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Captain Richard ‘RF’ Fawcett and the “Wolfe Islander III”

Lake Ontario meets the St. Lawrence River at Kingston, Ontario.

For more than two hours, and way off schedule, the ferry Wolfe Islander III, with a full load of vehicles and commuters, continued to push its way westward from Dawson Point, Wolfe Island. A south-westerly gale with blowing snow all but obliterated forward view compounded by a heavy field of moving ice. The turning point into Kingston harbour would be critical. The heavy ice floes, pushed by the wind, could set the ferry onto the shoal off Point Frederick.

Sure enough, while making the turn, the big ferry got stuck.

As I remember, I was captain and wheelsman of the icebreaker tug P.J. Murer, which was rushing out into the maelstrom to assist the ferry. In the tug’s confined wheelhouse with me was the Wolfe Islander III’s senior captain, Richard “RF” Fawcett.

Coming alongside the ferry, we could barely see her through the blinding, blowing snow. Her huge silhouette, framed by black smoke from her twin funnels, loomed suddenly as Captain Fawcett spotted a ‘lead’, a small open area of water just ahead in the ice. Impossibly close to the point, he ordered me to go in even closer as he peered through the glass of the tug’s wheelhouse, watching for his landmarks to line up.

“Ha, that’s her... right there,” he said. Then, turning his head quickly toward the ferry and judging our distance apart, he commanded, “Hard a’ port. Full ahead.”

Following the break in the ice, the tug almost leaped ahead, gaining speed.

“Hard a’starboard. Come around her!”

Suddenly the big ferry swung into the spot we had just made and was free in a couple of minutes. We circled around the ferry twice until it was clear. Captain Fawcett never took his eyes off the rounded windows of the wheelhouse.

That was more than thirty years ago. Joining me recently on the bridge of the Wolfe Islander III was Captain Fawcett who convinced me, shortly after that incident, to join the Ontario Ministry of Transportation’s Wolfe Island Ferry Service. As we made our way through the ice track to Kingston, Captain Fawcett, who retired in March of 1987, commented on the weather, the traffic and the changes he has seen in a seafaring career that spanned almost five decades.


This past February, for the occasion, the Wolfe Islander III ferry flew her original Canadian ensign as well as her original Provincial flag for Ontario to mark the 35th anniversary of her inauguration into service. Signal pennants hoisted aloft read: W. I. 3. 7. 6. Aboard that day, Feb. 5, 1976, was the Honourable Keith Norton MPP for Kingston and the Islands; the Honourable James Snow, Ontario Minister of Transportation accompanied by Wolfe Island Reeve Timothy D. O’Shea, Kingston Mayor George N. Speal and many others, including the Senior Captain for both the Wolfe Island and Glenora ferries, Captain R.F. Fawcett. On April 23 of this year Captain Fawcett celebrated his own 55th anniversary on his appointment as captain of the former Wolfe Islander (II).

Wind and weather are a favourite topic of conversation. “That big wind we had a few years ago,” he began, “where the water level came up two feet; well, that was the same type of wind that blew Captain Sisty and the Wolfe Islander down river back in ’50. Difference is, this ‘ol girl’s got the power.”

In the fall of 1999, the Wolfe Islander III was scheduled for a major mid-life refit. At Heddle Marine in Hamilton, Ontario, her four Cummins engines were replaced with four Caterpillar 3412’s and her Aquamaster azimuthing thrusters upgraded with new generation ice rated Aquamaster 901’s. These Aquamasters, like their predecessors, are propeller units which can rotate through 360 degrees to push the ship in any direction the captain chooses. Even sideways. The new engines are electronically-controlled 12 cylinder turbocharged diesels, rated at 2200 BHP (550 brake Horsepower each) at 1700 RPM, which meet the latest emission standards. An onboard computer, located in the sound proof engine control room, monitors and stores data on engine operations including pressures, temperatures, engine speeds, hours of running and fuel consumption. The Chief Engineer can plug in a notebook computer and download the data, take it ashore for analysis and develop strategies for performance, maintenance, and increased fuel efficiency. Looking around the bridge, Captain Fawcett is amazed at the new GPS (Global Positioning System) and ‘moving chart’ now equipped on the Wolfe Islander III.


“At one time, on the ‘ol Islander, before we had radar, we had to blow the whistle in fog and time the echo. The closer we got to Kingston, the nearer the echo because it would bounce off the wall of the locomotive plant. The compass was magnetic. And it was erratic because of the huge ore deposit here in the harbour. You had to allow for it.”

Captain Richard F. Fawcett, now 88, was born and raised on Wolfe Island. At the outbreak of the Second World War, young Fawcett was sailing the Great Lakes, working on the canal freighters that were common in Kingston harbour. As the war progressed, Canada’s merchant marine concentrated its efforts on the east coast, and Fawcett served aboard various freighters, supplying the Atlantic convoys and trading up and down the dangerous eastern seaboard.

“Just before the war, when I’d get home for a bit, I’d spell some of the fellows off the ferry and later, I’d ride as mate on her.” This was on the SS Wolfe Islander, the last of the wooden hulled paddlewheel steamers, built in 1904 and still running at that time on the Great Lakes. Fawcett can recall the huge steering wheel in the pilot house and a very different method of steering.

“You steered toward port for starboard,” he explains. “That means you turn the top spokes left to turn the ship to the right, and vice versa. For engine signals, you pulled a chain comin’ up through the deck. Two pulls meant go astern, no matter what.”

When the war ended, so did the career of the old side-wheeler SS Wolfe Islander. Condemned from service on July 1, 1946 after 42 years of service the old ferry was, simply put, worn out.

The islanders now found themselves in crises. They had no way to get livestock to market or fuel for the coming winter. “For a while, Buck Mullin provided service with his water taxi ‘Rebola’,” Fawcett recalled, “and then the township used two new infantry landing barges for the heavier stuff. I was home hayin’ at the time after Dad died. When I broke my arm in an accident, the township asked if I could help out with the barges. Since I couldn’t help much on the farm, I said sure, since I had my papers.”


Earlier that year, Fawcett was lucky enough to miss the boat home. Ice punts were used in the early spring, before the ferry could work her way through the ice out of the harbour. In March, 1946, an open area of water allowed small boats to travel from the Rogers side road in Pittsburgh Township, east of Kingston, to Brophy’s Point on Wolfe Island. “The overloaded boat ran into trouble just off the point,” he recalled. “We saw her capsize.” Four Wolfe Island men drowned in that accident.

Later that same year, Wolfe Island Township found a partially finished Ottawa class freighter originally destined for the China coast in Collingwood, Ontario. Converted to a side loading ferry, the new all steel boat became the MS Wolfe Islander, capable of carrying 18 cars. Captain Fawcett assisted, as a crew member, in bringing her down to Wolfe Island. Later he joined the ferry service as mate aboard the new ferry under Captain George Bates.

On April 23, 1956, The Township of Wolfe Island appointed ‘RF’ as captain, after Bates retired from the ferry service. Two shifts were now needed on the ferry as trips and traffic increased. RF shared his position with Captain John A. Ferguson, recently retired from Canada Steamship Lines. By this time, Fawcett had married islander Marette LaRush and begun a family that would soon consist of five children: Barry, Heather, Kelly, Simone and Annette.

In the years that followed, ‘RF’ and the Wolfe Island Ferry Service saw many changes. The Ontario Department of Highways, as the Ministry of Transportation was known then, took over the operation and ownership when the 16 car ferry Upper Canada (former Romeo and Annette, from Dalhousie, New Brunswick) joined the service in 1965. Thanks to the Honourable Syl Apps, MLA for Kingston and the Islands, ferry service was now free of charge. A few years later, plans were in motion for a newer and larger ferry to replace both the Upper Canada and Wolfe Islander (II). This new boat would be 205 feet long, 65 feet wide and draw no more than 7 feet of water, ideal for shallow Barrett Bay. An end loader, she would carry 50 cars and 400 passengers. More than the other two boats combined. It would also have a propulsion system like no other vessel on the Great Lakes!

Travelling to Great Britain on special assignment, Captains Fawcett and Harold Hogan received training aboard the new MV Netley Castle, an 80 car ferry operating from the Isle of Wight in the English Channel. This ferry boasted a unique propulsion system. Four Aquamaster propeller units supplied by Hollming of Rauma in Finland were set in each corner of the ship, capable of turning 360 degrees. There was no steering wheel. This same system was planned for the new ferry now under construction in Port Arthur Shipyard, Thunder Bay, Ontario.

After christening ceremonies on August 15, 1975, by Mrs. Molly Apps, Wolfe Islander III went through stability and sea trials. Departing Thunder Bay on December 9, 1975, Captains RF Fawcett, Lewis Kiell and Harold Hogan sailed her out into Lake Superior.

“We were just four weeks behind the Edmund Fitzgerald sinking,” he recalled, “but the weather was good, so we went anyway.” The huge American ore carrier SS Edmund Fitzgerald went down mysteriously with all hands on Lake Superior on Nov. 10, 1975 in a gale. By December 16, 1975, the Wolfe Islander III sailed safely into Kingston.

After sea trials and tests in the harbour, Wolfe Islander III went into service. As luck would have it, that first winter was one of the toughest for ice conditions on record. The new ferry had her share of difficulties. Even the new ‘bubble system’, a series of perforated pipes layed along the bottom, piping air to the surface, did little to alleviate the problems. Ice guards around the propellers only added to problems. Eventually, milder winters with softer ice conditions made life easier. Captain Fawcett, no longer in the wheelhouse, became an operations manager, scheduling crews and timetables for the Wolfe Island and Glenora ferries. It was a little later, in 1981 that I joined the service.


Pulling back on the controls, I adjust our speed and set up for the Barrack Street ferry dock in Kingston. Standing up, Captain Fawcett starts making his way toward the door. He pauses for a minute, looking out the huge windows of the ferry. “You know,” he began, “I’ve worked on all three ‘Wolfe Islanders’. I’ve seen a lot of changes since I began... Well, gotta go.”

Steping through the door, he looks back at me. “It was a good move, wasn’t it?” A question from my former boss about working on the ferry.

I replied, “It sure was, RF. Thanks.” And I meant it, too.

Brian Johnson, Captain, Wolfe Islander III

Brian 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, with well over 20 years as captain. Today, Brian combines his marine career with writing. Brian co-edited Growing up on Wolfe Island, a compilation of interviews and stories with Sarah Sorensen. He is also the founding and past president of the Wolfe Island Historical Society. Several of his articles are also published by the Kingston Whip Standard. 

TI Life is honored to publish this article.  It will also appear in Inland Seas Quarterly Journal. This year also marks the 65th anniversary of the Wolfe Island ferry crises of 1946.

Posted in: History, People
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Kim Lunman
Comment by: Kim Lunman ( )
Left at: 3:25 PM Sunday, May 15, 2011
Ahoy Capt. Johnson! I always enjoy reading your well-told "ferry tales" and especially enjoyed this story about Capt. Fawcett - and these historical photographs. You bring the history of Wolfe Island and Wolfe Islander to life.

Kim Lunman
Kelli McIsaac
Comment by: Kelli McIsaac ( )
Left at: 1:36 AM Tuesday, August 2, 2011
I am new to the island and I have been told that the ferry has some type of towing system to guide the boat. Is this true?
Brian Johnson
Comment by: Brian Johnson ( )
Left at: 1:49 PM Thursday, August 18, 2011
Hi Kelli
No, the only guiding system we have is our own two eyes!!!
But... we certainly have up to date radar (two sets) GPS system with two readout charts, AIS system (automatic identification system) and three separate compass platforms.
We had tug assistance (see earlier picture)before the Wolfe Islander III's arrival in 1975.
There is a bubbler system which is used when the ice gets very thick. It was the longest in the world for several years.
Brian Johnson
Comment by: Virginia
Left at: 9:02 PM Friday, September 18, 2015
I just stumbled upon this article. RF was my grandmother's brother. A lot of this information I have known all my life, but there was definitely a few things I didn't know. Thanks for this article.
steve briggs
Comment by: steve briggs
Left at: 8:52 AM Monday, July 30, 2018
For more on the Upper Canada (ex Romeo and Annette)