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54 - Flag on the Hill



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

The flag had just gone up on the hill signifying a sailing vessel was off the narrows in need of a tug. the "hill" was Signal Hill, and the flag was usually a house flag of the firm or agent for the vessel and flown from Cabot Tower. It was the signal to the tug boats in the harbour that a vessel was due.

On board the double deck tug "Hugh D" tied up at the wharf, all was peaceful and quiet. The skipper, "Duke" Rose, better known as Capt. Duke, was in his cabin having forty winks when the call came from the mate, "Flag on the hill, cap'n". Capt.. Duke jumped from his bunk and went out on deck, glasses in hand. Focusing them on the hill, he soon identified the flag as a signal from a "coaster", a local two-master from the French shore.

"Cast off your lines, Wattie", he ordered the mate. "Where are those two sons of mine? Tell them to stay put and out of the way", he ordered as he went into the wheelhouse.

His two young sons - as it was Saturday, and no school - had been playing around the decks all day, and were now in the galley, nibbling on dipped in molasses, cribbed from a puncheon on a nearby wharf.

In no time the sound of the engine-room bells were heard, as the captain rang to go astern. Down the harbour the "John Green", a rival tug with Jakie Button as master, was also backing out from the wharf. As the "Hugh D" swung out, the skipper rang for full speed ahead, and soon was racing down the harbour, the "John Green" in pursuit.

Rivalry between these two tugs was very keen, times being bad, and things very slow. Usually the old "Hugh D" would get there first, having been fitted a few years previously with a special type of double-blade propeller known as the Pike propeller. It afforded an extra knot or two, but was considered useful more for its ability to conserve fuel. However, she was now going all out, and soon passed through the narrows, belching flame and smoke from her funnel.

Behind her, in the "John Green" the fireman was burning everything he could lay his hands on, including a quantity of old crankcase oil, in an effort to get up a head of steam. Flames were shooting ten feet into the air, but the "Hugh D" soon left her far behind.

Beyond Freshwater Bay the skipper sighted the vessel "hanging off the Cape". Cape Spear was about four miles from the narrows. If she needs a tug when she reaches the Cape, a coaster signals Cabot Tower by hoisting the "Jack" at half-mast in her standing rigging and lowering her mainsail (mizzen sail if she's a three-master). then she waits until the tug arrives.

On this particular day, the wind was on the Cape. The master of the vessel kept all his sails on in an effort to keep off shore - nod did he lower his sails when he dighted the tug. Capt. Duke expected him to lower his mainsail, so came up on his windward side, the mate standing by with the heaving line, and the engines on slow. But the vessel sailed right on past, with no more room between them than you could row a dory through.

With a ripping curse Capt. Duke rang for full speed ahead, swung round in a circle, and gave chase. Coming up on her port side, the skipper grabbed the megaphone, and tore out through the wheelhouse door. "Lower your ______ _______ mains'l, you _________ fool", he roared. "What the devil do you think you're into, a ________ _______ _______ race?" he asked.

The coaster was the "Joan and June", from Hare Bay, with a cargo of lumber. Her master failed to make a reply. His crew had lowered the mainsail just as the tug came up with her. She lost her way, her bow swung round, and her bowsprit crashed right into the starboard side of the tug's wheelhouse. Before anyone could move, she raked her from her wheelhouse aft to her boat deck, tearing away about forty feet of her rails, and staving her lifeboat. Her "lifeboat" was no great loss, for it was an old dory, lashed to her top deck more to comply with regulations than with any thought of life-saving purposes. The whole crew knew she wouldn't stay together in a one-knot breeze.

For five minutes the blistering insults from both sides were not enough to fog up the Sahara Desert three months in advance. Out of sight of both skippers, the crews wore wide grins. Among other things, the skipper of the tug accused the master of the "Joan and June" of being a stupid squid-jigging so-and-so of a bayman, who wasn't fit to handle a dory on a Sunday afternoon in a pond.

The captain of the vessel wasn't slow with his compliments, accusing the tug's skipper of being a bull-headed jackass who had no business in coming so close to him in the first place, and especially on this wrong side. He reminded him he had left his wheel unattended.

"You're going to pay for this damage, or stay out here all night", yelled Capt. Duke.

"All right, all right, I'll pay for the damage; only get me out of here, before you sink me", yelled back the skipper of the vessel. "Throw me your line."

The mate of the tug threw the heaving line aboard, and soon they had the tow line on her and made fast. As they steamed in through the narrows the skipper handed over the wheel to the mate while he surveyed the damage and made out his report.

As they came up the harbour the master of the "Joan and June" hailed him. "Come alongside, Capt. Duke, and put me in to the Spaniard's wharf". Capt. Duke hauled to port and stopped until the vessel came abreast and then tied on to her.

"Take the wheel a moment, Wattie, while I go aboard this vessel, and have a talk with the skipper", called Capt. Duke as he left the wheelhouse and climbed over the "Joan and June's" rail. The result of their talk was that the skipper of the vessel threw on the deck of the tug about twenty planks of good sound birch timber.

"To repair our rails with", Capt.. Duke said as the crew looked askance at him. "We'll do it ourselves, seeing as we were partly to blame, and they'll do their own repairs. Besides, we have lost of spare time."

So they tied up to their own wharf, and set to make repairs. His two young sons, who he had forgotten, sneaked ashore and went home. a lot of new words were still ringing in their ears, and they fully intended to try them out on their playmates if they didn't get caught at it.



Back to: The Treasury of Newfoundland Stories Menu

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

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