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27 - Adrift in an Open Dory
from The Treasury of Newfoundland Stories published, by Maple Leaf Mills Limited, in 1961
A notable story of bravery and endurance is that of George Robert May and Charles Williams, two fishermen of two little Newfoundland outports, Point Rosie and Peal's Cove, both in Fortune Bay.
They were members of the crew of the banking vessel "Donald R. Creaser", sailing from Fortune Bay to the banks in spring of 1927. She carried seven dories and nineteen fishermen. Of these men, George Robert May was slightly built and forty-nine years of age, while Charles Williams was a powerfully-built man, more than six feet tall. The two were dory-mates and inseparable friends.
On June 17th they put off from the vessel's side in their dory, sailing about a mile away to set their trawls and returning with a dory-load of fish. they threw it upon the schooner's deck and at three o'clock that afternoon left to haul their trawls a second time. They had not gone more than a few hundred yards from the vessel when the fog, with the suddeness for which it is noted on the banks, closed down upon them. Bank fishermen are well-accustomed to thick fog, however. May and Williams continued on their way toward the trawls. They were unable to find them, though they spent an hour searching where they thought them to be. They decided to return to the ship, which was to prove as elusive as the trawls. For five hours they rowed and sailed, but never a sign or sound of her greeted them. The dreaded realization dawned in their minds that they were, for the time being at least, quite hopelessly lost.
Brave fishermen that they were, they remained cool, lowered their sails and lay down on the floor of their dory to have a night's rest, in the hope that daylight would find the weather clearer and enable them to locate their ship. The only food they had in the dory was twenty biscuits, and there was not a drop of drinking water. Imagine their bitter disappointment when daylight broke next morning to find the weather just as thick and the fog as dense as before. They had a small compass with them, and realizing that they might spend many days searching without finding the "Donald R. Creaser", they made up their minds to head the dory toward St. John's.
They felt encouraged because a favourable wind blew all day, and though the outlook was still dismally uncertain, they worried little as they lowered sails at dusk and prepared to have another night's rest. Near-disaster befell them that night, for the wind freshened considerably, causing a violent sea. One wave larger than the others boarded the dory and carried off two of their oars. Fearing now that the wind might rise to a storm, they decided to make for the nearest land. The fog was still as thick as the proverbial soup in spite of the continuing breeze and heavy sea. That night they lowered sails again and stretched out on the bottom of the dory to snatch a few hour's sleep.
By the end of the third day they came to the unpleasant conclusion that if they were headed right they should have reached land long ago. On the fourth day the fog was thick as ever, but the sea had moderated a little.
By now both men were suffering agonies from thirst and were weakening rapidly under the continued exposure.
It was now five days since they had tasted a drop of water and there are few physical tortures worse than being long deprived of this lift-sustaining fluid. On the very next day their joyous eyes suddenly beheld, looming up majestically out of the fog, a great iceberg. Feverishly they headed the dory toward their mountain of floating ice. Thankfully they broke off lumps of ice, which they sucked until their lips were numb with the cold. Having slaked their mad thirst, they filled a tin can with additional ice. Considerably refreshed, they pushed away from the iceberg and continued their weary journey toward they knew not what.
Two days after they had filled the can with ice, the last drop of water was gone and it was to be another four or five days before they got their next drink, a drink which came suddenly with a downpour of rain. It was just in time.
For eleven days and three hours these two gallant fishermen battled for their lives in that little sixteen-foot dory. The biscuits through strict rationing, had lasted them for many days, but now at last, ass the remaining crumbs disappeared, their physical strength ebbed away. Only the constant exercise and a powerful will to live kept them alive to the end of that eleventh day.
It would be quite impossible, without going through the same experience, to appreciate the voiceless gratitude of the two weary fishermen when the steamship "Albuera" appeared suddenly on the horizon and seemed to be coming towards them. Fully 374 miles from where they had last seen their vessel, this steamship picked them up and carried them to Tilbury in England. There they were treated with the kindness to which all fishermen and mariners are so richly entitled.
Wherever they may be, such is the indomitable spirit of the typical Newfoundland fisherman that it is all but needless to add that six months later George Robert May and Charles Williams were headed once more to the sea as member of another vessel, fishing on the banks of Newfoundland.
This page transcribed by James Butler, 2000
Page Revised: February - 2003 (Terry Piercey)
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