The gale of 1929

The Compass - - SPORTS - Bur­ton K. Janes bur­tonj@nfld.net

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 bur­tonj@nfld.net

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