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25 - An Epic of Hardihood

 

 

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

Tales of hardship and endurance on the part of Newfoundland fishermen have so often been told that they are almost commonplace, but this story must surely take its place among the epics of hardihood and endurance told of those "who go down to the sea in ships and make their living on the Great Waters".

The evening of August 23, 1927, was dark, and murky fog lowered visibility almost to a minimum. Occasional fresh breezes stirred the surface of the waters of Placentia Bay where the little twelve-ton fishing boat belonging to Skipper John Follett and his two sons lay at anchor almost in the centre of the bay. As the evening passed, they discussed the matter of running to the land or staying all night on the fishing ground, but since the wind was not increasing they decided to remain at anchor - a momentous decision for the father and his sons. As they settled the watch for the night, they had little foreboding of the terrible ordeal of suffering and death they would undergo before another twilight would settle over the ocean.

Almost imperceptibly the wind grew stronger and faster, until the waves began tossing furiously, and Skipper John decided sometime before daylight to slip his anchor and run for harbour some twelve miles distant. Running under small sail, the little boat was making good speed in her dash to safety from the furious storm that now was churning the sea into mountainous waves, the like of which are seldom seen in midsummer.

Skipper John Follett, having made a good run, was feeling quite secure, and had just handed the wheel to his eldest son when tragedy struck with all the fury of a fifty-foot mountain of water which crashed down on the little boat, completely submerging her and throwing her on her beam ends. All three men were thrown into the water.

After what must have seemed an eternity, the hull again appeared. As the skipper later described it, she "floated up" under the younger son and himself; they succeeded in catching hold of the rigging, but the other son they never saw again after the sea struck the boat.

Then began the ordeal that can be better imagined than described. There was nothing to give them any shelter while the furious seas broke repeatedly over the now partly submerged hull, covering them completely again and again. Stunned with the shock but without any serious physical injury, they clung tenaciously to their only chance for survival. the spark of hope must have flickered almost to extinction more than once, as at the mercy of tide and wind they drifted they knew not where.

If they caught occasional glimpses of land, it afforded them little comfort, for the nearest land was to windward, and only served to intensify their despair. It is unlikely that they could have seen land at all, because spindrifts blinded their eyes and smote them like whips whenever they were at surface level, which certainly was not often. Whether the agony of shock and fear numbed their emotions can never be known, but hours must have seemed years as they drifted slowly before the wind, slinging with the tenacity of despair to the rigging.

Suddenly to their distracted eyes a new danger appeared; a rock known as the Black Rock over which the seas broke in foaming anger came in view through wraiths of flying spray, directly in the path their little boat was drifting. Those two men must surely have plumbed the depths of despair as they neared the rock. Fortunately, a wave rebounding from the rock caught the derelict boat and swept her around the end of it, and into what it would be almost a misnomer to call safety, but once in the lee of the rock they found the waves breaking over them were less violent and punishing.

As the seemingly interminable day wore to its end, hunger and thirst became the pressing problems. Doubts about how and when their long drift would end began to assail them. Could they hold on to the wreck until they drifted ashore? And if she drifted ashore, how hospitable would the land be to them? Would the raging seas beat them to death on some rocky coast, or would a merciful providence bring them to a smooth strand where they could land in safety despite their enfeebled condition? Extreme exposure and the imminence of almost certain death had taken their toll of the men's strength, and although Skipper Follett claims that throughout that long day of peril not a word was spoken, it seems impossible that no work of hope or encouragement was passed from one to the other in their misery.

If no word was spoken, there is no doubt that many and earnest were the prayers they offer Almighty God to intervene in their behalf, and evidently these prayers were answered. As evening drew to a close, they saw a small island directly in their path. As if by a miracle of mercy, the wreck to which they were clinging turned slowly around as they passed the island, placing the poleheads of the spars over the shore. With what feeble strength they had left, the men clambered over the shrouds to the mast tops and dropped onto dry land, ashore but not yet quite safe, for a small quantity of berries was all the little island offered. Fortunately a box of matches which the son had carried in his pocket would still light, and so they were able to light a fire and dry their clothing. Skipper Follett later stated that the oilskins they were wearing had been scrubbed completely clean of oil by the friction against the rigging to which they had clung.

Sometime afterwards, a passing boat saw their fire and came to their assistance, ending the dreadful ordeal which must have tested the limits of human endurance.

Death, which must have seemed to be staring them in the face throughout that twenty-mile drift in a raging storm, has since claimed both men, and the prayer "God rest their souls" seems a fitting end to lives tested by such hardships.

 

 

Back to: The Treasury of Newfoundland Stories Menu

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

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