James Wakefield Rescue Row

An annual youth rowing race hosted by Lake Champlain Maritime Museum, named after a brave first responder from 1876 who rescued passengers and crew of a shipwreck on the Burlington breakwater.

Youth rowing teams line up for the start of the race

Race Date, Time, and Location

The 2019 James Wakefield Rescue Row will take place on Saturday, October 5, 2019. Races begin at 9:30 a.m. at Perkins Pier in Burlington, Vermont.

Families, onlookers, and attendees are welcome to watch for free from Perkins Pier, the Burlington Bay boathouse, or anywhere along the shore of Burlington Bay.

In the case of high winds, races will be held at Lake Champlain Maritime Museum. An announcement will be made on this website and communicated to all coaches, participating teams, and attendees.

Race Details

This race will consist of 200 youth, rowing 32- and 25-foot rowing boats in a series of heats along the Burlington Waterfront. Teams hail from eight Vermont middle and high schools as well as from Maine, New York and Massachusetts.

The boats used in this event were built by Vermont High School and Middle School students at the Lake Champlain Maritime Museum as part of the Champlain Longboats boat building program.

Participation

If you are interested in learning more or would like to sign your youth team up to participate in the James Wakefield Rescue Row, use the link below:

A Brief History: James Wakefield and his rescue of the passengers and crew of the General Butler

On December 9, 1876, the canal schooner General Butler was working under the command of its third owner, Captain William Montgomery (pictured above). On board with the captain were a single crewman, an injured man being transported to the hospital, the captain’s teenage daughter and one of her friends. In the midst of a severe early winter gale, the vessel approached Burlington with a load of Isle La Motte marble. In the course of being buffeted by the wind and waves, the steering mechanism snapped.

In an effort to gain control over his disabled vessel, the captain dropped anchor and rigged a spare tiller bar where his wheel had once stood. This accomplished, Montgomery cut the anchor line and attempted to maneuver around the south end of the Burlington breakwater. He missed. The boat crashed into the breakwater. The tremendous force of the water would lift the boat high above the breakwater and alternately plunge it down on top of the stone surface of the breakwater. With sinking imminent, it was imperative that the travelers leave the vessel. Each time the boat would be thrust upwards then drop, one of General Butler’s human cargo would make the perilous jump to the breakwater’s ice-coated surface. Captain Montgomery was the last to depart the vessel and, by all accounts, General Butler sank immediately after his leap. The survivors, isolated on the breakwater, were now in danger of dying from exposure.

This whole catastrophe took place in the mid-afternoon and the harbor was quickly lined with people watching. The lake was so treacherous in the early winter storm that none would attempt a rescue except for James Wakefield, a professional sailor-turned-ship chandler and his son Jack. They commandeered a government lighthouse boat and rowed out to the breakwater through the choppy water. Putting the young girls aboard first, the captain, deck hand and passenger scrambled into the boat and all were rowed to safety on shore.

Though parts of the rigging and other equipment were salvaged, the boat General Butler itself was never raised. It remains under 35-40 feet of water just off the south end of Burlington’s breakwater. It is part of the Vermont Underwater Preserve System.

It is in the spirit of compassion and courage displayed by James Wakefield and his son Jack on that stormy winter day that we conduct this race.