In a province founded on the backs of fishermen there is no shortage of shocking tales about ships braving the high seas. Over the years we've honoured our seafaring history through in-depth interviews with survivors and historical accounts of sunken ships, brave sea captains and Navy heroes. Upon our silver anniversary, reminisce with us as we take a look back at some of the best sea stories from 25 years of Downhome magazine.
Mystery on the Water
In this shocking story, originally printed in the January 2000 issue of the magazine (then called Downhomer), two fishermen from Port Saunders, Newfoundland describe the day their boat was "attacked" by a whale. It's probably the tallest true tale we've ever heard.
Newfoundland Attacked by Submarines
At Downhome, we delight in bringing you stories "straight from the horse's mouth," so to speak. More than a decade ago, founding editor Ron Young chatted to a Bell Island man with childhood memories of submarines sinking ships near his home. This personal account was so palpable, in his wisdom Ron printed the interview uninterrupted, in its entirety.
The August Gale of '35
In this 2002 story, a man recounts the details of being aboard a fishing boat in Placentia Bay during the legendary August Gale.
Putting the Past to Rest
Today, most people remember the tragic Truxtun and Pollux shipwrecks off St. Lawrence for the inspirational tale of Lanier Phillips, an African-American man who was moved by the kindness shown to him for the first time by white people, the people of Newfoundland. But we found another man who survived that ordeal. His story might not be as well known, but we feel it is just as powerful. Edward Lewis' story appeared in the November 2006 issue of Downhome.
The Legend of the SS Ethie
In 1919 the Steamship Ethie ran aground near Cow Head, Newfoundland during a winter storm. While the ship's passengers had a scary journey off the sinking ship on a bosun's chair, an infant onboard endured a more perilous rescue. The youngster was placed in a mailbag and sent to shore dangling dangerously from a rope. Downhome found that "mailbag baby" 87 years later, and shared her story.
Sacrifice at Sea
When the Germans attacked a convoy of 37 vessels during World War Two, a single escort ship was left with the deadly task of facing the formidable enemy. Few survived the incredible ordeal, including Newfoundlander Art Taylor. He spoke to Downhome in 2008.
War at Home
The Second World War really hit home for Newfoundlanders and Labradorians when a German submarine torpedoed the SS Caribou, a passenger ferry carrying innocent civilians. An off-duty Navy man on his way home to Cottrell's Cove, Newfoundland was onboard that tragic day. He contacted Downhome in 2011 and shared his amazing story of survival.
A member of the Royal Navy during WWI, Oliver Batt's story is a special one. Not only is it harrowing, but the full details of what he went through when his ship was torpedoed were not found until after his death - in a haunting letter the Herring Neck native had written to his mother.
The Long Trip Home
A member of the Merchant Navy during the Second World War, St. John's native Thomas Goodyear shared his story of a brutal attack, an unlikely rescue and ultimately, forgiveness for the unthinkable, in the December 2009 issue of Downhome.
Downhome remains committed to honouring our province's brave seafarers. Do you have an incredible story of survival? We'd love to hear about it. Click here to send us a letter.
A leisurely drive through the small communities that dot the shoreline of Iceberg Alley in spring and early summer practically guarantees an iceberg sighting or two. And if you get really lucky, you won't need to bother hopping aboard a tour boat or peering through binoculars for a better view. Below is a selection of photos of some of the biggest bergs we've ever received.
A tour boat gets an up-close look at a massive berg that floated into Long Point, Twillingate, NL in July 2007. Submitted by Lisa Hull of Orangeville, Ontario
Spotted off St. Anthony, NL. Submitted by Joan Oliver of Newfoundland
According to the submitter, this is "the biggest iceberg ever in our bay!" Submitted by Norma Sacrey of Ming's Bight, NL
Alex & Joanne Coffin of Tillsonberg, Ontario took photos of icebergs at Goose Cove during their vacation 2011 summer vacation.
Huge bergs that visited the Greenspond area make the houses dotting the shoreline look like miniatures! Submitted by Cindy Blackwood; taken by Frank E. Blackwood
Tourists and locals alike were amazed at how close this iceberg came to the shore in Summerford, Newfoundland. Submitted by Angela Leyte of Regina, Saskatchewan
Folks came out in droves to view the monstrous icebergs that floated into Quidi Vidi Gut in 2012. Submitted by Tracey Sheehan
What this iceberg lacks in above-water length, it sure makes up for in height. Submitted by Arlene Talbot of Englee, NL
The submitter points out this berg looks a little like a cruise ship; we're betting it's not nearly as cozy, though! Submitted by Joyce Morgan of Port de Grave, NL
Downhome's Grant Loveys recently visited the workshop of a man we've dubbed the "Shoal Harbour inventor." Oliver Vardy spends his days thinking up and constructing new and unique musical instruments. Perhaps the most unique is an invention that Oliver calls the Melody Chord Harp. It is essentially a combination of guitar, harp and lap steel, with elements of each instrument working together in a totally new way. Its five individual sets of guitar strings are each tuned to a particular chord. Parallel to these strings is a single string that can be plucked with the thumb and a metal slide, providing a haunting melodic accompaniment to the strummed chords. It's a strange little machine, but it sounds wonderful.
Watch and listen as Oliver strums a tune.
For the full story on the Shoal Harbour inventor, see the May 2013 issue of Downhome.
Big waves, whales, icebergs, seabirds, moose – you get the picture. In the May 2013 issue, we explore some of the very best places to spot icons of Newfoundland and Labrador. Below is awesome video footage of some of our iconic treasures.
On windy days, the shores of Middle Cove Beach on the Avalon Peninsula are lined with folks eager to see amazing wave action. But in 2010, some wave watchers got a rude awakening from Mother Nature when a rogue wave washed ashore on Middle Cove Beach. Check out this YouTube video of local news coverage of the phenomenon.
While the waters of Witless Bay, as well as Twillingate and Southern Labrador, provide almost guaranteed whale sightings in June, July and August, tour operator Ocean Quest takes whale watching to a whole new level with its "Close Encounters" tour.
In a province where two communities (St. Anthony and Twillingate) lay claim to the title "Iceberg Capital of the World," folks eager to see and photograph these glacial wonders are right to come here in search of them – and each spring and summer they do, in droves. But a group of tourists visiting Twillingate in July 2008 got an extra special iceberg sighting, as a giant berg foundered and fell into the churning waters before their very eyes.
We scoured YouTube for cool video footage of a moose - and this tourist's close encounter atop Gros Morne Mountain was, we felt, the most impressive. (Warning! Some mild foul language in this video - and who can blame her?)
Residents of Buchans, Newfoundland will likely remember this very special 1980s episode of CBC's "On the Road Again," hosted by Wayne Rostad. The quality of the video isn't the greatest - but the quality of the story makes up for it!
*Note: For long-time readers of Downhome, the magazine's illustrator, Snowden Walters, used Clarence the Caribou as inspiration for a series of cartoon sketches that appeared in The Downhomer in the 1990s. Click here to check them out.
Our province's heritage breed are known as hardy workers, used to plough fields and haul logs. But the Newfoundland pony featured in the video below, owned by passionate pony promoter Liz Chafe of Cappahayden, Newfoundland, is blessed with a rather unusual talent - we're fairly confident he'd make for stiff competition on any soccer field.
Actors & Re-enactors
The folks acting at L’Anse aux Meadows National Historic Site have to reach far back in time to get into their characters. In reconstructed sod huts Viking re-enactors mimic the Norse ways of life that played out here more than 1,000 years ago.
Watch this video and come along for a tour of the Point Amour Lighthouse, the second tallest lighthouse in Canada, located at L'Anse Amour, Labrador.
Placentia-native and master boat builder Jerome Canning details the province's historic boat building tradition in the following video. With the help of the Wooden Boat Museum in Winterton, Newfoundland, locals with knowledge of the now rare art form are passing the tradition to younger generations.
Parks Canada cameras follow along as Inuit descendants visit the homeland of their ancestors, known now as the Torngat Mountains National Park.
Watching waterfalls cascade down over high cliffs surrounding this 16-km glacier-carved, land-locked fiord in Gros Morne National Park, you'll think you've been transported to another time.
The puffins of Elliston usually prefer to stick to a small island a short distance from the headland - but this one decided to wander over for some close-up camera shots!
Now in its third year, the St. John's Mummers Festival is helping breathe new life into a beloved Newfoundland tradition. Want to join in the fun? See below for a list of events and activities planned for this year's festival.
Hobby Horse Workshops
(Victoria Park poolhouse)
Learn to make your own hobby horse, a traditional mummering accessory. (Click here for the story behind the hobby horse in Newfoundland.)
December 3, 10 a.m. – 2 p.m.
December 6, 7 p.m. – 9:30 p.m.
December 10, 10 a.m. – 2 p.m.
Ugly Stick Workshops
(Victoria Park poolhouse)
December 11, 1 p.m. – 5 p.m.
December 13, 7 p.m. – 9: 30 p.m.
“How do you mummer anyway?”: A public forum with mummers
(The Rooms theatre)
December 4, 3 p.m. - 4 p.m.
Mummers in Schools Touring Program
Mummer Lecture - Visions of Visitors: Media Images of Christmas Mummering in Newfoundland
(Memorial University, Room 1046, Arts building)
December 14, 7 p.m. - 8 p.m.
Film Screening: Mummers and Masks
(The Rooms theatre)
December 15, 2:30 p.m. – 3:30 p.m.
(Bishop Field Elementary School, 46 Bond Street)
Join other mummers prior to the parade to find various and sundry clothing and other items to help you "get your mummer on!"
December 17, 1 p.m. – 2 p.m.
(Starting at Bishop Field Elementary School, 46 Bond Street)
The parade starts at Bishop Field Elementary. Mummers weave through Gower Street, Bannerman Park, and the Georgestown neighbourhood and end at The Rooms.
December 17, 2 p.m. – 3 p.m.
*Bad weather date: December 18, same time and place
Mummers Parade Concert and Mummers Jam
(The Rooms, level 3 atrium)
Stroll through the city's streets until winding up at The Rooms, where mummers will enjoy music, syrup and snacks, and get their snap taken at the "Mummeries Forever" portrait studio.
It was 1975 and the July morning sun made the chilly waters of Fortune Bay sparkle with enticing but false warmth as the 12-member White family gathered at the government wharf in Grand Bank, Newfoundland. While Cyril and his brother-in-law Ben hauled heavy coolers loaded with freshly made potato salad, baked beans, cold ham and beer, Florence and Mabel White oversaw the gentler handling of picnic baskets full of still-warm homemade bread, partridgeberry cake and several dozen molasses cookies. Lastly was a sturdy box containing an old propane stove, fuel and kettle needed to make the tea that no Newfoundlander could enjoy a Sunday shore picnic without.
Cyril and his older brother, George, loaded the rented 26-foot pleasure boat with the day's supplies. The ladies scrambled for their heavier sweaters, coats and even a few blankets, in preparation for the 32-kilometre ride over the choppy waters of Fortune Bay to the small island of Sagona, their family's ancestral home.
The house was still there waiting for them, though weather battered and broken in places. Oh, it was a grand structure in its day. Constructed of sturdy oak, yellow birch and spruce, all hauled to the island by barge from Harbour Breton, it perched high on the rocky, barren shore. Built into the side of a slope, it had two storeys, a low walk-out cellar and four perfectly symmetrical bay windows, two per floor, that looked out to sea. The roof was slightly sloped, designed with the predominant winds in mind; a peaked roof would more likely have been lost to a strong wind. William Bungay, the talented carpenter who built the home about 1894, had an intuitive knowledge of what it took to withstand the sea. William was Cyril White's grandfather, and he and his wife Effie had raised their son James and daughter Marguerite in the house.
The low wall of flat beach rock, which surrounded the house like a fence, was overgrown in many places with yellow buttercups, wispy grasses and wind-tolerant lichen. Although the spruce exterior of the house looked grey and bleached, traces of red paint were evident on the cellar level and areas of patchy gold paint still framed the windows.
Life on Sagona
Cyril's father, George White, was born in Jersey Harbour. As a young man, he moved to Harbour Breton. He married Marguerite Bungay and together they raised their family of four children (Mabel, George Jr., Basil and Cyril) in this very house on Sagona Island.
George was a hardworking crewman on the Grand Bank schooners owned by merchants in St. John's or Fortune Bay. For several years he was employed as ship's cook. This was an opportunity to earn more money, but it also meant that he was at sea and absent from his family for greater lengths of time.
The women of the community tended to things at home and they formed a sisterhood who rallied to help and support each other in times of childbirth and family illness, yet found occasion to laugh loudly in each other's warm kitchens. Spring and summer saw Marguerite White take to the rocky, shallow earth for the planting of hardy vegetables like potatoes, carrots, turnips and cabbages. The women and children also worked on the flakes, making sure that the fresh catches of cod, were dried properly and cured for the merchants to ship to countries like Portugal, Spain, France, West Indies, and Brazil.
Cyril's older brother, Basil, had been born the night of the 1929 tsunami that had caused much devastation along the Burin Peninsula. The tremors were felt on Sagona Island but their wharfs, fishing stages and stores had escaped damage. When Basil was not quite eight years old, he took sick. He was seen by a visiting doctor who arrived on the hospital boat, Lady Anderson, which serviced the outports. That spring of 1937, George reluctantly left on a Grand Bank schooner for the season, even though the doctor had assured him that a fully recovered Basil would greet him at the wharf on his return.
Sadly, Basil's health deteriorated over the ensuing months and he died, likely from typhoid, before George returned. Looking back on his previous fishing season, George recalled being sick at sea with many of the symptoms of typhoid. He had recovered from all signs of it before returning home to his family, but the doctor surmised that George had likely returned that year as a carrier of the typhoid virus. While everyone in the family was exposed to the illness, young Basil was the only one to succumb and be lost. He was buried in the island's cemetery, with the angels and the house watching over him.
After Basil's death, George and Marguerite decided that relocating to the larger centre of Grand Bank would be in their family's best interest. Marguerite would be leaving behind her birthplace and her mother Effie, her father William, and her sister Jane and family. George would be leaving behind his brother Archibald and family. But being pragmatic was a necessity in those times, and the lure of a better, high paying job on the many ocean schooners that called into the large port of Grand Bank made them pack up and sell the stately house to a local family.
The Whites' adjusted to the more formal, urban (for those days) lifestyle in the town of Grand Bank. George was again gone to sea for long periods at a time. Young Cyril began his formal schooling in Grand Bank, but savoured his time at the wharf. The schooners would pull in loaded with fresh catches, and Cyril and his school chums would eagerly take the crew’s place for three or four days, for 25 cents an hour, and wash the boatload of fish.
Even though Cyril had only lived on Sagona Island for the first six years of his young life, the summer winds whispered her name and images of his grandfather's house seeped into his dreams. He couldn't wait to accept the invitation extended to him each year from his Uncle Jim and Aunt Jane Bungay to return to the island for the summer. Dropped off by dory at the wharf on Sagona, Cyril was met by his Uncle Jim and his cousin Hubert. Until the age of 16, Cyril spent each summer on the island, helping Uncle Jim with repairs and chores and thriving on the freedom that only this small island could provide.
The beach, often times enveloped in mist, drew Cyril and Hubert like a magnet. Secreted away there, the boys shared moments long to be remembered, such as their first puff of a cigarette.
At 16, Cyril left school in Grand Bank and joined the ranks of the seafaring men. He spent two seasons at sea, long enough to realize it was not the life for him. In 1951, he headed to Toronto in search of his destiny. There he met his wife, Florence Hillier from Lamaline, also on the Burin Peninsula. They raised three boys, and shared their summers between their Ontario cottage and their Newfoundland hometowns where they revisited a way of life cherished by them both.
The history books record the facts that Sagona Island, Newfoundland was settled in the 1800s, had a population of 223 souls in 1941 and was abandoned in 1965. But the house remembers more than mere facts. It remembers the smell of a kettle of boiled vegetables and salt beef simmering on a stove, the sight of the White family gathered around the kitchen table for the noon meal and the sound of the pelting rain turned to snow and then back to rain on a March night. Take a moment and you will hear her voice calling above the sound of the crashing waves and squealing sea birds.
In the August issue, Lin Crosbie-Marshall chats with Westport singer-songwriter Peter Jacobs about his music, motivation and the great strides he's making on the path to becoming a full-time musician. Pick up the August issue of Downhome, on stands now, to read the whole story.