Re­call­ing a har­row­ing ad­ven­ture aboard the Nep­tune

The Compass - - OPINION -

One of the great an­nual rit­u­als in New­found­land, stretch­ing back to our very ear­li­est days, was the drive each fall to en­sure that com­mu­ni­ties along the north­east coast had ad­e­quate pro­vi­sions for the win­ter. There were no roads to many of those com­mu­ni­ties and the branch rail­roads built in the early 1900s served only por­tions of the long coast­line.

The rail­way coastal boats met some of the need, but could not pos­si­bly move the vol­ume of pro­vi­sions and other freight that would be needed in the long months of win­ter, when nav­i­ga­tion was closed. And so each fall hun­dreds of schooners brought that year’s pro­duc­tion of salt fish to St. John’s, loaded up with pro­vi­sions, and made their way to com­mu­ni­ties all along the north­east coast as far north as St. An­thony and the sur­round­ing set­tle­ments. By the 1920s, many of those ves­sels had en­gines; but many more, per­haps the ma­jor­ity, were pow­ered only by sails.

New­found­land’s coast is rock­bound and treach­er­ous, and storms and gales are com­mon. Many scores of those ves­sels came to grief and many of the sea­men who manned them per­ished.

There are many tales of ship­wrecks and dan­ger, and many sto­ries of hero­ism and in­spired lead­er­ship. But no story of those men and that era matches that of Capt. Job Bar­bour and his Nep­tune, a three-masted schooner driven only by sails.

En­thralling ac­count

The story is well-known: Bar­bour wrote an ex­ten­sive ac­count of it in “Forty-Eight Days Adrift,” pub­lished in Eng­land in 1932. An en­thralling ac­count of courage and re­source­ful­ness, the book is one of the clas­sic ac­counts of New­found­land’s past.

Nep­tune’s story can be summed up briefly in a few para­graphs. Early in Novem­ber 1932 she car­ried a load of salt fish from her home port of New­town to St. John’s. Af­ter dis­charg­ing her cargo, she took aboard a full load of pro­vi­sions, and on Nov. 29, she sailed through the Nar­rows bound for home, about 100 nau­ti­cal miles away.

There were 11 peo­ple aboard her that evening — Capt. Bar­bour and his five crew­men, to­gether with five pas­sen­gers. One of the pas­sen­gers was a woman, Mrs. Humphries, whose hus­band was the ship’s bo­sun. Soon af­ter the lit­tle ves­sel left St. John’s she was over­taken by a southerly gale which grew into “a steady and se­vere snow­storm.” The gale con­tin­ued throughout the night and the next day. One of her sails and the boom which car­ried it were swept away.

“Each steers­man in turn was lashed to the wheel for an hour only. It was too cold for hu­man flesh to stay there any longer,” Bar­bour re­called.

Blown east­ward

The wind then came round to the west, and by early morn­ing on Dec. 1, their third day at sea, Bar­bour and her crew were 150 miles north­east of Cape Bon­av­ista, and had “over­shot our home port, New­town, by 120 miles.” As the ship had no engine, Bar­bour and his crew had no choice ex­cept sim­ply to run be­fore it. They were blown steadily east­wards.

On Dec. 30, Bar­bour de­cided that he could not pos­si­bly sail back to New­found­land and de­cided in­stead to make for the British Isles.

They made their land­fall on Jan. 14, but had no idea where they were; they thought they were in the Engl ish Chan­nel , but in­stead were just off the north­ern coast of Scot­land. A day later, a light­house ten­der ves­sel towed them into Tober­mory. For the first time in 48 days, they stood on land.

But the full story of how Capt. Bar­bour and those aboard the Nep­tune sur­vived their or­deal is even more dra­matic.

Chance en­counter

On Dec. 12, far out in the north­west At­lantic, the Nep­tune’s crew spot­ted a steamer. “We lost no time in sig­nalling her,” Bar­bour recorded, “and, thank Prov­i­dence for the ethics of the sea, she di­rected a course straight for us and came along­side.”

The ship was the Cedric, a large pas­sen­ger liner of the White Star line. She came along­side Nep­tune, but heavy swells pre­vented Bar­bour from climb­ing up the lad­der that her crew let down. In­stead, they ex­changed mes­sages. Bar­bour asked her cap­tain to send a tele­gram to New­town, to tell the peo­ple there that the Nep­tune had not been sunk, and her cap­tain gave Bar­bour, as re­quested, their lat­i­tude and lon­gi­tude. Bar­bour, his crew and his pas­sen­gers made no at­tempt to aban­don their ves­sel, and so the Cedric steamed away.

The most dra­matic twist to the en­tire story was as they ap­proached the coast of Scot­land. The ves­sel that towed them to har­bour, the Hes­pe­rus, had been or­dered to make an emer­gency trip to Saint Kilda, a nearby is­land, to bring a doc­tor to visit a dy­ing woman. But a kindly fate, the first en­coun­tered by Nep­tune in nearly seven weeks, in­ter­vened.

When all were safe ashore, the cap­tain of the Hes­pe­rus told Bar­bour that: “I would not go and leave you fly­ing your dis­tress sig­nal, so I turned my ship and came to your as­sis­tance, but I had no thought that you had been out on the At­lantic Ocean, and es­pe­cially blown across from New­found­land … I knew your ves­sel would be a wreck be­fore morn­ing, and to run the risk of los­ing 11 lives to save one was un­fair, so the doc­tor and I agreed that we would change course and tow you into Tober­mory.”

Has the bib­li­cal story of the good Sa­mar­i­tan ever been bet­ter ex­em­pli­fied?

In­sur­ance short­com­ings

But the ul­ti­mate irony came months later. Nep­tune’s own­ers had in­sured her, through Lloyds. But the un­der­writ­ers there re­fused to pay the cost of re­pair­ing her, be­cause the in­sur­ance was only against a to­tal loss. They did agree, how­ever, to pay the bill — just un­der $60 New­found­land cur­rency — to the North­ern Light­house Ser­vice, the own­ers of the Hes­pe­rus.

Had Capt. Bar­bour aban­doned her in mid-At­lantic, and had he, and his pas­sen­gers and crew gone home aboard the Cedric, the lit­tle Nep­tune would have been a to­tal loss and Lloyds would have had to pay her own­ers the full value of the pol­icy — $8,000.

Seven schooners left St. John’s on Nov. 29. Six of the ves­sels, but for­tu­nately only one life, were lost in the gale that swept the Nep­tune out to sea and across the At­lantic. The Nep­tune saga, how­ever, had a happy end­ing. Re­paired in Scot­land, she re­turned to New­town in April, pow­ered by a newly-in­stalled engine.

New­found­land has known many great sea­men, men of courage and skill, but none has ever sur­passed the achieve­ments of Job Bar­bour, the man whose ves­sel was blown across the At­lantic in 48 days.

Ed­ward Roberts has had a life­long in­ter­est in the his­tory of New­found­land and Labrador. He was an MHA for 23 years, and served as the prov­ince’s lieu­tenant-gover­nor from 2002 to 2008. He can be

reached by email at the fol­low­ing: ed­wardm­roberts@gmail.com

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