Baddeck-born Lou Boudreau recounts a harrowing tale on the high sea during WWI.
Part One – On the Grand Banks
The Sylvania was a fine schooner by all accounts. A big vessel at 161 feet overall. She was one of the famous Indian headers designed by Thomas Mcmanus and built in Gloucester. Her Captain, Jeff Thomas from Arichat, Nova Scotia was well known along the Gloucester waterfront as a top fisherman and one of the best schooner men alive.
In early August 1918, the Sylvania left Yarmouth bound for the banks of Newfoundland to fish for cod and halibut. It was a fair day with a fine southeasterly breeze when. Capt. Thomas rounded her up a mile or so off Yarmouth Harbor and the crew set sail starting with her main then foresail, jumbo and jib. The mate ordered them crew to coil down, and the captain put her on a north-easterly course. Soon the big schooner was rolling slowly to a low swell as she made her way under four lowers.
Her crew were at ease and they knew that this was the best of times. When all was squared away, they lounged in the lee of the aft deck house and smoked their pipes and chewed tobacco. They spoke of great catches on the banks of Newfoundland and huge cod that they had jigged there. All experienced men, rugged and hard as only a schooner dory man can be.
Two days passed and the Sylvania took a slant away from the land when she was at the latitude of northern Cape Breton. Some hundreds of miles ahead lay the edge of the great banks of Newfoundland where she was bound. Once there, the skipper Jeff Thomas would either anchor his schooner with a long rope rode or heave too and launch the two man dories
It was a scene played out on the Grand Banks a thousand times before. For one hundred years or more, men from the eastern seaboard of Gloucester and Nova Scotia sailed their schooners to what was known as the finest fishing grounds in the world. The schooners were tall sparred and good sailers, able to get to the banks and then return laden with cod while taking on the worst that the great north Atlantic threw at them. Once the vessels arrived over the shallow banks, the two man dories would leave the ship and they would row out a few miles to set their baited long lines with 150 hooks or more before standing by for a few hours to give the cod time to bite. During this time the dory man would unroll their shorter jigging lines and lower them over the side of the dory to jig for cod.
These men knew their trade well and they looked forward to the challenges that lay had. There were no men tougher than these. However, unbeknownst to the crew of the Sylvania, fate had already set the stage for a deadly challenge against the sea. The crew of the Sylvania could not know that they would be fighting a battle for their lives against the great Atlantic. Hundreds of their fellow dory men over the years and decades had perished in this trade and the situation that was unfolding over the horizon ahead of them would test the brave seamen of the Sylvania to the limit and her crew would need to draw on bravery and strength in the coming days
It was April 14, 1918 a fateful day to be sure. The dawn broke clear and the weather proved to be holding for yet another fine day at sea. The big schooner was making a fast passage of it to the banks when the forward starboard look out let out a cry.
“Submarine off to starboard” he called aft.
Capt. Thomas walked quickly forward and put his hand to his brow and peered to the northeast. The rest of the crew followed him to the rail and followed the lookouts raised arm.
Sure enough a grey hulled submarine was on the surface steaming towards them. Capt. Thomas knew right away that this meant trouble. He walked back to the helm.
“Hold her steady now” he told the helmsman
“Aye skipper,” he said handing a spoke to the starboard
At perhaps 700 yards, the submarines forward deck gun barked and a pillar of water rose ahead of the Sylvania. It was a warning shot to be sure, but Captain Thomas and his crew were left in no doubt as to its meaning.
“Lower away from forward,” he shouted.
The brave crew of the Sylvania went about their task with great uncertainty in their hearts. They leapt to the sheets and halyards to lower away the sails as they had done so many times in the past. Many of her brave crew might’ve guessed that this could be the last time.
With canvas stowed the Sylvania lay rolling in the slow Atlantic swell, her masts tracing a wide arc across the sky. Capt. Thomas ordered a dory launched, and he and two others boarded and rowed to the submarine. The German captain appeared in the conning tower and a brief conversation ensued.
“What is your cargo?” the commander asked.
We have no cargo, we’re bound for the fishing grounds to fish for cod,” Capt. Thomas replied.
“I must sink your ship,” the German commander stated. “I will give you 10 minutes to get off your ship.”
Capt. Thomas and his two crew members rowed back to the Sylvania and came along her lee side.
“All right boys, they’re going to sink her. They’ve given us ten minutes, so grab what you can. Get what water you can and launch two more dories.” he ordered.
The crew of the Sylvania launched two more dories and loaded them with what meagre water and supplies they were able. Then they rowed slowly away from the proud schooner for the last time. They watched as the Germans launched a small boat from a deck hatch and rowed to the Sylvania. Some of the submarine’s men went aboard and left after perhaps ten minutes. After another 15 minutes or so, Capt. Thomas and his crew heard a massive explosion and the Sylvania, a once proud Gloucester schooner was ripped in half and sunk in a matter of moments.
To be continiued...
The Schooner Sylvania.