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Dreaded ‘yankee cutter’ headed for watery grave

Dreaded ‘yankee cutter’ headed for watery grave

CHICAGO, Illinois (10 Sep 2008) — The dreaded “Yankee cutter” that sank a Canadian rum-runner during Prohibition — sparking an international crisis that led Canada to assert its independence from Britain and its wariness of U.S. power — is headed for its own watery grave after a colourful and controversial 83-year life.The former USS Dexter, the U.S. Coast Guard vessel that infamously chased and destroyed the Nova Scotia ship I’m Alone in international waters off the Gulf of Mexico in 1929, is set to be scuttled in Lake Michigan next month to become an attraction for Chicago scuba divers.

Ironically, the former patrol ship — built to keep the U.S. free of smuggled booze — ended its working career as a tarted up, pirate-themed charter craft dubbed the MV Buccaneer, hired anytime for a floating bash by calling 1-800-PARTY-BOAT.

But when the ship goes down in late October, a genuine relic of Canadian history will be slipping beneath the waves — one that played a notable role in shaping Canada’s inter-war foreign policy and which is remembered as the villainous vessel in Wade Hemsworth’s classic Canadian folk song The Sinking of the I’m Alone.

During the Second World War, the Dexter apparently made amends for its attack on I’m Alone, sinking a German U-boat off the coast of Nova Scotia.

“We’re all kind of aware of the history,” says Bob Rushman, who is leading a team of divers and history buffs with the Underwater Archeological Society of Chicago in preparing the 33-metre ship for its scuttling. “Right now, we’re scraping off the paint and rust and getting rid of anything that might pose a danger to divers or create pollution.”

Until recently, the vessel was owned by the Chicago excursion company Wagner Charter Co., which offered use of the Buccaneer “pirate ship” for banquets, children’s parties and other celebrations. According to the company’s website, Wagner acquired the ship in 1960 from a Boston firm that had been using it as a fishing boat named Kingfisher.

But the Chicago party-boat firm was well aware of the ship’s significance, and described on its website how the vessel “made it into the history books” with its sinking of the I’m Alone.

At the time of the sinking, the U.S. ban on importing alcohol fuelled a booming business for Canadian booze smugglers. The captain of the 40-metre I’m Alone, Newfoundland native Jack Randell, was an experienced skipper and a willing conveyer of Caribbean rum. He was heading from Belize to deliver 2,800 cases of liquor to Louisiana.

First spotted about 16 kilometres off the U.S. by the Coast Guard ship Wolcott on March 20, 1929, I’m Alone was eventually chased into international waters by the Wolcott and the Dexter.

When Randell refused to yield to the U.S. officials, insisting that I’m Alone had not entered U.S. waters, the Dexter opened fire on the Canadian ship, which capsized. One sailor drowned, but Randell and about 10 other crewmen were rescued.

Dreaded ‘yankee cutter’ headed for watery grave

The dreaded ‘yankee cutter’ USS Dexter will become a scuba diving attraction in Lake Michigan.

The sinking of the ship quickly made headlines in Canada, Britain and the U.S. Accounts of the incident suggesting extreme American aggression and the defacing of I’m Alone’s Union Jack inflamed anti-U.S. sentiment in Canada and put pressure on Prime Minister Mackenzie King to deal boldly with the U.S. government.

Canada sent its Washington envoy, Vincent Massey — the first Canadian to have full ambassadorial powers, and later the country’s first native-born governor general — to voice the federal government’s objections.

While acknowledging that the I’m Alone was engaged in smuggling, Massey argued that the U.S. Coast Guard chase was nonetheless unjustified because the Canadian ship had not entered U.S. waters.

“The conclusion has been reluctantly reached,” Massey stated in a letter to the U.S., “that on the evidence now available, the pursuit and sinking of the vessel appears not to have been authorized either by the terms of the convention of January 1924 or by rules of international law.”

Canada’s stern reaction ruffled feathers in London and Washington, but resulted in a special commission of inquiry that, five years later, led to an official U.S. apology and compensation payments to the Canadian government and the crew members of the I’m Alone.

The Dexter, reassigned to harbour patrol after U.S. prohibition laws were lifted, was pressed into service to escort convoys and perform other duties during the Second World War, including, according to a Wagner Charter Co. history of the ship, the sinking of a German U-boat headed for Canada.

The Dexter was allegedly involved in one other dramatic episode with a Canadian connection. In 1961, en route from Boston to its new role as an excursion ship with the Wagner company, the ship apparently took a wrong turn in Lake Erie and “ended up going toward the Niagara Falls.”

Luckily, notes Wagner’s history of the ship, the captain and crew “ran aground before going over” and were eventually able to get back on course for Lake Michigan — the bottom of which, next month, will become Dexter’s well-earned resting place.


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