Memories of ‘crossing the Bar’ in Branch
Most readers are familiar with Alfred Lord Tennyson’s poem “Crossing the Bar.” Growing up in Branch in the 50s, my mother recited that poem hundreds of times. By the time I was 10 years old, I was quite familiar with the “moaning of the bar” and seeing “my Pilot face to face.”
Because our house was located on the Hill, with a clear view of the Gut, we had an unobstructed view of what is known in Branch as “coming in over the Bar.” Skiffs, going and coming, to and from the fishing grounds, had to cross this sandbar during the fishing season.
As a child, I was aware that the Bar was a dangerous place, particularly when the seas were rough. I had grown to adulthood before I realized that a sandbar is a ridge of sand built up by currents along a shore. In order to reach the shore, the waves must crash against the sandbar, creating a moaning sound. The wailing noise along with the action of the breakers as well as my mother’s narration from Tennyson had all combined to instill in my childlike heart a deep dread of the Bar.
My father was a fisherman. From spring until fall he plied his trade in and around the waters of St. Mary’s Bay. Once, when he was referring to Cape St. Mary’s, he said, “I spent 60 summers fishing there.” His 60 summers were spent working with a partner, in a small open skiff, driven by a SixAcadia engine. That was it. They had no life jackets, no radios, no safety inspections. If anything went wrong, they had to depend on their own resourcefulness and creativity to bring them safely home. In hindsight, I shudder at the perils they must have faced. However, as a child, the only worry I associated with my father’s livelihood was when his little skiff had to come in over the Bar.
I especially dreaded those days when the wind came up unexpectedly. I can still picture the waves barreling in toward the Easter’ Cove, sending spumes of white foam into the air when they broke against the wharf. Often, I pressed my face against the window pane watching for the skiffs to come into sight. More than once, the sea was breaking too roughly on the Bar. At such times, the skiffs would wait in the cove for the seas to calm a bit. Then, when a window of opportunity presented itself, they would point their bows toward the entrance to the Gut. Only after all the skiffs had crossed the bar and reached the safety of the wharf would I relax my vigil and turn my attention away from the dangers of the windswept ocean.
Looking back on it now, I marvel at the skills and capabilities these fishers possessed. They must have been master mariners, for I cannot remember one single fatality occurring, not in my day anyway. My father lived to be almost 90 years old. When his turn came to embark, he did so peacefully, on a smooth day in May. There was no moaning of the Bar, no tide in the Gut and no whitecaps in the cove. I just know he had a smooth voyage and that he had no qualms about meeting his Pilot “face to face.”