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The sinking of the Harry H

Former navy ship rests in the bed of the Oshawa Harbour, or does it?

Historical images show where the Harry H, also known as the subchaser SC 238, was previously moored at the Oshawa harbour. It’s unclear whether any remnants of the boat still sit at the bottom of the harbour today after the ship sank many years ago. (Images courtesy of the Oshawa Historical Society)

By Joel Wittnebel/The Oshawa Express

It’s a tragic tale of an old piece of war history.

What we know: an old ship, known as the Harry H, began its life chasing down German submarines in World War I and spent years in the Oshawa Harbour. It was sold off to a private owner instead of being repurposed for World War II. It floated there for years, that was, until it could float no more and sank.

What’s not known is whether the boat still rests there today. Is it having any impact on the marina? Who should pull it out if it’s still down there? It’s a question of some uncertainty for city hall and the Oshawa Port Authority.

“The only rumour I have heard is that there was a rumrunner in prohibition days that sank up at the end of the west wharf and is probably covered over by the marina spit. Even in extremely low waters, no one has seen any evidence and I never heard it called the Harry H,” says Donna Taylor, the CEO and harbourmaster of the Oshawa Port Authority.

The boat reared its figurative bow during a recent discussion surrounding the Oshawa marina and the potential installation of a public boat launch.

According to resident Larry Ladd, a longtime waterfront supporter and former occupant of the old Oshawa marina before its closure in 2002, the old boat sank in the north end of the harbour sometime in the 1950s.

“It was quite a long freighter. It had basically sunk there where it had been moored for years,” Ladd said. “My dad and I used to stand on it and the water would lap over your feet and we used to fish there.”

The Oshawa Express was also able to find another confirmation of the ship’s sinking in the harbour, this time coming from a post on the Oshawa Library and Archives website.

A commenter posting under the name Mike Leggott noted that the boat was in fact his grandfather’s and it was a WWI Corvette class subchaser.

“It sank a couple of times in the Oshawa Harbour. I think first in 1955 and again in 1957 at the north end of the harbour, where it stayed, prob (sic) long rotted away by now,” he writes. Further attempts to reach Leggott for comment were unsuccessful as of The Oshawa Express press deadline.

According to documents from the Oshawa Museum, which confirm that the Harry H was moored inside the Oshawa Harbour for decades after it had been sold off from the federal government, the history of the boat began with a visit from German submarines.

“It was after a visit by two German submarines in the summer of 1916 that resulted in the sinking of five ships that spurred the navy to design an effective antisubmarine vessel,” the document reads. “Unfortunately, steel was a scarce resource and the large shipbuilding yards had been contracted to build destroyers and other large ships.”

And because of that, a new ship was designed to be made out of wood, built for speed rather than strength.

“The ship was crewed by two officers and 24 enlisted men. Originally, the ship was armed with two three-inch guns and two machine guns. Over time it was determined that the three-inch guns were not all that effective and they were replaced with a depth charge projector…designed to explode near a submarine and the resulting shock wave would destroy or incapacitate the submarine,” the Oshawa Museum information reads.

In total, during the course of the First World War, approximately 441 of these subchasers had been built and placed into active duty.

When the world’s political climate once again soured, a number of the ships were repurposed for World War II. Others however, were sold off for civilian use. One of those ships was Subcasher SC-238, also known as the Harry H.

According to Mayor John Henry, it’s not the first time he’s heard word of the boat resting in the bottom of the harbour. What did come as a shock however, was the previous owner.

“It’s surprising to find out it was owned by the Canadian government,” he said.

It was a fact that Oshawa city staff were also unaware of.

With that said, it appears that the sunken ship could be causing some issues with the natural flow of sediment around the marina inlet, especially when the larger boats come to drop off resources at the Oshawa Harbour, their propellors stirring up dirt and debris from the lake floor, forcing it back and creating a buildup along where the Harry H is said to rest, near the mouth of the the Oshawa Creek.

“Had the Harbour Commission… gotten that boat out of there, you would not have a dredgate problem that exists there today,” Ladd said.

As it stands, plans to develop a public boat launch in the Oshawa Harbour are still before city staff. A date has not yet been provided for when a report or recommendation for moving forward will come back.

Ladd suggested that as part of the boat launch discussions, perhaps staff should look into approaching the feds about the Harry H.

“If you’re going to Ottawa to ask for grants or money, you point out that boat…that might give you some wiggle room to get some money from them,” he says.

Whether for money or not, following discussions, Mayor Henry noted that perhaps the city should be looking into following up on removing the boat from the harbour.

“There should have been some liability about removing it at the time,” he admits. “It doesn’t change the fact that still, once upon a time, it was owned by the federal government. I’m wondering if a letter written to the federal Ministry of the Environment, talking about a former piece of surplus equipment from our navy [that] is in the bottom of our harbour, should not be addressed.”

The idea was taken as direction by city staff, who also noted they were in the midst of discussions with the Oshawa Museum about the boat.