“It was an accident waiting to happen.”

A story by honorary historian Albert Mallon in a 1996 edition of Kwasind, the club’s periodical, relates the scant information about the tragedy:

It is “surmised that they swamped without warning crossing the bar. They had apparently reefed by then and possibly lacked the power to drive through the maelstrom of lake sea meeting river currents.”

In a later letter to Kwasind in 1997, Maurice Anderson, a family relative of the boat’s owners recalls a different story:

“The two Andersons who owned the yacht were my great uncles, younger brothers to my grandfather, John Weir, who became Rear Commodore of the club in 1883.

“There are no survivors of my father’s generation, who might well have been able to add to the story. The only recollection that was handed down to me was that it was thought that Foam sailed between two vessels, one a tug and the other the tow, and the top rope sank the yacht.”

W.F.N. Windeyer, a prominent member of the RCYC in the 1930s, wrote perhaps the most straightforward explanation, in the magazine, The Sailor:

“While the details of this tragedy will never be known as a certainty, it was commonly supposed that the Foam was ‘pooped,’ filled up and foundered. She was a boat of very little freeboard and was probably carrying very little canvas, and what with the reduced speed owing to this, and the outgoing current, the following waves tumbled aboard and quickly filled her.”

In the 1990s, the RCYC mounted a campaign to repair the weather-beaten monument in the NOTL cemetery and install a large bronze plaque describing the events of the tragic day.

McRae is determined to further commemorate the loss of the Foam for the 150th anniversary of the event, in the summer of 2024.

“I think the club should really be doing something to commemorate the events, in the next couple of years. I’m sure there would be great interest amongst members of the RCYC.”

“We all love cruising to Niagara-on-the-Lake.”

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