Novel chron­i­cles wrecks along ‘Calamity Coast’

The Compass - - S22, - Harold N. Wal­ters

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?

Pony Ex­press

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.

Hard times

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: gh­wal­ters@per­sona.ca

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