This is the story of a love affair with a people and a place, of the summers Farley Mowat spent sailing the Newfoundland coast with his wife Claire. It is an affectionate, unforgettable portrait of a time, a people, and a place, as well as the indomitable spirit of this island province.
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Farley Mowat became a writer in 1949 after spending two years in the
Arctic. He is the bestselling author of thirty-nine books, including
Never Cry Wolf, Owls in the Family, The Dog Who Wouldn't Be, and
The Boat Who Wouldn't Float. He and his wife, Claire, divide their
time between Port Hope and River Bourgeois, Nova Scotia.
Such was the nature of the creature that lay awaiting me at dockside when I disembarked at Port aux Basques. Already laden to her marks, the SS Baccalieu was noisily blowing off surplus steam, which veiled her black hull and white-painted upperworks.
She was not going to be crowded on this trip. Instead of her usual complement of a hundred or so passengers, she was carrying only seventy-five. Her blushing young purser, who was new to his job, gave me cabin B on the upper deck. It was a wonder of Victorian elegance gone a little shoddy: creaky wicker chairs, worn Persian carpet, etched glass in the alleyway door, and an enormous English “water closet” almost big enough to serve as a sitz bath.
I had barely taken all this in when the ship’s whistle let out a throaty roar and Baccalieu began to throb with the slow revolution of her great propeller shaft. I rushed on deck to find we were underway; but there was little to see. Night had fallen and the weather was chill and “thick-a-fog,” as a passing deckhand unnecessarily noted. Never mind. I retreated to the snug warmth of my cabin for a good night’s sleep.
It was not to be. At 11:30 p.m. a deckhand knocked hard upon my door to tell me the captain wanted me on the bridge.
Half expecting we would be taking to the lifeboats, I flung on my clothing, hurried across the bridge deck, and entered the wheelhouse — the holy of holies on any ship. A squat figure took shape in the darkness within and introduced himself.
“Ernie Riggs, skipper of this one. Heard you’ve been in the salvage boats out of Halifax. Thought you might like to help us take this old she-cunt into Rose Blanche . . . if we can get in. Nasty little place. Tight as a crab’s arsehole.”
I did not know if the captain was serious or not. There was certainly nothing I could do to help. The night was black as death and the fog almost too thick to breathe. Pretending I wasn’t there, I backed into a corner and watched and listened as Skipper Riggs and the helmsman took Baccalieu through a maze of reefs into an unseen and unseeable little harbour, then laid her alongside a wooden wharf that I never even saw until the lines went ashore and the fog-diffused glow from a lamp on the shore told me we were there.
I remained on the bridge most of the rest of that black night so as not to miss the succeeding episodes of Riggs Dares All — a harrowing life-and-death adventure in real time.
Coming in to La Poille two hours later, Riggs could not have been able to see much farther than the nose on his face. Furthermore, Baccalieu’s searchlight was out of order and her old-fashioned radar useless at close quarters. None of this seemed to concern Riggs as he paced rapidly back and forth, muttering to himself:
“Oh you she-cunt! Where’s she going? Narrow place this . . . very narrow place. Fucking narrow place. Can’t turn her here. Oh hell, s’pose I got to try.”
Then, as the end of a dock miraculously appeared about ten feet off our bows: “Never goin’ to make it. Lard Jesus, not going to make it!”
When people on the dock began yelling that we were going to make a hole in their island, Riggs stepped out on the bridge wing and shouted back:
“What’re you silly fuckers worryin’ about? We’re right as houses! Finest kind!”
With which he pulled the engine telegraph to full astern, and Baccalieu kissed the dock.
An hour later we continued on our way and, with the coming of a pallid dawn, Riggs turned the bridge over to the second mate and took me with him down to the saloon for breakfast.
“You’ll do, Little Man,” he said over his fourth mug of tea. “Long as you knows enough to keep your mouth shut when you’re ignorant, you’re welcome aboard of this one.”
Through our subsequent friendship he continued to call me Little Man, and to treat me with the affectionate impatience he might have shown a slightly backward son. I learned a lot about Newfoundland and Newfoundlanders from Skipper Riggs.
A ruddy-faced, burly lump of a man, Riggs had been born in the small settlement of Burin on the shores of Placentia Bay. He was as much a child of the sea as of the land. At the age of eight he had gone to the Grand Banks aboard a fishing schooner owned by an uncle. By the time he was twelve he had a berth as fo’c’sle hand, and at fifteen was fishing down the Labrador. At twenty he got his mate’s papers and signed on aboard an English tramp freighter to spend the next several years travelling the world and, incidentally, picking up some of the worst of the argot used by British seamen. In 1936 he became the freighter’s Master. In 1943 she was sunk under him by a German U-boat. After the war, so he told me, he decided to “settle down, so I married a maid from Fortune and, I supposes you could say, married the Baccalieu as well.”
His was hardly a settled life. He had managed to get home for Christmas only once since 1946. His working schedule consisted of two months aboard his ship, followed by a month ashore. When he got home he was often unable to sleep, only able to doze with one ear cocked for trouble. He seldom slept while on board because the ship ran day and night and he was usually on the bridge, and always on call.
Although he could, and did, gorgeously curse the world around him, and everything in it including his beloved Baccalieu, he never seemed to have a hard word for any of his crew, though he had no patience with shore-side management.
“I got to keep the old bitch going come hell or high water, into and out of places a duck would leave alone. Places there ain’t even room to change your mind, and do it any time, day or night, in any kind of weather. They’s got to be accidents, and there is. And when some damn fool thing goes wrong, the skipper gets suspension, whether he be at fault or no. But we don’t do it for they office fuckers in St. John’s. We works for the people on the coast. The thanks we gits comes from them. I believe there’s nothing on God’s earth they wouldn’t do for we. Or we for they.”
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