One Family, Two Disasters At Sea

  • Downhome Magazine
  • Posted: Apr 01, 2019 3:54 PM

Did the Ryan family have a date with fate?

Sometimes two tragic family events, alienated by a multiple of years, can have an eerie connection to one another. Johanna Ryan Guy knows all too well that spine-chilling feeling when highly improb-able events show up in the family tree.  
While immersed in researching the Ryan family surname, information from her cousin, Mike Ryan, in Halifax, NS, caused her to catch her breath. “When I opened the email, I was shocked at the news that there was another tragedy at sea in the Ryan family line,” she says.
Johanna, an author and business woman from Bonavista, NL, is well-known across the province in association with a vessel tragedy 15 years ago that claimed two of her family members. As she recently found out, that was the second such tragedy to befall her family. The first one happened 158 years earlier - to the day.

The Tragedy of the Ryan’s Commander
In 2004, Johanna’s two brothers, David (Dave) and Joseph (June) died off Cape Bonavista after their four-month-old ship, the Ryan’s Commander,
capsized in heavy seas. The $1.8-million, 65-foot longliner wrecked off Spillars Cove after offloading shrimp at Bay de Verde. While four other crewmembers survived, Dave and June, aged 47 and 42 respectively, perished.
The tragedy devastated the close-knit family. Their hometown of St. Brendan’s, a small fishing island in Bonavista Bay, as well as the whole province helped bear the Ryan family’s unspeakable sorrow. Their heart-wrenching story and their mourning also made national and international headlines.
A few years later, a federal report concluded that the vessel design and lack of a full stability assessment were factors contributing to the fatal sinking of the fishing boat. In part to spur changes in the industry and to pay tribute to her brothers, Johanna published a best-selling book about her intimate loss in 2008. Ryan’s Commander: The Boat That Should Not Have Sailed has been described as a gripping and essential read for anyone interested in the shipping industry and fishing safety culture.
“Other than burying my brothers, writing this book was probably one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to do in my life,” Johanna confesses. The project helped her face the painful reality that the men were not coming back, and it gave her a mission as an advocate going forward. “I couldn’t stop trying to make others understand how it all happened, how it should not have happened, and how it should never happen again. It was as if I had to ensure their deaths made a difference; if not, it would all be for nothing.”

The Ancestral Ryans
It was last year that Johanna first received information that her Ryan ancestors were also involved in a boating disaster. She was naturally awestruck by this new thread in her ancestral fabric, especially as a more bone-chilling connection would be revealed.
Historical data shows that in September 1846, a great gale swept up the US seaboard and ravaged eastern Newfoundland. According to another cousin Michael (who has since passed away), Johanna’s great-great-great grandfather Patrick’s two sons, William James and John, were caught in its grip. Returning from a fishing trip, the crewmem-bers of what is believed to be the Lavinia were making a hasty retreat towards land.
The massive storm, causing high tides, descended upon the region before the crew was able to reach port in St. John’s. Their fish-filled schooner wrestled against the hurricane-strength winds, but apparently capsized outside the Narrows. All hands drowned.
“I understand that, under siege by the storm, the schooner cut towards the boat basin. Then when she cut back towards Chain Rock, they lost her; and she went ashore on the head, right under Cabot Tower,” Johanna says.
The “Great Gale of 1846” also struck the Grand Banks of Newfoundland with horrendous force, causing widespread damage and a great loss of life. Before the storm finally passed, 65 men and 11 boats were lost.
Onshore, multiple fishing stages and wharves were destroyed by the high winds and heavy rainfall. (As it was, St. John’s was still recovering from the Great Fire of 1846, which ravaged the city three months earlier, on June 9.  In fact, a brother and sister were killed instantly when a spacious unfinished building affording shelter to some displaced by the fire was flattened by the gale.)
The Grand Banks Genealogy website, a popular resource for tracing family trees in this province, contains a photo of the headstone of the original Patrick Ryan from Ireland in the King Cove Catholic cemetery. Below his date of death (February 25, 1856) it reads, “Also his sons, William James and John, who drowned at St. John’s Narrows.” The date of their deaths is listed as September 19, 1846. The same day in September that their descendants, brothers Dave and June Ryan, drowned in a fishing vessel sinking, in a storm, in 2004.
Johanna recalls her reaction to this shocking revelation. “The drowning tragedy linkage was one thing, but when I got to the part about the date, I was floored.”
On the same date, but 158 years apart, two fishing boats went to sea seeking its riches. Both tried to outrace a storm back to port. The two vessels capsized and two sets of brothers in a family line drowned.
Swiss psychiatrist Carl Jung pointed such coincidences toward unus mundus - the idea of one world connecting everything and everyone. Jung coined the word “synchronicity,” a causal connecting principle, to describe the unexplainable.
For Johanna, this real life twin tragedy in her family across time and space will forever haunt her thoughts. “This possible date with fate of the two family drownings
158 years apart still leaves me bewildered,” she says. “I mean, what are the chances?”

-By Kim Ploughman