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The Wolfe Islander is Missing

…after four hours of continuous searching bleak coves and small inlets, both groups were almost ready to announce that the vessel had gone down. The Canadian side revealed nothing more than empty shoreline.

Whig-Standard, January 14, 1950

The faith a captain puts into his ship must be absolute. It doesn’t matter if the voyage is a Trans Atlantic crossing lasting several weeks or a Great Lakes trip taking several days. Even a ferry trip from Wolfe Island to Kingston, a shipmaster never takes the weather or sea condition for granted. Captain Sebastian ‘Joe’ Sisty, master of the ferry Wolfe Islander, was well aware of that risk.

“I had no choice but to put to open water,” said Captain Joseph Sisty, skipper of the ferry boat. “It was either take a chance or see the Islander batter herself to death against the concrete dock in port.”

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"Employed on automobile and passenger ferry service between Wolfe Island and Kingston, Ontario". M.S. Wolfe Islander, built in Collingwood, Ontario, 1946. Photo: Brian Johnson Collection

Friday night, January 13, 1950, tied to the pier on Wolfe Island, the ferry Wolfe Islander tugged uneasily on her lines. Inside the wheelhouse, Captain Joe Sisty stretched to the top of his toes and tapped the glass of the barometer which was mounted above the left window. What he saw worried him and he tapped the glass again. It had never been this low. Sliding the window down he called to the mate, “Double the lines, Harold. We’re in for a blow.” Pulling the window back up, he walked over to the polished brass telegraph and rang ‘Finished with Engines’ to Elmer Kane, waiting for the signal below. Satisfied, Joe locked the door to the wheelhouse remembering the rhyme from navigation school: “When the wind shifts against the sun, trust it not for back it will run. First rise after very low, indicates a stronger blow.”

Saturday morning dawned a bright red with all the tell-tale signs of an impending gale. As he made his way down the dock, holding his cap to his head, Captain Sisty realized the ramp cables had slackened in the night as he heard both of them slamming back and forth as the big ferry rocked to and fro at her berth. Timing himself, he jumped aboard and made his way across the rocking deck to the engine room. Down below, Chief Engineer George Woodman had the generator running and was climbing the ladder when he met the skipper at the door. “How’s it lookin’ Joe?” he asked. “Pretty rough eh?”

“Yeah,” the captain replied, “but she’s beating herself hard against the dock, George. I’d feel better if she were layin’ to, in Kingston.” Shortly after, the rest of the crew made their way aboard and went to their stations. Deckhands Tom Doyle and Jim Duncan were told by mate Harold Cosgrove to tie everything down. Walking back to the galley, which was back aft in the fantail, Captain Sisty told Mrs. Bullis who was ship’s cook, to lock everything in the cupboards or put it on the deck. It was going to be a very rough trip for crew and passengers alike.

Under Ragged, low flying clouds, today’s vicious gale churned waters of Kingston harbour into creatures of froth and fury. Along the waterfront deep, heavy rollers hurled themselves against docks and other installations like tireless battering rams. “I’ve never seen her blow up like this before,” declared Lyall Dougan from the pilot dock at the foot of West Street. “The waves out front here are plenty big. Must be 15 or 20 feet high anyway. I’ve been on this job for 12 years and never saw her like this before!”

Grasping the telegraph handle, Captain Joe Sisty rang for ‘Full Astern’ to spring the Wolfe Islander off the pier. Churning water, the big ferry was reluctant to move for almost two full minutes as the wind held her fast to the dock. Finally, her huge, flared bow started to swing clear as Joe quickly applied the wheel to port as he swung the telegraph handle to ‘Full Ahead’. As she left the pier Joe gave her a couple more spokes to port to compensate the ever growing leeway as she moved ahead. Gently at first, the Islander began to rock in a steady rhythm.

The tops of whitecaps on the harbour were picked off by the high wind and sent scudding over the water and at Whiskey Island off Fort Henry the waves were going completely over and swamping the island from sight. Breakers striking the end of Cedar Island were driving 75 and 100 feet inland when the wind picked them off. City fire trucks were standing at the alert outside fire stations in case of emergency…


As she approached the foot of Garden Island, the Wolfe Islander was already carrying ten degrees of port wheel on her rudder. The wind by now was deafening, even in the enclosed wheelhouse. The captain and mate said nothing to each other as they looked out beyond the sanctuary of the bay, at the huge rollers waiting for them. Inside the passenger saloon on the second deck seventeen year old Jean Niles leaned up on one knee and peered outside. “Oh, we’re in for it now,” she said, to no one in particular. Her father Howard was down below playing euchre with the crew. Just behind Jean sat Maggie Gillow who was nervously talking with Mrs. Sisty, the captain’s wife. Both women were going to town for a leisurely afternoon of shopping, one already regretting her decision. Back up in the wheelhouse, Captain Joe Sisty looked out at the huge seas waiting to test him and his ship. Gripping the spokes of the wheel, mate Harold Cosgrove placed his feet apart preparing himself for the rolling they were about to take.

At eleven o’clock the Kingston Yacht Club was taking a terrific pounding from 25 to 30 foot waves which swept completely over the dock.


The flared bow of the ferry Wolfe Islander had cleared the foot of Garden Island by now and was meeting the gale fine on her port side. Joe Sisty had been her master now for two years and knew his ship well. He knew her abilities in drifting ice, heavy ice and just about anything the lake could do to date. Gauging the waves from trough to crest, they had to be as big as any he had ever encountered off the Atlantic coast or the Gulf of Mexico. Even as captain of the Keystone freighter Trenora trading on the upper Great Lakes he had certainly experienced wind, even gusting as high as this, which he estimated must be somewhere near 90 miles per hour, but these seas were tremendous. Slowly, the bow began to climb, swinging slightly to the right. Then, just as quick, she rolled steeply to the left, shipping tons of water over her port rail.

“Hold her up, Harold. Two more points into the wind.”

“That’s all she’s got, Joe. She’s hard over!”

Grabbing the telegraph handle, Joe Sisty swung it back to ‘Stop’ then again to ‘Full Ahead’. Down below George Woodman and Elmer Kane, hearing the bells, knew exactly what the captain wanted and began nursing more power from the ship’s 400 hp Enterprise engine. Gripping the telegraph, George also swung the handle through a 90 degree arc and back again, indicating he got the message. One deck above, in the passenger saloon, the women hung onto the seats, hearing the bells when there shouldn’t be any, preparing themselves for the wild ride.

“She’s falling off, Joe,” the mate yelled, holding the wheel hard to port while holding the door handle with his left hand to steady himself.

Sisty had to make a decision. “Ease her. Let her come around.” Both men wrestled with the wheel as the ferry wallowed between the waves. “Hard to starboard,” the captain said. Slowly, and rolling hard, the Wolfe Islander swung her bow to the right, her foremast drawing crazy arcs in the sky against the far shoreline as she headed downriver. The ferry was now at the mercy of the screaming wind and wild, turbulent waves.

Gales of near cyclonic force which blew in from the southwest over the lake caused an estimated $250,000 damage to city property and industrial plants, blew the Wolfe Islander off her course and down the St. Lawrence. At press time today there was no information as to the number of passengers aboard the ferry boat. When last seen, the Wolfe Islander was reported speeding past Howe Island, approximately 15 miles from Kingston…


And then she was gone. All throughout the city and area, telephone and telegraph lines were down. Roofs of buildings were gone as shingles flew everywhere in the wind. The Drive-In screen blew over on Bath Road and, on Wolfe Island, Alan MacAdoo’s barn blew down as well as the end of George Pyke’s new barn.

…reporters and photographers scoured the mainland shore for some sight of the ship…

Radio station CKLC, while reporting on the heavily damaged areas of the city, reported the missing ferry and those aboard had all been lost, or believed lost.

Aboard the ‘doomed’ ferry, Captain Sisty and Mate Cosgrove were relieved at the wheel by passengers Louis Kane and Leon Halliday. Seeking shelter behind Brophy’s Point, Sisty quickly changed his mind as he saw the breakers in the shallow water. He had one chance for the ship’s safety and headed for Quebec Head, the foot of Wolfe Island. She must be doing twenty knots, the captain thought, watching the shore of Wolfe Island speed by. Reaching the end of the island and shelter, Howard Abbott and Pat Doyle joined the mate and deckhands high on the bow as both anchors splashed into the muddy bottom. After five tries, both anchors finally took hold. Aboard, in the galley, Eva Abbott and Mrs. Marlowe joined the women in preparing meals for everyone while bread man Louis Kane donated the cakes and pies from his truck.

…at four o’clock, Whig-Standard reporters 2 ½ miles west of Clayton N.Y. picked her up by powerful binoculars… all that was left to do was tell the outside world that the Wolfe Islander and her passengers and crew were safe.

By Brian Johnson

© Copyright Brian Johnson 2009, All Rights Reserved

Brian Paul Johnson is one of five captains of the Wolfe Island car ferry Wolfe Islander III. He has worked for the Ontario Ministry of Transportation for 28 years, recently celebrating 20 years as captain. Today, Brian combines his marine career with writing. Fascinated by stories and legends of the 1000 Islands area he has written for the Kingston Whig Standard, Telescope magazine and the Great Lakes Boatnerd Website: Seaway News. Brian co-edited Growing up on Wolfe Island, a compilation of interviews and stories with Sarah Sorensen. He is also the founding and current president of the Wolfe Island Historical Society and former president of the Wolfe Island Scene of the Crime mystery writer’s festival held on the island every August.

This story first  was published on January 13, 2005, as "Missing-the Wolfe Islander" in the Kingston Whig Standard. It is one of a series of articles Captain Johnson is completing for his first book: Ferry Tales from Wolfe Island.

Posted in: History
Please feel free to leave comments about this article using the form below. Comments are moderated and we do not accept comments that contain links. As per our privacy policy, your email address will not be shared and is inaccessible even to us. For general comments, please email the editor.


Jennifer Deir
Comment by: Jennifer Deir ( )
Left at: 2:28 PM Monday, June 15, 2009
What a wonderful story, I had no idea lake Ontario could get that rough.
it was a great read- i couldn't stop myself. I grew up on the St.lawrence river, I know the water- that must have been an incredible storm in 1950!
I look forward to reading Brians' first book.
Thanks for the History lesson brian!
Betti Stiff
Comment by: Betti Stiff ( )
Left at: 2:46 PM Monday, June 15, 2009
I'm printing this out to read at home tonight and am looking forward to not only enjoying a good read but also learning some interesting things about the history of this wonderful area.

Each and every time I see an article by Brian Johnson it always seems to be a topic that I have no interest in but he always grabs me in the first few lines and by the end I'm always happy that I read it.
Ian Coristine
Comment by: Ian Coristine ( )
Left at: 11:26 PM Monday, June 15, 2009
A fine read Brian! Many thanks for sharing one of the River's seldom seen moods with this great story.
Ron Beaupre
Comment by: Ron Beaupre ( )
Left at: 1:04 PM Wednesday, June 24, 2009
I lived beside Cook Sisty in Iroquois from the time the Seaway moved the village away from the river in 1957. His brother was Sebastian Sisty. I heard many stories about sailing on the Lakes from Cook, and many of them were actually his brothers tales. Thank You!
Brian Johnson
Comment by: Brian Johnson ( )
Left at: 5:11 PM Wednesday, June 24, 2009
Thank you!!
Each and every one for the very kind comments!!
Brian J
Hugh Cowan
Comment by: Hugh Cowan ( )
Left at: 7:06 PM Thursday, June 25, 2009
As recent "full-time residents" of Wolfe Island but weekend/summer residents for a number of years, near the Foot, and having sailed here for many, many years, we look forward to the book. Brian, any idea when should it be available?

Also, we have to thank Ian and his crew for Thousand Islands Life - while started by Paul Malo, Ian et al have carried this to a whole new level and it is a great way to share the beauty of the Thousand Islands.
Marcia Buzyniski
Comment by: Marcia Buzyniski ( )
Left at: 9:50 AM Tuesday, July 7, 2009
What a great piece of Wolfe Island history! It is always nice to hear of stories relating to our end of the island. My husband and I both grew up spending our summers near the Foot and now are lucky enough to have our children do the same. My ten year old son, as well as his parents, look forward to the new book!
Diane Sisty Bayley
Comment by: Diane Sisty Bayley ( )
Left at: 1:14 PM Sunday, September 13, 2009
Captain Joe Sisty was my grandfather. My father told me this article had come out but I had not seen it until today. 'Stretched to the top of his toes' is so true. He was a little man with a big presence, your description made me laugh. Thank you for the article.
Brian Johnson
Comment by: Brian Johnson ( )
Left at: 9:30 AM Saturday, October 3, 2009
Hi Diane:
I would be very grateful if you could get in touch with me at
Would love any copies of photos of your grandfather!
Thank you for your kind comments!
Brian johnson
Carol (Sisty)Bonnell
Comment by: Carol (Sisty)Bonnell ( )
Left at: 3:24 PM Monday, January 17, 2011
My dad was Capt. Sebastian "Joe" Sisty.thinking of him decided to search the net ...remember all of this very well my Mom was on baord.Wow!!! lots of fond memories aboard the old Wolfe Islander.
Diane (Sisty) Bayley is my niece.Cooke Sisty was my uncle.
better late than never to read your comments.
Thank you for the memories Brian.
Joan (Sisty) Anderson
Comment by: Joan (Sisty) Anderson ( )
Left at: 8:59 AM Saturday, July 16, 2011
Thank you for your great article. I am niece of Joe, cousin to Carol, second cousin to Diane, and daughter of Cook Sisty. Like Carol, I was surfing the net for Sisty connections and found your article. It is wonderful to find more of our family history. Thank you, Brian, for the story of the Wolfe Islander and Uncle Joe.
Anonymous User
Comment by: Anonymous User
Left at: 12:19 PM Saturday, October 1, 2011
Barry Calthorpe
Comment by: Barry Calthorpe ( )
Left at: 8:29 AM Monday, October 7, 2013
At the time this happen`d I was a 10 year old kid living on livingstons point on Wolfe Island.I heard about the missing boat, and I think it was the next afternoon that the wind dropped a little bit and they tried to bring her back up to Kingston.I saw her slowly making her way along the shore until it was almost even with the point.then the wind picked up again and in the next hour she moved about 100 yards backwards. Then she turned and went back to the foot of the Island and stayed there till the next day
Dan Kane
Comment by: Dan Kane
Left at: 5:01 PM Thursday, March 5, 2015
Fantastic story....I knew Captain Sisty as a very kind man. He was Captain when I was courting my girl friend Maureen Prior, who was living on Wolfe Island with her aunt Helen Taggart.We would ride back and forth from Kingston on the upper deck until Maureen had to get on to her aunts house.
I also had the good fortune to know the Sisty Houndsmen...good people.

If anyone can fw'd me any info on the Kanes mentioned in the story I would appreciate it.....I am trying to fill in many family blanks.

Thank You,
Dan Kane
Patricia Sisty
Comment by: Patricia Sisty
Left at: 11:00 AM Sunday, October 16, 2016
Captain Sisty was my Uncle Joe. He was my father, Cook Sisty's brother. I had never heard this story before and was fascinated to read it. Thanks for writing it. I see my sister and cousins have already commented. Good stuff!
Terry Bolton
Comment by: Terry Bolton
Left at: 3:29 PM Saturday, January 14, 2017
This was a fantastic read. And just when I thought it couldn't get any better I started reading the comments. It's so great to see people come out of the "woodwork", so to speak that are directly connected to this story. We live in such a small world today with social media, and when stories like this are shared , I think it makes for a better world. Thanks captain Brian
Dick Bleier
Comment by: Dick Bleier
Left at: 12:39 PM Sunday, January 14, 2018
Great story about a ship I have dove on many times. Now it's a great dive.
Ian Coristine
Comment by: Ian Coristine
Left at: 7:25 PM Monday, January 14, 2019
You have a rare talent Brian. A beautifully told story. Thank you for bringing history back to life.