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39 - Adrift on the Banks in an Open Dory Six Nights



from The Treasury of Newfoundland Stories published, by Maple Leaf Mills Limited, in 1961

In the month of April, 1897, my buddy William Butt and I shipped out of St. John's to go to Burin to engage in the fishing in one of the West Coast Bankers. Our schooner was the Lily, commended by William Goddard. On May 10th we weighed anchor and, after securing a supply of bait at Northern Harbour, Placentia Bay, shaped a course for the Mizzen Banks. We arrived on May 19th and made out first berth.

There was no fish on the ground and, on the 21st, the skipper ordered us to take in the trawls and try another spot. The following morning, in the 4 o'clock watch just before daybreak, we left the ship to reset our trawls. My dory mate and boss was Albert Goddard, the captain's brother.

The morning was fine but misty and, in our eagerness to get away, we foolishly neglected to take food and water on board. Of course we thought as we pulled off from the port bow of our schooner that nothing untoward would happen and we would return well enough in a few hours.

Truly we know not what a day or an hour may bring forth. When my mate considered we had gone far enough we dropped our black ball and paid out the two hundred fathoms of trawl. Then we headed, as we thought by our little pocket compass, for the Lily, which was out of sight, somewhere in the increasing mist. Little did we think we were never to board her again.

There was a fearful fight for life in front of us such as few men have experienced. The horrors of it have burnt into my brain and being and affected me all my days. We rowed all day into a thicken-fog and increasing wind - we did not expect to spend that night in the dory, much less six nights on the Atlantic in an open boat.

When darkness came the wind was a gale from the southeast and the sea was running high; it required all our skill and strength to keep our boat from filling. At about 10 o'clock we heard a steamer's fog hooter but, although we pulled frantically in the direction of the repeated sound, which seemed for awhile to be looming nearer to us, no lights of a receiving steamer were seen and the mournful bellowing died away in the dark distance. Again, perhaps near midnight, another whistle - clear and distinct - was heard and our hopes were raised only to be shattered once more.

The second disappointment was terrible, coming to us there in the darkness and at a time when the agonizing pangs of hunger and thirst were sharpest. We were exhausted from many hours of hard rowing and overwrought with anxiety.

Dawn on the 23rd of May found us still battling the raging elements, fighting to keep our frail craft head on into the mighty sea. By this time we were numb with cold and suffering severely from cramps. We had to rub one another as best we could to restore blood circulation that terrible day. There was no let-up to the storm that raged at sea or the fear in our minds as we thought upon the hard fact that we were absolutely without food or drink - and what it must mean in the end.

We tried to talk and joke to cheer one another, but our attempts were feeble and pitiful. My companion, I noticed as the day wore on, was weakening perceptibly. As he lay in the bottom of the boat and murmured that he was dying, it was useless for me to try keeping his spirits up; after awhile I could not even arouse him. It was all I could do that night to manage the boat. With the bait tubs and a spare trawl line I rigged a drag which I hoped would help keep the boat head to the wind, but my drag line was too short and I was forced to cut it free. In order to keep the boat from being swamped I had to use the oars without any spell throughout the night. My poor suffering mate was lying so still and quiet in the bottom of the dory that only an occasional groan told me that he was still alive.

At daybreak on the 24th the storm had considerably abated and the weather was clear. My weary eyes anxiously scanned the horizon. There was no sail in sight but, oh, how my heart jumped with what I saw away to the westward, a dark figure of high land - no cloud or illusion. My sudden call and shake aroused my mate who half rose and came to himself. Neither of us recognized the land but we were much heartened - it seemed at last that we must be saved.

Alas, one of us was to be taken and the other left. It was his land grind at the oars that finished poor Albert. Against my advice, he had backed himself up to do his best to help the boat along but his flicker of strength did not last long. Suddenly he collapsed and sank with a groan, declaring he was dying. He had reached the limit of his endurance.

Greatly discouraged, I rowed on until I could row no longer - my brain was bursting, my senses reeling. My parched and swollen tongue seemed to big for my mouth - even breathing was a suffocating torment, causing sharp stabbing pains around my heart. My body and limbs were like cold lead, burning darts were shooting through my arms and shoulder blades. The hunger pangs had gone but I had an awful sinking feeling which I cannot describe. It seemed that my stomach was tearing away from my backbone where it seemed to be fastened with hot screws. I could neither go farther - nor keep my heavy eyes open longer. Before lying down, somehow I fastened a signal to one of the paddles which I raised and secured to the mast hole. then I slept into the night.

When I awoke I saw two lights on the land far, far away on Pass Island, Hermitage Bay (as I learned later). I called to Albert and, getting no answer, crawled over and tried to rouse him. He was cold but not rigid; I could feel no heart beat. I lifted his body a little to get the small compass from his pocket as I wanted to get the bearings of the lights. And it was when I was gently laying him down again that I believe the long low sigh he gave was his last breath.

My unfortunate companion in misery was gone and I was alone with his dead body. Then it was that I looked up and thought of God looking down. I prayed to Him to have mercy on Albert Goddard's soul and to spare me to reach land and tell the tale. I felt better somehow, after this prayer and had a feeling that I was going to be saved. But there was yet much to endure.

The morning of the 25th broke darkly and drearily. there was no wind, the fog was thick and there was a big sea running after the storm. I took to the oars but, although I steered by the compass, I missed the land and rowed until I was exhausted. My mind was busy and as I thought of ways and means of preserving my life I remembered that I had head a man could quench his thirst with his own blood. I resolved to make the test. Cutting a gash in my arm with my knife, drinking the blood which flowed really did me good and certainly lessened the agony of my consuming thirst. I rested part of the day and rowed part, but made no land and when night came I stretched out and slept fitfully until the next day.

The body of my companion did not disturb me. I felt glad that his sufferings were over and quite certain that all would end well with me. During the night a heavy dew fell and carefully collected all I could in the folds of Goddard's oilskin - I drank and licked up every drop, never was water sweeter. It was all too little but certainly this 'dew from heaven' helped save my life and I was grateful.

The day slowly passed. I rowed awhile and rested awhile until nightfall. I decided to sleep as much as I could in order to be as fresh and strong as possible for the next day - I had a hunch it would bring me to the end of my trial and trouble. Early on the 28th I awoke - it was a beautiful morning, the sun was shining brightly just above the eastern horizon; the fog was gone. There was no wind and, what was best of all, land was all around. I fancied I could even make out some houses and almost shouted with joy. At once I began to row steadily for the nearest land, a small uninhabited island (southeast rock off Ramea).

Here, however, owing to the heavy sea heaving in, I could not land and had to put to sea again. In doing so I nearly lost heart and hope. There was the water I was dying for, so near but yet out of reach. I think I cried from disappointment and mental pain when I found I could not get ashore. As it turned out, it was well for me that I did not land there for I should probably not have been seen and rescued by the men who picked me up and saved my life later in the day.

I did not row long or far before I lay face down in the dory in order t keep the hot sun from my poor burning, cracked and parched lips. I decided I would lie there until the cool of the day before again attempting to row to land. I do not know how long I lay there. I must have fainted, I think, or it may be that I merely slept. A voice and a shake aroused me - I was saved at last.

My rescuer was William Cutler, a fisherman of Ramea who had sighted what seemed to be a drifting empty dory. It was not long before I came to my senses and in a few words told him who I was and what had happened; I was soon being well cared for in Ramea. The body of my poor mate was placed reverently in a casket and shipped on board the S.S. Grand Lake (the coastal mail boat) to his family, for burial at Burin. Constable White, whose kindness I shall never forget, got me some badly needed clothes at Messrs. Penny & Sons and did all he possibly could for ne, as did Mrs. Cutler, the kind wife of my rescuer, at whose home I spend the night.

I was in a terrible plight; my boots had to be cut from my badly swollen feet and I was in such pain that sleep that night was impossible. It was medical treatment I needed so Mr. Cutler and other friends took me next morning to Burgeo where Dr. McDonald lived. It was a joy to see somebody I knew at the wharf when I landed at Burgeo - Constable Bishop, an old friend, formerly of Bay Roberts, near my home town, who took me to the very comfortable home of Mrs. Samuel and Ralph Gowers. I stayed for twenty-two days with those kind-hearted and friendly people and was well attended by the good doctor under whose skillful treatment I quickly regained my lost vitality. Of course the news that I was lost and found had by this time been received in Spaniards Bay where my friends and particularly by brethren of the L.O.A. Lodge spared nothing to provide for my trip home in comfort.

Before going to Spaniards Bay I went first to Burin to see and sympathize with the family of my dory-mate and to tell the story of the tragedy. I tried to comfort them with the belief that Albert's passing was painless and peaceful, although I knew of course that there must have been a period before he sank into unconsciousness when his sufferings both of mind and body were intolerable. I stayed at Burin for another twenty-two days under Dr. Smith's care, until he pronounced me well enough to travel. I shall never forget or be able to repay the good people of Burin for my recovery.

When I reached Spaniards Bay and home, I was welcomed with a joy too wonderful for words. I was far from well, though, and shortly after my return entered the St. John's General Hospital for treatment. The pain in my feet and legs, never slackening to any extent, was almost more than I could bear. For six weeks I was a patient in the hospital where Dr. Shea and Dr. Rendell opened veins in my legs and arms in order to bleed chilled blood from them. After this operation I had no more hard pain and rapidly regained my strength, and when I was discharged from hospital felt perfectly fit and well.

I am now enjoying the best of health but have never forgotten what I went through back in 1897. One result of my fearful experience is that I am always stirred to the heart when I hear or read stories of sea rescues - my sense of sympathy is so acute the I can almost feel the privations and sufferings of sailors and fishermen who go adrift as I did and are saved in the nick of time.

I still feel profoundly thankful to God for His mercy, not only in bringing me safe to land but in giving me back the full use of all my limbs and faculties. I might easily have become a physical wreck or a hopeless imbecile, one or the other, or both.

            Come all ye hearty fishermen
            And hark to what I say
            About one William Strickland
            Belongs to Spaniards Bay,
            Who left the Lily
            On the banks the 21st of May.
            The wind blew strong, the fog
            Come on while rowing back that day.

            The wind blew strong, the fog come on,
            It was a dismal sight.
            And for six long and lonely days
            And many a dismal night.
            And for three long and lonely days
            When one poor man got weak
            And lay down in the dory,
            With hunger could not speak.

            And Strickland, he being all alone,
            Lay by his dory-mate.
            He found his strength fast giving out
            To share his comrade's fate.
            And just as he gave up all hopes
            And lay down for to die,
            William Cutler from Ramea
            The castaways did spy.

            They the took Strickland from the boat
            And cared for him kind and well,
            And brought him into Burgeo
            For his sad tale to tell,
            To see his friends and home once more,
            And gave his Maker thanks.
            Snatched from the very jaws of death
            While fishing on the banks.


Back to: The Treasury of Newfoundland Stories Menu

This page transcribed by James Butler, 2000
REVISED: August 2002 (Terry Piercey)

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