Baddeck-born Lou Boudreau re­counts a har­row­ing tale on the high sea dur­ing WWI.

Part One – On the Grand Banks

The Victoria Standard - - Front Page - LOU BOUDREAU

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...

Photo cour­tesy of Lou Boudreau.

The Schooner Syl­va­nia.


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