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. Learn more about the story behind the name below!
UPDATED: The 2021 James Wakefield Rescue Row will take place on October 2, 2020 at the Lake Champlain Maritime Museum in Vergennes, VT due to the weather forecast for rain and potential windy conditions in Burlington. Revised boat assignments will be sent out in the afternoon of Friday, October 1. Race order and timing will remain the same as originally scheduled.
To register for the 2021 James Wakefield Rescue Row, please go to our 2021 Fall Rowing Registration.
Check out past events and results!
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.