Christmas At Sea

In the 1950s, the only means of travel between many of the small communities along Newfoundland's rugged coastline was by coastal boat, or 'the steamer' as it was popularly called. There were two boats on the south coast run, traveling in opposite directions.

The Canadian national Railway (C.N.R.) owned and operated a number of these steamships. They carried, mail, freight and passengers to otherwise isolated settlements. The 'S.S. Bar Haven', built in Scotland in 1948, was considered to be the most seaworthy vessel of the fleet.

While I can recall many trips on this boat, some are more memorable than others. The Bar Haven was my favourite coastal boat but, to a 12-year-old, being on the steamer was definitely not the ideal place to spend any part of the Christmas holidays.

My family and I were going to spend Christmas with my maternal grandparents at Pool's Cove. Depending on weather conditions, the journey would take between 12 and 16 hours.

We boarded the Bar Haven at Fortune. As was usual at this time of year, the boat was filled to capacity with people going home, or to be with family, for the holidays. Our second-class stateroom was located at deck level in the bow of the steamship. There were two berths on either side of the room, with about two-and-a-half feet of floor space between them. At one end of this narrow space was the door, which opened into a narrow passageway. At the other end a bench was secured to the bulkhead, beneath a porthole. Not luxurious accommodations, by any means, but manageable for the short time we would be on board.

To prevent the room from becoming too warm and stuffy, the door was often kept ajar, with a hook to hold it steady. I generally took the upper berth, facing the open doorway, so I could watch the other passengers going back and forth in the passageway. Anything to help pass the time! As we settled in, there was no indication that this Christmas voyage would be different than any other.

On this trip, a group of loggers occupied most of the staterooms below deck, the usual accommodations for men. Through some oversight, their luggage had been left behind at Argentia, the starting point of the east-to-west run. Consequently, they all wore red-soled, black rubber boots and heavy flannel, plaid workshirts.

Among this group was one handsome young man, probably in his early twenties, whom I will call Jim. (I have no idea what his name really was.) He wore a red plaid, flannel shirt and had very dark curly hair. Every time Jim walked along the passageway, he was singing the same song, 'Jimmy Brown The Newsboy.' From that time on, my memory associated that song with him. A more significant event on that journey, however, involved a young woman whom I will call Alice (also not her real name.)

The ports of call on part of our route were in the order of: Terrenceville, Anderson's Cove, Rencontre East and then Pool's Cove. When we left Terrenceville, we made an unscheduled stop at English Harbour East. There were no harbour facilities for boats of that size, so the vessel dropped anchor out in the bay. A small motor boat brought two passengers out from the community, Alice and her grandmother. At night, in deteriorating weather conditions, this alone was no pleasure jaunt.

Seventeen-year-old Alice, who was expecting her first child, was having serious problems. Her blood pressure was dangerously high. It had caused such bloating and swelling that the poor girl looked about three times her actual age. She was enroute to the cottage hospital at Harbour Breton, farther up the coast.

After leaving Anderson's Cove, something went terribly wrong. Alice was feeling very ill and then she began having convulsions. Her grandmother was very worried and asked someone to notify the Captain.

Captain Brown was one of the most experienced sea captains employed by the C.N.R. He was well-respected and trusted by all who knew him. There was cause for concern and the Captain asked that he be kept informed of Alice's condition.

Shortly after that someone came to our stateroom asking for help. Alice had taken some sort of seizure. I followed my mother to Alice's room. The sight of that young woman, in the grip of something so strong that she was unable to control her own body movements, was terrifying. My mother cut the single strand of pearls Alice was wearing. There was no other way to remove them from her neck - the clasp was broken - and she was in danger of strangulation.

Captain Brown appeared on the scene. Even a 12-year-old knew that meant something was terribly wrong because the Captain seldom left the bridge otherwise. The situation was very serious and her grandmother now feared for Alice's life. The closest hospital was Harbour Breton and everyone knew she should be taken there without delay. However, the Captain could not deviate from his regular route without consent from his superiors. He sent my mother to the galley for a spoon, which was placed between Alice's teeth to prevent her from biting her tongue.

Faced with this life-and-death emergency, Captain Brown returned to the bridge, presumably to determine his next move. But there was something else on his mind as well - the weather. A real doozy of a winter storm was brewing and the wind was increasing steadily. Then the Captain obtained permission from his superiors and, despite the weather, we were heading straight for Harbour Breton!

Butting headwinds that were nearly gale force, the S.S. Bar Haven ploughed through the turbulent Atlantic waters at top speed. She was capable of doing 14-16 knots under normal conditions. We could feel the sturdy boat vibrating beneath us as she fought the heavy seas and strong winds.

With concern for Alice uppermost in our thoughts, I doubt if anyone - with the possible exception of the ever vigilant Captain Brown, realized that the ship itself might be in danger. She shuddered as she struggled along, on this mission of mercy.

We reached our destination safely, in spite of nature's fury. At Harbour Breton, medical personnel were waiting to transport the young woman to hospital as quickly as possible. Good deed accomplished, the Captain then turned his vessel back to resume his normal route. It was fair wind this time and the going was considerably quieter and smoother. Through it all, logger Jim was still singing about 'Jimmy Brown The Newsboy.'

The remainder of our trip was uneventful. Even our arrival at Pool's Cove, and the holidays themselves, now seemed rather mundane. It was wonderful to see out grandparents, and we enjoyed visiting them, but the excitement of the journey made everything else feel like something of an anticlimax.

On our return voyage, Alice and her grandmother were also going home. The change in that young lady was incredible. She was slim, fair-complexioned and very attractive. Happily, we were informed that both she and her baby were in excellent health. It is possible that our harrowing trip may have saved both their lives. Maybe it could even be considered a Christmas Miracle. It certainly helped to make our holiday quite an adventure. Nevertheless, it was an experience I would not care to repeat - except for that logger's charming, warm smile and his deep voice singing:

'I sell the morning paper, sir,
'My name is Jimmy Brown.'

© Fay Herridge
Published in Canadian Stories, Dec 1999

Non-fiction 1

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