Novel chronicles wrecks along ‘Calamity Coast’
A century has passed since the iconic Titanic rammed an iceberg and sank 153 kilometers south of Cape Race, Newfound land . Although subtitled “Stories From The Coast That Sank The Titanic,” author Robert C. Parsons does not highlight that particular wreck, albeit the most renown tragedy connected with the Calamity Coast.
“Cape Race” [Flanker Press] is a collection of several dozen stories about disasters that occurred — particularly in the latter part of the 1800s and the early decades of the twentieth century — in the vicinity of the hapless cape.
Likely there is no family in this province that doesn’t have a shipwreck story in its history. Fortunately, not all family stories end in tragedy.
Mine, for instance. As well as not being a dog person, neither am Ia seafarer. I don’t know a mizzenmast from a jib boom — whatever they are. My maternal grandfather, however, went to sea as a young man and had the misfortune of being wrecked on the Calamity Coast. Laden with a load of salt from Oporto, the ship on which he crewed foundered on the rocks off Cappahayden. Grandfather — then a boy, of course — went overboard wearing only the worsted drawers his mother had knitted him before he sailed.
No lives were lost in that wreck and like other survivors on that ill-stared coast, after making it to shore they straggled along sheep paths until they encountered livyers.
Don’t ask me the name of the schooner. If it was ever in my noggin it has long since sunk to the bottom. P’raps Mammy or an aged uncle might still remember. I’ll ask when I see one or the other. [Nope, Mammy doesn’t remember.] As you’d expect, Cape Race focuses on the details of shipwrecks, but incidentally, as is the case in all such tales, interesting anecdotal oddities float among the flotsam. For example, the book answers this question: What is the connection between Cape Race the infamous headland, the Pony Express and Guglielmo Marconi?
Thanks to Marconi, Cape Race had a telegraph and, therefore, could send The News westward, eventually to the United States. Ships sailing past the cape hove canisters overboard containing news stories from Europe. Waiting seamen fished them from the waves. Once ashore the news was telegraphed up to The States, eventually reaching the end of the telegraph line in Missouri. There, the Pony Express rider stuffed hard copies into his saddlebags and tanned ‘er for “media-starved” California. Interesting scrap of history, eh b’ys? A trio of villains waylaid shipping along the Calamity Coast — fog, tide, rocks. Impenetrable fog shrouded the coastline and insidious tides pulled unsuspecting vessels onto the rocks.
The people dwelling in the area risked their own lives to rescue the shipwrecked passengers and crews of broken ships, oftentimes preventing complete disasters: “There is probably no coast in the world where wrecked seamen are rescued with so great a disregard of danger to the rescuers, more hospitably received, more generously pitied and more heartily sped on their way.” [Harpers Monthly Magazine—april 1912.]
There’s a sour note, however: “Sped on their way so that the livyers can get to wrecks.”
Ah, enter the wreckers — wrackers in the vernacular — who flock like harpies to crippled ships to strip them of salvageable cargo before official salvors arrived.
Not scavengers in their own eyes, the wrackers depended — kinda — on pilfered cargo. Remember, those were legendary hard times, and it was only partly facetious for some livyer to quip, “Where there’s fog, there’s hope,” and for a local priest to say in the face of an impending rough winter that his village would tough it out “with the help of God and a few good wrecks.”
Pirates or simple plunders, the wrackers retrieved some unusual booty: dressed geese from the George Cromwell; barrels of apples from the Loyalist; thousands of bottles of beer from the Bassilour.
The beer from the Bassilour sunk to the bottom. Retrieving it was barely a challenge for innovative wrackers. Splitting the ends of fence rails, they fashioning forkeyed sticks resembling clothespins. Probing the bottom where beer bottles lay as thick as caplin, they nipped bottles in the pinchers and poled them to the surface. Dare I say, like fellers landing flatfish?
Oh, p’raps grandfather wasn’t the only family member to endure shipwreck near Cape Race. Captain Samuel Walters lost the Bay State on the Calamity Shore. He was an unknown Boston cousin — prob’ly.
Thank you for reading.
Harold Walters writes from Dunville. He can be reached by email at the following: email@example.com