The gale of 1929
The tale of the wreck of the Catherine B, a vessel that left St. John’s for Hant’s Harbour in 1929 and ended up in Rotterdam, continues to attract keen interest every time it is told.
The story holds special meaning for me personally because the captain, Ellis Janes, was my first cousin twice removed.
Gary Collins, the author of several well-received books, including The Last Farewell: The Loss of the Collett, Soulis Joe’s Lost Mine: A Newfoundland Memoir, Where Eagles Lie Fallen: The Crash of Arrow Air Flight 1285, Gander, Newfoundland, and Mattie Mitchell: A Biography of Newfoundland’s Greatest Frontiersman, has again put his pen to paper, this time writing what he calls “a true story of adventure on the high seas.”
According to the publisher, “On the night of Nov. 29, 1929, 11 schooners set sail for home from the comfort and safety of St. John’s harbour. They all headed north: directly into the teeth of a deadly hurricane.” In his latest literary offering, Collins gives the biographies of the Water Sprite, Northern Light, Gander Deal, Merry Widow, Catherine B, Janie E. Blackwood, George K, Effie May Petite, Lloyd Jack, Jennie Florence and Neptune II.
The author takes the reader “aboard each one in turn to witness the terrifying ferocity of a storm at sea through the eyes of the schoonermen who battled it. These interconnected tales ... illustrate the bravery and ingenuity of a lost breed of sailors, whose quick thinking often meant life or death for the whole crew.”
As noted earlier, the vessel that resonates most closely with me is the Catherine B. My siblings and I sat with bated breath as our late father – a Hant’s Harbour native – held us spellbound with stories about this vessel.
Captain Ellis Janes’ first mate was James Loder, his crew members, Wilbert Short and Charlie Green. Fred Short and Frank Strickland were en route to St. John’s to do some shopping. Wesley Short and Freeman Francis had gained passage at the last moment.
In 1963, another Janes – Lemuel W. Janes – then editor of the Newfoundland Quarterly, wrote about the “many stories of the heroic actions of men who go down to the sea in ships.” The story of the Catherine B, he continued, was one “of heroic struggle, not only to save their vessel, but actually to save the lives of those on board such a vessel.”
Collins’ descriptive passages virtually place the reader aboard the respective vessels, bravely fighting the elements along with the crew.
He suggests that “Skipper Janes was taken by surprise at the ferocity of the gale that attacked his boat. It bore down on the ‘Catherine B’ like a thing possessed, shrieking in defiance through the rigging, slamming a scrim of water against her port bow, and veering her away, bowing her before its terrible will. The jib was loosened, but the wind tore it from the hands of two crewman before it could be lowered. It flew over the side and vanished.”
Perhaps the saddest part of the story of the Catherine B is when the port bow of the Dutch ship that rescued the Newfoundlanders hit her starboard bow “like a battering ram, butchering the vessel.” Then, “The body of the ‘Catherine B’ had gone under. The men slowly turned away and headed for the warmth of their new vessel.”
Collins says that he faced “a literary problem” early in the writing of his book. “All 11 schooners left the same harbour on the same day, and all encountered the same storm. The schooners were also, without exception, all powered by sail. My misgivings began after writing about the first couple of vessels. How was I going to tell all similar stories, yet make each of them sail under their own canvas?
“I have tried my very best
to make the tale of each schooner as unique as I believe they all were.”
In this, he has succeeded admirably. The spirit of each vessel battling the gale of 1929 shines through.
If a reviewer were to ask the author and publisher for anything else, it would be photographs of the 11 schooners. I know for a fact that depictions of some of them exist. However, perhaps there are no extant snaps of the others.
— Burton K. Janes lives in Bay Roberts. His column appears in The Compass every week. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org