Over the passage of time, the Atlantic blue lured a steady stream of heroic seafarers, and one of its most brilliant and revered navigators in the past century was a Newfoundlander, Captain Guy Earle.
Born November 24, 1917, Eric “Guy” Earle came into an era that saw the sun setting on great and gritty seafarers who mastered the clipper ships. The eldest son of six children raised by Skipper Arthur Earle and his wife Effie (Saunders), Earle was born, it seems, with salt in his veins. He grew up in Carbonear, a port heavily engaged in the salt fish trade using schooners, the backbone of the Newfoundland fishery.
Earle came by his fishing passion honestly. He was descended from a long line of fishermen from Plymouth, England; and when his own father obtained a schooner and outfitted fishermen for the Labrador fishery, a family fishing dynasty was launched that is still held in high esteem today.
Guy was eight years old when he first joined his father on fishing voyages north. On that first trip in 1925, his father tied him to the schooner’s mainmast to cure his seasickness (which clearly worked). At 14, Earle entered the family firm, Earle Freighting Services, and when he was just 16 he skippered his first solo trip to Labrador in 1933.
By the early 1960s, Earle Freighting Services became the first fully integrated fishing company in Newfoundland and was exporting more than a quarter of all the salt fish on the island. Earle and his brother Fred would go on to launch a sister company, Earle Brothers Fisheries.
In a recent conversation with Earle’s youngest son, Dr. Phil Earle (now residing in Carbonear), he reflects on his father’s sea legacy and records. “Two years later, after he took a schooner to the Labrador, Father forged his birth certificate to earn his master mariner’s ticket.” So in 1935, at the age of 18, Captain Guy Earle became the youngest licensed sea captain in North America.
Phil also recalls some of the heroics of his famous father, including two “unbelievable” sailing records that he set. The first came in 1938. As part of the Triangle Trade, Earle travelled to the West Indies selling salt fish. Phil Earle remarks: “In 1939, at the age of 21, my father completed a record trip to the West Indies and back from Newfoundland �" a mere 21 days. He delivered a schooner full of salted cod, which he traded for molasses.”
Then in 1941, as captain of the three-masted schooner Betoine, he sailed to Portugal. “It took him only 11 days to cross the Atlantic, and this was during World War II, when the sea was full of danger,” Phil says, noting that the record has never been beaten.
Skipper of the SS Kyle
By early 1961, the Earle brothers purchased the Arctic Eagle from the Shaw Steam Co. in Halifax for use as a sealing ship until 1967, giving it back its original name, SS Kyle. Phil vividly recollects the trip he took to Halifax with family members to bring home the refitted vessel. “I was a kid, and we brought her back down in a storm. It took us two to three days,” Phil says. “I felt like I was on the Queen Mary.”
Earle would be the last captain of the Kyle, the last of the coal burners. In the spring of 1965, after being crushed by ice and grounded against a 10-storey iceberg, Earle steered the limping vessel back to port. Two years later, on February 4, 1967, the damaged Kyle was torn from her moorings in a storm and blown to Riverhead. There she rests to this day, in the Harbour Grace mussel bank beach �" a watery monument
to a way of life long gone; now a cultural icon and attraction to a great many tourists.
End of an era
Captain Guy Earle’s life was cut short at the relatively young age of 50, when on February 19, 1968, he died of a heart attack in his sleep. Legend has it that Earle’s funeral was the biggest Carbonear had ever seen, even to this day. His son recalls: “There were over 2,500 people at the funeral; and when we came out of the church with the casket, over 400 fishermen from all over Newfoundland and Labrador were standing there. They were crying like they had lost their son.”
Above even his seamanship, Capt. Earle is remembered as being devoted to preserving the Newfoundland fishery and way of life. “He believed that a fisherman was as important to Newfoundland as any other job,” says Phil.
With a son’s pride, Phil regards his father as “the most incredible man” in the last century in Newfoundland. “He was one who loved his fellow man, and he especially cared about his workers. His trade was people and the warmth he spread in dealing with them,” he says, adding, “He could not see another human being hurt; and every day of his life, he gave. The most important and incredible thing was that it was done in silence.”
In all his time as captain, Earle never lost a single life at sea. Further, his son has records the captain saved nine souls from drowning, including a 10-year-old-boy who fell in the harbour at Harbour Grace in 1939. Phil says, “He was an unbelievable swimmer, but he completely ignored the possibility of losing his own life.”
In the winter of 2019, Phil set out to pen the untold story of his dad and the gifts he shared, to pay tribute to his legendary father and the cultural history of Carbonear. He corrobor-ated stories and personal recollections with people and at the archives. He hopes to have the book published this year.
-by Kim Ploughman