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With The Fleet

( Originally Published 1905 )



IN the early spring—when the sunlight is yellow and the warm winds blow and the melting snow drips over the cliffs and runs in little rivulets from the barren hills—in the thousand harbours of Newfoundland the great fleet is made ready for the long adventure upon the Labrador coast. The rocks echo the noise of hammer and saw and mallet and the song and shout of the workers. The new schooners—building the winter long at the harbour side—are hurried to completion. The old craft—the weather-beaten, ragged old craft, which, it may be, have dodged the reefs and out-lived the gales of forty seasons—are fitted with new spars, patched with new canvas and rope, calked anew, daubed anew and, thus refitted, float brave enough on the quiet harbour water. There is no end to the bustle of labour on ships and nets—no end to the clatter of planning. From the skipper of the ten-ton First Venture, who sails with a crew of sons bred for the purpose, to the powerful dealer who supplies on shares a fleet of seventeen fore-and-afters manned from the harbours of a great bay, there is hope in the hearts of all. Whatever the last season, every man is to make a good "voyage" now. This season—this season—there is to be fish a-plenty on the Labrador !

The future is bright as the new spring days. Aunt Matilda is to have a bonnet with feathers—when Skipper Thomas gets home from the Labrador. Little Johnny Tatt, he of the crooked back, is to know again the virtue of Pike's Pain Compound, at a dollar a bottle, warranted to cure—when daddy gets home from the Labrador. Skipper Bill's Lizzie, plump, blushing, merry-eyed, is to wed Jack Lute o' Burnt Arm—when Jack comes back from the Labrador. Every man's heart, and, indeed, most men's fortunes, are in the venture. The man who has nothing has yet the labour of his hands. Be he skipper, there is one to back his skill and honesty ; be he hand, there is no lack of berths to choose from. Skippers stand upon their record and schooners upon their reputation; it's take your choice, for the hands are not too many : the skippers are timid or bold, as God made them ; the schooners are lucky or not, as Fate deter-mines. Every man has his chance. John Smith o' Twillingate provisions the Lucky Queen and gives her to the penniless Skip-per Jim o' Yellow Tickle on shares. Old Tom Tatter o' Salmon Cove, with plea and argument, persuades the Four Arms trader to trust him once again with the Busy Bee. He'll get the fish this time. Nar a doubt of it ! He'll be home in August—this year —loaded to the gunwale. God knows who pays the cash when the fish fail ! God knows how the folk survive the disappointment ! It is a great lottery of hope and fortune.

When, at last, word comes south that the ice is clearing from the coast, the vessels spread their little wings to the first favouring winds; and in a week—two weeks or three—the last of the Labradormen have gone " down north."

Dr. Grenfell and his workers find much to do among these men and women and children.

At Indian Harbour where the Strathcona lay at anchor, I went aboard the schooner Jolly Crew. It was a raw, foggy day, with a fresh northeast gale blowing, and a high sea running outside the harbour. They were splitting fish on deck; the skiff was just in from the trap—she was still wet with spray.

" I sails with me sons an' gran'sons, zur," said the skipper, smiling. " Sure, I be a old feller t' be down the Labrador, isn't I, zur ? "

He did not mean that. He was proud of his age and strength—glad that he was still able "t' be at the fishin'."

"'Tis a wonder you've lived through it all," said I.

He laughed. "An' why, zur ?" he asked. "Many's the ship wrecked on this coast," I answered.

"Oh no, zur," said he ; "not so many, zur, as you might think. Down this way, zur, we knows how t' sail ! "

That was a succinct explanation of very much that had puzzled me.

"Ah, well," said I, "'tis a hard life." " Hard ? " he asked, doubtfully.

"Yes," I answered ; "'tis a liard life—the fishin'."

"Oh no, zur," said he, quietly, looking up from his work. "'Tis just—just life ! "

They do, indeed, know how "t' sail." The Newfoundland government, niggardly and utterly independable when the good of the fisherfolk is concerned, of whatever complexion the government may chance to be, but prodigal to an extraordinary degree when individual self-interests are at stake—this is a delicate way of putting an unpleasant truth,—keeps no light burning beyond the Strait of Belle Isle ; the best it does, I believe, is to give wrecked seamen free pas-sage home. Under these difficult circumstances, no seamen save Newfoundlanders, who are the most skillful and courageous of all, could sail that coast : and they only be-cause they are born to follow the sea—there is no escape for them—and are bred to sailing from their earliest years.

" What you going to be when you grow up ? " I once asked a lad on the far north-east coast.

He looked at me in vast astonishment.

" What you going to be, what you going to do," I repeated, " when you grow up ? "

Still he did not comprehend. " Eh ? " he said.

" What you going to work at," said I, in desperation, " when you're a man ? "

" Oh, zur," he answered, understanding at last, " I isn't clever enough t' be a parson ! "

And so it went without saying that he was to fish for a living ! It is no wonder, then, that the skippers of the fleet know "how t' sail." The remarkable quality of the sea-captains who come from among them impressively attests the fact—not only their quality as sailors, but as men of spirit and proud courage. There is one—now a captain of a coastal boat on the Newfoundland shore—who takes his steamer into a ticklish harbour of a thick, dark night, when every-thing is black ahead and roundabout, steering only by the echo of the ship's whistle ! There is another, a confident seaman, a bluff, high-spirited fellow, who was once delayed by bitter winter weather—an inky night, with ice about, the snow flying, the seas heavy with frost, the wind blowing a gale.

" Where have you been ?" they asked him, sarcastically, from the head office.

The captain had been on the bridge all night.

" Berry-picking," was his laconic despatch in reply.

There is another—also the captain of a coastal steamer—who thought it wise to lie in harbour through a stormy night in the early winter.

" What detains you? " came a message from the head office.

" It is not a fit night for a vessel to be at sea," the captain replied ; and thereupon he turned in, believing the matter to be at an end.

The captain had been concerned for his vessel—not for his life; nor yet for his comfort. But the underling at the head office misinterpreted the message.

" What do we pay you for ? " he telegraphed.

So the captain took the ship out to sea. Men say that she went out of commission the next day, and that it cost the company a thousand dollars to refit her.

"A dunderhead," say the folk, "can catch, fish ; but it takes a man t' find un." It is a chase ; and, as the coast proverb has it, " the fish have no bells." It is estimated that there are 7,000 square miles of fishing-banks off the Labrador coast. There will be fish somewhere—not everywhere; not every man will " use his salt" (the schooners go north loaded with salt for curing) or "get his load." In the beginning—this is when the ice first clears away—there is a race for berths. It takes clever, reckless sailing and alert action to secure the best. I am reminded of a skipper who by hard driving to windward and good luck came first of all to a favourable harbour. It was then night, and his crew was weary, so he put off running out his trap-leader until morning ; but in the night the wind changed, and when he awoke at dawn there were two other schooners lying quietly at anchor near by and the berths had been " staked." When the traps are down, there follows a period of anxious waiting. Where are the fish? There are no telegraph-lines on that coast. The news must be spread by word of mouth. When, at last, it comes, there is a sudden change of plan—a wild rush to the more favoured grounds.

It is in this scramble that many a skipper makes his great mistake. I was talking with a disconsolate young fellow in a northern harbour where the fish were running thick. The schooners were fast loading ; but he had no berth, and was doing but poorly with the passing days.

"If I hadn't—if I only hadn't—took up me trap when I did," said he, " I'd been loaded an' off home. Sure, zur, would you believe it ? but I had the berth off the point. Off the point—the berth off the point ! " he repeated, earnestly, his eyes wide. " An', look ! I hears they's a great run o' fish t' Cutthroat Tickle. So I up with me trap, for I'd been gettin' nothin'; an'—an'—would you believe it ? but the man that put his down where I took mine up took a hundred quintal out o' that berth next marnin'! An' he'll load," he groaned, " afore the week's out ! "

1 A quintal is, roughly, a hundred pounds. One hundred quintals of green fish are equal, roughly, to thirty of dry, which, at $3, would amount to $90.

When the fish are running, the work is mercilessly hard ; it is kept up night and day ; there is no sleep for man or child, save, it may be, an hour's slumber where they toil, just before dawn. The schooner lies at anchor in the harbour, safe enough from wind and sea; the rocks, surrounding the basin in which she lies, keep the harbour water placid forever. But the men set the traps in the open sea, somewhere off the heads, or near one of the outlying islands ; it may be miles from the anchorage of the schooner. They put out at (lawn—before dawn, rather ; for they aim to be at the trap just when the light is strong enough for the hauling. When the skiff is loaded, they put back to harbour in haste, throw the fish on deck, split them, salt them, lay them neatly in the hold, and put out to the trap again. I have seen the harbours—then crowded with fishing-craft--fairly ablaze with light at midnight. Torches were flaring on the decks and in the turf hut on the rocks ashore. The night was quiet; there was not a sound from the tired workers ; but the flaring lights made known that the wild, bleak, far-away place—a basin in the midst of barren, uninhabited hills—was still astir with the day's work.

At such times, the toil at the oars, and at the splitting-table,' whether on deck or in the stages—and the lack of sleep, and the icy winds and cold salt spray—is all bitter cruel to suffer. The Labrador fisherman will not readily admit that he lives a hard life ; but if you suggest that when the fish are running it may be somewhat more toil-some than lives lived elsewhere, he will grant you something.

"Oh, ay," he'll drawl, "when the fish is runnin', 'tis a bit hard."

I learned from a child—he was merry, brave, fond of the adventure—that fishing is a pleasant business in the sunny midsummer months ; but that when, late in the fall, the skiff puts out to the trap at dawn, it is wise to plunge one's hands deep in the water before taking the oars, no matter how much it hurts, for one's wrists are then covered with salt-water sores and one's palms are cracked, even though one take the precaution of wearing a brass chain—that, oh, yes ! it is wise to plunge one's hands in the cold water, as quick as may be ; for thus one may "limber 'em up " be-fore the trap is reached.

"'Tis not hard, now," said he. " But, oh—oo--oo! when the big nor'easters blow! Oo—oo I" he repeated, with a shrug and a sage shake of the head ; "'tis won-der-ful hard those times ! "

The return is small. The crews are comprised of from five to ten men, with, occasionally, a sturdy maid for cook, to whom is given thirty dollars for her season's work ; some old hands will sail on no ship with a male cook, for, as one of them said, " Sure, some o' thim min can't boil water without burnin' it ! " A good season's catch is one hundred quintals of dry fish a man. A simple calculation—with some knowledge of certain factors which I need not state—makes it plain that a man must himself catch, as his share of the trap, 30,000 fish if he is to net a living wage. If his return is $250 he is in the happiest fortune—richly rewarded, beyond his dreams, for his summer's work. One-half of that is sufficient to give any modest man a warm glow of content and pride. Often—it depends largely upon chance and the skill of his skipper—the catch is so poor that he must make the best of twenty-five or thirty dollars. It must not be supposed that the return is always in cash; it is usually in trade, which is quite a different thing—in Newfoundland.

The schooners take many passengers north in the spring. Such are called "freighters" on the coast; they are put ashore at such harbours as they elect, and, for passage for themselves, families, and gear, pay upon the return voyage twenty-five cents for every hundredweight of fish caught. As a matter of course, the vessels are preposterously overcrowded. Dr. Grenfell tells of counting thirty-four men and sixteen women (no mention was made of children) aboard a nineteen-ton schooner, then on the long, rough voyage to the north. The men fish from the coast in small boats just as the more prosperous "green-fish catchers" put out from the schooners. Meantime, they live in mud huts, which are inviting or otherwise, as the women-folk go ; some are damp, cave-like, ill-savoured, crowded; others are airy, cozy, the floors spread deep with powdered shell, the whole immaculately kept. When the party is landed, the women sweep out the last of the winter's snow, the men build great fires on the floors ; indeed, the huts are soon ready for occupancy. At best, they are tiny places—much like children's playhouses. There was once a tall man who did not quite fit the sleeping place assigned to him ; but with great good nature he cut a hole in the wall, built a miniature addition for his feet, and slept the summer through at comfortable full length. It is a great outing for the children ; they romp on the rocks, toddle over the nearer hills, sleep in the sunshine ; but if they are eight years old, as one said—or well grown at five or seven—they must do their little share of work.

Withal, the Labradormen are of a simple, God-fearing, clean-lived, hardy race of men. There was once a woman who made boast of her high connection in England, as women will the wide world over; and when she was questioned concerning the position the boasted relative occupied, replied, " Oh, he's Superintendent o' Foreign Governments!" There was an austere old Christian who on a Sunday morning left his trap —his whole fortune—lie in the path of a destroying iceberg rather than desecrate the Lord's day by taking it out of the water. Both political parties in Newfoundland shamelessly deceive the credulous fisherfolk; there was a childlike old fellow who, when asked, "And what will you do if there is no fish?" confidently answered : "Oh, they's goin' t' be a new Gov'ment. He'll take care o' we ! " There was a sturdy son of the coast who deserted his schooner at sea and swam ashore. But he had mistaken a barren island for the main land, which was yet far off ; and there he lived, without food, for twenty-seven days ! When he was picked up, his condition was such as may not be described (the Labrador fly- is a vicious insect) ; he was unconscious, but he survived to fish many another season.

The mail-boat picked up Skipper Thomas of Carbonear—then master of a loaded schooner—at a small harbour near the Straits. His crew carried him aboard ; for he was desperately ill, and wanted to die at home, where his children were.

"He's wonderful bad," said one of the men. "He've consumption."

" I'm just wantin' t' die at home," he said, again and again. "Just that—just where my children be ! "

All hearts were with him in that last struggle—but no man dared hope ; for the old skipper had already beaten off death longer than death is wont to wait, and his strength was near spent.

"Were you sick when you sailed for the Labrador in the spring ? " they asked him.

"Oh, ay," said he ; "I were terrible bad then."

"Then why," they said—" why did you come at all ? "

They say he looked up in mild surprise. "I had t' make me livin'," he answered, simply.

His coffin was knocked together on the forward deck next morning—with Carbonear a day's sail beyond.

The fleet goes home in the early fall. The schooners are loaded—some so low with the catch that the water washes into the scuppers. " You could wash your hands on her deck," is the skipper's proudest boast. The feat of seamanship, I do not doubt, is not elsewhere equalled. It is an inspiring sight to see the doughty little craft beating into the wind on a gray day. The harvesting of a field of grain is good to look upon; but I think that there can be no more stir-ring sight in all the world, no sight more quickly to melt a man's heart, more deeply to move him to love men and bless God, than the sight of the Labrador fleet beating home loaded—toil done, dangers past ; the home port at the end of a run with a fair wind. The home-coming, I fancy, is much like the return of the viking ships to the old Norwegian harbours must have been. The lucky skippers strut the village roads with swelling chests, heroes in the sight of all ; the old men, long past their labour, listen to new tales and spin old yarns ; the maids and the lads renew their interrupted love-makings. There is great rejoicing—feasting, merrymaking, hearty thanksgiving.

Thanks be to God, the fleet's home !



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