The Last Voyage of the D.J. Thornhill

The crew of the D.J. Thornhill proved that Newfoundlanders are among the world's hardiest seamen. They braved gale-force winds and heavy snow to keep the troubled schooner afloat. But on Jan. 23, 1943 the men watched as the vessel disappeared beneath the waves.

On Jan. 15, 1943 the auxiliary schooner D.J. Thornhill left St. John's, Newfoundland on what turned out to be her last voyage. With Capt. Gordon Williams of Pool's Cove, at the helm she was bound for Gloucester, Mass., with a load of salt cod fish.

The 120-ton vessel was the last banking schooner built in the south coast town of Grand Bank. Owned by Capt. John Thornhill, and financed partly by a subsidy from Newfoundland's Commission of Government, the schooner was named for the captain and his wife, Dinah.

Fir, spruce, witchhazel and birch timbers were cut in the Garnish woods in March of 1935. Master builder Hughie McKay was brought in from McKay's Shipyards, Shelburne, NS, to supervise the construction. Carpenters' wages at the time were $1 per day.

A 44-horsepower Kelvin engine was installed, making her an auxiliary/sail schooner. The D.J. Thornhill was launched on Tuesday morning, Nov. 26, 1935 and was outfitted for fishing the following spring.

When the D.J. left port that Friday morning, it was typical winter weather. The temperature hovered just below freezing, at 31 F. Light snow showers and light westerly winds gave no cause for concern.

The crew of the schooner were all seasoned sailors. Besides Williams, there were mate Hughie Grandy, engineer Wilson Price, cook Winston Taylor, and seamen Berkley Nurse and James Brown.

For the first three days it was fair sailing. Wind direction and strength shifted frequently and there were light snow showers. However, at daybreak on Monday there was a strong southerly wind and the vessel was making a speed of seven miles per hour. That afternoon brought southwest winds with heavy snow showers, significantly reducing visibility.

By early evening the wind had increased to moderate gale force and there was heavy snow. Now the crew were alert. At midnight, Capt. Williams recorded their position as 25 miles south-southeast of Halifax, in a northwest gale with heavy seas running. Still, weathering a winter storm was not unusual for Newfoundland sailors.

In the early hours of Tuesday morning, the crew knew they were facing a difficult voyage. Gale-force winds from the west-northwest were rocking the schooner violently and she started making ice. Ice was something every sailor was wary of. At noon the wind was still gaining strength and heavy seas were still hammering the vessel. The crew were engaged in pounding off the steadily gathering ice, and the snow had turned to sleet.

Sometime that day the foresail was ripped away by a vicious gust of wind, breaking the fore gaff in the process. Ice was now making fast and the vessel was drifting east-southeast. The relentless pounding of the angry sea was too much for the valiant little ship and her seams began to open. Her soft, unseasoned timber was already weakened from harsh winter storms and heavy cargoes.

Once the seams started to open up, the D.J. began to leak badly and the crew knew they were in trouble. They were engaged in pumping water with hand pumps as well as pounding off the ice. They were lashed to the pumps while they worked to prevent being washed overboard from the slippery decks by the swirling waves. That night the vessel's decks were awash and ice-covered.

Weather conditions showed no sign of change on Wednesday, except there was now heavy frost as temperatures continued to drop. The pumps were manned continuously, without letup, but the water was gaining fast. They could no longer fetch the pumps either.

The vessel was leaking so badly by noon that water was coming in faster than they could pump it out. Her seams must have been wide open by now. Ice was still gathering as well. The crew were becoming exhausted from pumping water and pounding ice in an effort to keep the schooner afloat. Every wave that washed over her added another coating of hard, heavy ice.

One of the dories was swept away by the greedy waters that evening as the decks were completely awash. One particularly brutal wave crashed over the deck and struck Seaman Brown in the back. He was swept off his feet and hurled against an upturned oil drum, receiving a painful chest injury. By now the ship's head was nothing but a solid mass of ice that literally weighed tons. Things were looking serious. Still, they continued their fight for survival.

Gale-force winds from the northwest and heavy frost were still with them the next day. Ice was creeping farther in over the vessel, like the cold hand of death, threatening to sink her. Eight inches of water covered the floor of the crew quarters in the forecastle. The men were forced to take shelter in the stern of the vessel, with nothing but the clothes they wore.

Salt water had got into the freshwater tanks so there was no drinking water. No fires could be lit and the crew lived on biscuits and tinned milk. They were manning the pumps day and night and their strength was beginning to fail. Hard work and lack of drink was wearing them down slowly. By midday on Thursday only one thought was on their minds - to keep the D.J. Thornhill afloat, to try to save their lives. The decks were all under water. The sails had all been torn away by the grasping winds. The engine room was flushed with water.

Without canvas or power, the banker was completely at the mercy of the harsh winter elements. Howling winds and powerful, towering waves continued to batter the helpless vessel. In his log book, Capt. Williams, a veteran skipper, recorded their situation as 'looking serious.'

Conditions continued to deteriorate the next day. In a desperate attempt to keep the schooner from sinking, the crew began bailing water out through the cabins with buckets. But they were fighting a losing battle. A week had passed since they left St. John's and it is safe to assume that they all wondered if they'd ever see home again.

Working around the clock, with no water and hardly any sleep, the men were growing fatigued. The captain noted that they were beginning to fall back on their work but there was no criticism for they were pushing themselves beyond their normal limits. The hard work, stress and seriousness of their situation were all starting to take a toll, both physically and mentally.

On Friday night the wind began to moderate a little although there was no letup in the frost. They were still pumping and bailing water as the wind gradually decreased and the sea became smoother. Now their efforts were concentrated solely on keeping the vessel afloat until daylight, hoping that they might be picked up by some other ship in the area. All throughout the night they worked and prayed.

However, there was no sign of any ship in any direction. By nine o'clock the next morning, the vessel was in sinking condition. They knew she couldn't last much longer, that she might go at any moment, and they saw no hope of rescue. At 11 a.m., Saturday, Jan. 23, 1943, the crew of the D.J. Thornhill abandoned ship.

A fire was started, at Capt. Williams' order, to burn the masts and whatever else was still above water. This meant she would sink faster and not be a menace to navigation, as a floating wreck just below the surface. As the crew escaped in their 15-foot dory, it must have been an awesome spectacle they left behind.

Flames danced along the masts and cabin, sizzling when they touched the tons of ice that weighed down the vessel's hull. Steam rose, like smoke from a chimney, where flame and ice met.

There had been no time to take anything with them. All their personal effects were in the crew's quarters, which were below water. They had only the clothes they wore and one case of Carnation Milk. Some of that milk was lost.

About three hours later, around two o'clock, a plane flew overhead but didn't see the little dory adrift in the great Atlantic.

So they started rowing towards land but they were making slow progress. Each crew member took his turn at the oars, even the injured Brown.

For nearly 50 hours these men endured sub-zero temperatures in a small open boat.

The milk they had was frozen so they opened the cans with a knife and ate the contents in frozen clumps. Berkley Nurse told his family later, exhausted as they were, they 'couldn't afford to fall asleep.'

So they would dip their home-knit, sheep's wool mittens into the salt water and then draw them across their eyes to help keep awake.

Spray froze to their rubber clothes and their dory. Luckily, the sea remained calm after they abandoned the schooner. They had no radio or signalling device. All they could do was head for land and hope to be rescued.

When the Royal Canadian Navy Corvette, HMCS Dundas, returning from convoy escort duty, came along, she was a welcome sight. The six shipwrecked men doubted that they could have survived another night. It was 11:30 a.m. by Halifax time, on Monday, Jan. 25 when the ice-laden dory pulled alongside the corvette.

Despite their clumsy, icy oilskins, all six men climbed on board the naval ship with very little assistance. Drinks of rum and 'hot toddies' were refused in favour of plain water. Having had no fresh water for several days, the men were exceedingly thirsty. Water was given gradually, in small quantities at first, and then followed by solid food.

Lt.-Cmdr. R.W Draney and his crew did everything within their power to ensure the comfort of the rescued men. Warm and dry once more, these stalwart sailors recovered very quickly. Seaman Brown was later admitted to hospital for treatment of a broken breastbone, the only injury sustained during their harrowing ordeal.

News of the rescue was sent to St. John's and then relayed to the families who had heard nothing for days and feared the worst. The sailors had endured two of the winter's coldest nights, drifting in a small open dory, in the middle of the inhospitable Atlantic. The corvette's captain said their survival was proof 'that Newfoundlanders are among the world's hardiest seamen.'

It goes without saying that these six men owed their lives to the timely arrival of the Dundas and her crew. However, it is also true that the sailors' own courage, strength, stamina, faith and determination were crucial to their survival as well.

© F. Herridge
Published in The Telegram, January 31 1998

Non-fiction 1

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