Summer on the Water Sprite
By Harry Pike
The Water Sprite was a 50-60 ton fishing schooner mastered by Roland Butt of Flat Island, Bonavista Bay, Newfoundland. Every May, the ship would sail to St. John's for salt and supplies, then return to Flat Island and prepare to head north for another season "on the Labrador."
It was a beautiful morning on June 18, 1937, with the wind in from the southwest, when the flag was hoisted to the top of the mainmast head to let the crew know we were leaving for Labrador - a Water Sprite tradition. Relatives and friends came on board to have a drink and say goodbye before the schooner left the harbour.
The crew this year included Skipper Roland Butt; his brother Martin Butt; mate and part owner, Andrew Butt; their brother-in-law, Elijah Ralph; plus Roy Chaytor, Thomas Hiscock, Roland Pike and myself, Harry Pike (pictured at left). About 20 miles from home, during my trek to the wheel (we took turns steering the schooner for two hours at a time), the wind started to increase. We were running boom-out (with the mainsail on one side and the foresail on the other). Sailing before the wind like this made the vessel hard to steer as she turned back and forth, and there was a chance all the sails would go on one side. If the mainsail came over in a strong wind ("jived"), it could cause a lot of damage.
As we approached Cape Freels, the wind continued increasing. This was my first experience steering a schooner, and Skipper Roland Butt called out to me, "If you can run this one around Cape Freels today without jiving the mainsail, you will have no worries." That was 52 years ago and I have not forgotten it.
We turned Cape Freels and headed north outside of Cape Fogo. During the night the wind turned to the southeast and it got foggy. We anchored at Fortune Harbour on the afternoon of the 20th and left the following day. We had a nice time crossing the Strait of Bell Isle with the wind blowing down the Straits. That night we went down the Labrador shore and by dawn we could see Round Hills Island. We anchored at Indian Tickle in the afternoon and arrived at Fish Cove the next day. There we stayed for three days, waiting for a sign of fish before going to George's Island.
On Friday, June 26, we went to George's Island and set one cod trap. The next morning when we hauled the trap, we had a boat load and a punt load of fish. We put the second trap out on Saturday. For the next two weeks the weather was good and the fish were plentiful. My job was cutting fish throats at the after table. Andrew Butt was header and Skipper Butt was the splitter. Just before we finished splitting on Friday night of our second week, I said, "I think there is a sea heaving."
The skipper said, "Go on, you damn young fool, where do you think the sea is coming from?"
It was a very poor harbour at George's Island, no harbour at all for an easterly wind or sea. You had to "moor all four," which means having an anchor out to the head of the vessel and one out to the stern.
Next morning there was the biggest kind of sea going up the cliffs and a storm of wind from the northeast. If the Water Sprite had parted her chains she'd have run up into the cliffs with no way of saving the crew. It was three days before we could take up our traps, and even then we came close to going up into the cliffs when a big sea came in.
With the traps on board and the storm passed, we got underway. There was very little wind, so I was on board the trap skiff positioned broadside with the schooner. The only power we had was in the motorboats, so when there was no wind we towed the schooner. There was a 26 oz rum bottle full of lube for oiling the pumps and other parts of our 8hp Fairbanks engine. I was oiling the motor when the skipper, who had the wheel, called out to hoist the mainsail. In hanging up the bottle in my hurry to help, the bottle struck the flywheel and broke, shattering glass in my face. The skipper, seeing my blood- and lube-covered face, had the crew pull in my boat and lead me on board. I couldn't see through the mess and I was relieved to find, after they washed my face, that the cuts were limited to the skin around my eyes and my eyesight was not damaged.
That evening we anchored at Indian Island, about 25 miles inside of George's Island in Groswater Bay. Next day we put out one cod trap at Indian Island and the others we took to Saddle Island, a little over an hour away by trap skiff. We got 780 quintals at George's Island and needed 220 quintals more for a full load. (A quintal is 112 lbs of dry codfish.) There were plenty of fish at Indian Island, but no big hauls. However, on Saturday evening we went to Saddle Island in the two motorboats and hauled up a full trap. We dipped out two boatloads and had to let down the rest. That was the first and the last time I saw fish let down in a cod trap. That evening, July 28, we were loaded up and ready for home, another summer on the Labrador successfully ended.