Here, Brian Walsh shares portions of a journal he kept in 1981, when he was a crew member of the sealing ship Lady Johnson. Also, in the March issue of Downhome, Nathan House shares his first-hand account of one of Newfoundland's worst sealing tragedies - the Greenland Disaster. Pick up the latest issue to read his amazing story.
Going to the ice has always played a prominent role in my family. My great-grandfather, Edward Walsh (1831-1916), was shipwrecked at Cape Freels in 1852 while sealing on a Harbour Grace brigantine during the infamous spring of the Wadhams. My grandfathers, Patrick Keyes (1883-1968) and William Walsh (1882-1960), went to the ice in the old "wooden walls" Leopard, Bloodhound, Aurora and Vanguard. My father, Edward Walsh (1913-1995), was a crew member for several springs on the Beothic, Algernine and Kvitfjell. Sealing captains like Stan Barbour, Joby Kean, Morrissey Johnson and the Norwegian Captain Sigmand Snorby were always well respected in our household. The family tradition, and indeed the offshore seal hunt itself, came to an end in the spring of 1981 when I made what in all likelihood will be my last trip to the ice. The following spring the fleet went out but abandoned the voyage early when the bottom fell out of the markets. The ships, like the Great Hunt itself, have all passed into history and live on only in the memories of those who took part.
Tuesday, March 3, 1981 Wind moderate, northeasterly, overcast and cold. Came into St. John’s and boarded the sealing ship Lady Johnson to go to the ice. Vessel tied up on the north side of the harbour by the Murray Premises.
Wednesday, March 4 Wind moderate, northeasterly, rain and drizzle. Spent the day settling in and getting used to the ship, bunking forward on the starboard side in a cabin with Tom Tibbet from Catalina and Ezekiel White from Victoria. There are three other sealing ships tied up astern (east) of us: the Polaris, Polar Explorer and Gulf Star. Another ship, the Fogo Isle, is to sail from Fogo, and the Chester, from Halifax; all the ships have Newfoundland crews, and all are going to the Front.
Thursday, March 5 Wind light, westerly, fine and clear. Captain Morrissey Johnson from Catalina is in command of the Lady Johnson. The second hand is Henry Mailer, originally from Norway, now living in Dildo, Trinity Bay. There are to be 35 crewmembers in all: the captain, second hand, bosun, four engineers, two cooks, two federal fisheries officers and 24 sealers. All the sealers bunk forward in the forecastle, where there are eight cabins with three bunks to each cabin. The accommodations for all other crewmembers are located aft, as are the galley, messrooms etc.
Friday, March 6 Wind light, westerly, fine and clear. Visited the other sealing ships, and some of their crew came aboard of us. Other men going to the ice from Bay de Verde besides myself are Billy Cotter in the Chester, Edmund Woodrow in the Fogo Isle, and Shawn Noonan, Bob Noonan and Ernie Pryor in the Polaris. Each ship going to the ice this spring has the same number of crewmen for a total of 210, which, years ago, would be only a good crew for one ship. We had one additional crewmember come on board this evening: Gordon Slade, deputy minister of fisheries, is to go out with us.
Saturday, March 7 Wind stormy, northeast 40-50 knots, heavy sea and swell. Departed St. John’s this morning, went through the Narrows at 10 a.m., set course north by east, abeam Baccalieu Island…Ship making heavy weather, rolling and pitching, a lot of the crew seasick.
Sunday, March 8 Wind moderate, northeasterly, moderate sea and swell. Going north, sailing through loose slob since noon, much smoother sailing. Went aft and got our crop, knife and steel, cigarettes, sunglasses etc. All hands busy rigging the side sticks, grinding knives and fitting out their hauling rope and gaff.
Monday, March 9 Wind moderate, northwesterly, fine, clear and cold. Going north, steaming through moderate to heavy ice. Saw several families of hoods throughout the day, started seeing a lot of white coats just before dark. Stopped for the night at 7 p.m. Tonight it’s very calm and still but very frosty; seals bawling around the ship all night. Captain says he thinks we’re in the whelping ice. Position at 8 p.m.: 5 miles east of Pack’s Harbour, Labrador.
Tuesday, March 10 Wind light northerly, fine, clear and cold. Butting through heavy ice all morning, stopped at noon in a large patch of seals. Two ships near us – Polaris and Chester. Three other ships visible to the southeast believed to be Gulf Star, Fogo Island and Polar Explorer. Two other ships long way off to the east believed to be Norwegian sealers…The hunt is set to begin tomorrow. Our position at 6 p.m.: 8 miles east of the Gannet Islands.
Wednesday, March 11 Wind light northerly, fine and clear. Season opened at 1 p.m. All hands overboard and on the ice with ropes, gaffes and flags. Fairly good going, ice not too bad, seals numerous; killing and panning until dark. Five hundred on board and five or six hundred on pans by 6 p.m. All hands aboard by 7 p.m. Big supper and in the bunk...early rise tomorrow.
Thursday, March 12 Wind light to moderate northwesterly, fine and clear. Up at 5:30 a.m. Had breakfast and went on the ice at 6:30. Very cold, frosty morning; came on board at noon for dinner and a warm up. Killing and panning seals all day. Stowing fat till 10 p.m. 1,800 seals taken today (the number of seals given for each day will be approximate).
Friday, March 13 Wind moderate westerly, fine and clear. Went on the ice at daylight, working at the seals all day. Lot of flags in the area from all the different ships. Jim Morgan, minister of fisheries, came on board by helicopter this afternoon…he intends to stay for a few days. We were stowing fat until 11 p.m. tonight. 1,800 taken on board today. All vessels slowly drifting south with the ice.
Saturday, March 14 Wind light, overcast. On the ice all day, never went on board from 6:30 a.m. to 6:00 p.m. A camera crew from ABC TV in New York came out by helicopter and spent the day filming and chasing us around. Some of the crew didn’t take too kindly to this…Two of our crew members went ice blind today and had to be led aboard. 1,300 seals taken today. Captain Morrisey says the glass is showing for a poor day tomorrow.
Sunday, March 15 Wind strong easterly, snow, blizzard by late afternoon. Bad day, ice tightening with the onshore wind. Visibility very low, blowing our horn whenever we put men on the ice. I was on the whip line all afternoon, very hard going as the ice was covered with snow; conditions so bad we finally stopped at 3 p.m. Stowing fat till 5:00. 1,000 seals today. We cooked a big scoff of flippers in the galley tonight. Jim Morgan donated a “forty-ouncer” for the cause...the crew claimed they’re all going to vote PC next election!
Monday, March 16 Wind moderate easterly, dropping away by noon. Real gale of wind last night. Awoke this morning to find the ice all gone abroad and a big swell heaving from the east, biggest swell I ever saw in the ice. The Chester was less than half a mile from us, and she would frequently disappear from sight with the rising and falling of the swell. On and off the ice all day; seals are scattered about. One of our crewmen had to be airlifted to St. Anthony hospital, suffering from chest pains. 500 seals taken today.
Tuesday, March 17 Wind light southwesterly, fine and clear. Swell gone down a lot since yesterday. Ice still very loose…We were on and off the ice all day. The ship would drop us off in groups of three or four, then steam on a short distance and drop off another group. This would be repeated until all the sealers were on the ice. The ship would then circle back and pick up the first group and whatever seals they had, and so on, until everyone was on board, then start all over again…Gordon Slade and Jim Morgan went in by helicopter this afternoon. It would appear that the helicopter companies are doing very well indeed out of all this. Stowing fat till 8 p.m. 800 seals taken today.
Wednesday, March 18 Wind moderate southerly, wet snow, turning to rain. Quintering all day (picking up seals scattered over many pans), white coats turned to raggedy jackets; even took some beaters. Warm work today with the oil clothes on. Jumping off the side sticks, killing and sculping seals, strapping on and scravelling aboard again while the ship waited and the second hand was shouting from the barrel to hurry up; thankfully, it was announced at 3 p.m. that we had reached our quota of white coats (8,000) and would be going in search of hoods tonight...400 seals taken today.
All hands were called out at 10 p.m. to stow below whatever pelts were on deck, batten down the hatches, take in the side sticks and lower the derrick as a storm is forecast. Vessel starting to roll as we leave the ice and head east to the open sea,
Thursday, March 19 Wind, gale force northeasterly, 50-60 mph. Running south all day in open water before a strong northeaster with a heavy following sea…Vessel rolling and labouring heavily; seas breaking completely over her decks. Everything on the well deck washed overboard, including most of our deck sheathing, except for what got jammed in the scuppers. Men forward in the forecastle unable to get aft and had nothing to eat all day. (I dare say not many had much of an appetite.)…I was on the bridge all afternoon, looking out for growlers. Entered the ice at 5 p.m. and stopped for the night in Porcupine Bay, Labrador.
Friday, March 20 Wind moderate northeasterly, overcast. Steaming around all morning in loose ice, picking up scattered hoods. Came upon a patch of old and young in the afternoon. Gunners and dogs overboard, with us following behind after they started shooting, sculping and panning until 5:30. Hard work as old hoods are very large…About 400 hoods taken today.
Saturday, March 21 Wind light easterly, fine and clear. Ship jammed solid most of the day. The captain spied some seals from the barrel a long way to the southwest. The master watch and 10 others (myself included) volunteered to go and have a look. It was hard going, as the ice was all rafted up, but at 11:00 we reached the seals, about three miles out. There were a lot more than we thought. We killed and panned 550, but the wind came back from the west, and the ice went abroad, so we were unable to walk back towards the ship. We took shelter behind some clumpers and weren’t too bad off, as we had two flashlights and a compass. We used the flashlight to show the ship where we were. She finally picked us up at 10:30 p.m.; very thankful to be aboard. Got a heavy grog from the Skipper, big feed and in the bunk.
Sunday, March 22 Wind, moderate northwesterly, fine and clear. Came in close to the land this morning at Shoal Bay, Labrador. Steaming around this morning picking up scattered hoods until vessel ran aground on a sunker at 11 a.m. The ship got quite a smack. The foremast shook so much, we thought the barrel would fall off – with the second hand in it. Fortunately, we went aground when the water was low and two hours later, when the water rose, we managed to get off under our own steam, without any apparent damage…100 seals taken today. Abandoning the voyage tonight.
Tuesday, March 24 Wind light to moderate southwesterly, fine and clear. Light sea and swell. Bore up for home at 9:00 last night and steaming home in open water ever since. Abeam of the Funks at 4:00; saw a lot of turres in the area, also several draggers off to the east. Secured at Catalina Harbour at 11 p.m.
Wednesday, March 25 Wind light to moderate westerly, fine and clear. Selling flippers all day, did very well. Departed Catalina at 5 p.m. en route to St. John’s. Arrived at St. John’s and vessel secured on the North side of the harbour at 11 p.m. All well on board. So ends this voyage.
My grandfather, William Walsh, first went to the ice in the Leopard with Capt. Job Kean in 1899, when he was 17. The 128-man crew had 12,000 seals and made $41.67 each. In 1940, my father, Edward Walsh, went to the ice in the Beothic with Capt. Stan Barbour. The 225-man crew had 33,000 seals and made $59.32 each. In 1981, on the Lady Johnson, with 33 crew members and 9,500 seals, our net pay was $2,500 each.