[Note:This is the story of an assignment being carried out by an RCMP officer in Newfoundland. Jack and I attended Normal School in Winnipeg, Manitoba, the same year. He has given us permission to use his story. A more detailed story about Jack can be seen in “After School: Lives of Manitoba Normalites, Class of 1950-51”.]
As an R.C.M.P. officer in the field, I served in three provinces. From 1955 to 1962, I served as a general duty investigator and municipal traffic patrolman in St.John’s, Gander, and Corner Brook, Newfoundland. From 1966 to 1970, I was a plain clothes investigator and detachment commander in Edmonton and Two Hills, Alberta. From 1972 to 1973, I was a municipal detachment commander and international airport security commander in Drumheller and Calgary, Alberta. From 1975 to 1990, I was police liaison officer, V.I.P. security officer, organized crime officer, human resources manager, operations officer, and detachment commander in Victoria, Vernon, Kamloops, and North Vancouver, British Columbia.
In the mid 1950s, I was stationed at a busy airport in Newfoundland. Work was exciting, and I really enjoyed being responsible for a rural portion of the detachment area. Gander Bay was on the open coast, on the north east, and included a string of small outports (fishing villages) which constituted the population. There were three ways to reach there in an emergency: by float or ski plane (not practicable for much of the year), by a Gander River canoe, or by a passenger boat from the seaport of Lewisport.
Shortly after Christmas Day, the R.C.M.P. was instructed to go to one of these outports, as a result of a sudden death, and to transport the body for a post mortem examination at the Twillingate hospital, where there was a pathologist. I was assigned the task. Early on December 27, I walked down to the boat awaiting him in Lewisport. It was a clear, cold, and calm morning, three weather conditions which are almost never found at the same time on the east coast.
I had sailed with the vessel before; but today, the captain was not his garrulous self. He seemed preoccupied, and kept going to the glass (barometer) and expressing serious concerns as it was very low. At sea, this indicates a severe storm is brewing.
We were well into our four-hour voyage; and after a hearty breakfast of fish and brews and steaming tea, I relaxed somewhat. With no seas running, we arrived at their destination early and found that the developing shore ice prevented us from using the government pier. The outporters had made a makeshift walkway using ladders. The casket was on a sled, which the crew pulled onto their boat, using a tossed line.
As this was being accomplished, I noticed that the ice was starting to move. On looking out onto the bay, I observed that the ominous sea was rising. We departed for a three-hour trip to the hospital. The captain hugged the ice on the east coast of the bay, and steamed very slowly. He explained that he did not want to create any spray as the salt water would create ice, especially on any exposed metal portions of his vessel, particularly the metal hand line around the boat. The sea in the open water was now very rough. We had reached the point of no return as we could not go back because there was no shelter.
The captain advised me that we were going to cross the bay as it was not possible to reach their destination, and that he would land me at an outport. There, a horse and cart would take me and my traveling companion to the hospital across the bay if we arrived safely. As we turned to the west, the waves were beam on to the boat. It was necessary for the captain to steam into the wave troughs, and then cut back the engines when the boat crested the waves. By then, the wind was whipping off the wave tops, and I soon realized that ice was forming on the boat and it was not as buoyant as before. The lower cabin door swung open. When I looked down, I saw that the crew members were on their knees, rosaries in hand. This was not a good sign!
I asked what I might do. I was given a hookless gaff (used for killing fish) and was told, after being tied to a line, that when the boat was in the wave trough, I could step out of the bridge and beat on the iced hand lines, now as thick as one’s thigh. The captain told me that the rope would tether me to the boat if I were washed overboard and that they would not have to search for a body.
At that point, I really began to reconsider my selection of avocation and location. After a few trips onto the deck, I began to develop a rhythm, and the ice began to chip off into the scuppers. I was in a sweat, from either fear or exertion; but my labours were paying off as the boat responded much better to wave and helm. I do not know how long the trip was; but the waves finally diminished in size, and I realized that we were on the lee side of Twillingate Island and safety.
The pony and cart were waiting as promised. It was now night. The doctor and staff were not waiting; and the following day the facilities were again not available. The examination and report were finally completed. The storm passed, and on January 2, the boat returned to deliver the body for burial, and I back to my home port. My date for the annual New Year’s ball at the Airport Club had not waited.
If you enter a graveyard in an east coast fishing village, there is often a separate location for those lost at sea, usually with an inscription over the gateway, “For those who go down to the sea in small boats”. I now understand the significance of that sentence; but this patrol really reinforced the old Scottish saying: “The best laid plans of man and mice, needs often go astray.”