Honouring Lost Souls

  • Downhome Magazine
  • Posted: Sep 25, 2009 4:20 PM
This column originally appeared in the August 1996 edition of Downhome, and was rediscovered recently when Janice and Ashley were researching back issues. Even though there is a cod moratorium in effect - 17 years and counting - there are still many hard-working fishing families in this province who continue to face the perils of the job. So we thought this column was worth a second read.

A Way to Live, A Way to Die
Since 1497, when John Cabot got his first basketful of fish off Bonavista, the sea has played a major role in the lifestyle of Newfoundland and Labrador. Most have made their living from her, and many have died by her. The souls lost in the many shipwrecks around our rugged coastline over the years would make a formidable list. Most of these losses are recorded, and many have been honoured in stories, poems, songs and even movies.

Passing with much less mention is a group of men who also lived and died by the sea, the inshore fishermen. I'm sure the men who died while fishing from dories, punts, motorboats, skiffs and, in more recent years, speedboats, since the settling of Newfoundland, would comprise a greater list than those lost on larger offshore vessels. I'm talking about the lone fishermen, the brothers who work side-by-side and the father-and-son teams who go out and never return.

E.J. Pratt, Canada's unofficial poet laureate and a native of Newfoundland, speaks of these men in a short poem called "Erosion":

It took the sea a thousand years
A thousand years to trace
The granite features of this cliff,
In crag and scarp and base.

It took the sea an hour one night,
An hour of storm to place
The sculpture of these granite seams
Upon a woman's face.

Twelve years ago, on August 22, 1984, two brothers and the son of one of them from the community of Merritt's Harbour, near Herring Neck, Notre Dame Bay, went out as usual to haul their fishing gear. A storm came up and the three did not return. The bodies of one brother and his son were found close to shore the next day. The two were wearing lifejackets, and their hands and fingers were torn from trying to climb the slippery rocks. The other brother was never found. His wife lived for a year or so in the house he had built for her, but the memories got to be too hard to live with and she moved away. The wife and mother of the other two has also moved away.

Merritt's Harbour is a community of about 65 residents. Three people dying in a large city would not be considered a great loss, considering the total population, but three people represented a loss of five per cent of the population of Merritt's Harbour. It was a major catastrophe that is still felt in the village today. People continue to talk about the accident and try to speculate on the cause. The answers, however, are buried in the North Atlantic.

I learned this story when I went looking for a cottage on or near Twillingate Island. The widow of the man who was never found put their house on the market and I bought it. I would probably still own it if Downhome hadn't come along and consumed my spare time. I wrote the following poem to the memory of the three around that time:

The Ghosts of Merritt's Harbour

Three fishermen went out one day
From the calm of Merritt's Harbour
Went out to make their daily pay
The weather in their favour

Who would know, or who could say
To the happy three that left the shore
That all three would be lost that day
And one of them be seen no more

Fair weather later turned to foul
The time for hauling gear was gone
And little boats with half a haul
Went back to shelter, one by one

But three in one boat never came
Did they stay for pay, or show
Or to beat the devil at his game
We'll never, ever know

Was her engine fouled somehow
Or was she swamped astern
As gear was hauled? We won't know now
Nor will we ever learn

All night long the storm howled 'round
By morning it began to lift
And two in life preservers found
On the sea that took their life, adrift

Two found with hands cut to the bone
Evidence of a struggle frantic
The fate of the third is only known
To the never yielding North Atlantic

Two made the rocky shore that night
Tried climbing up, but no one saw
Two poor souls losing life's last fight
With fingers cold and numb and raw

Two bodies in the church may be
To be view by friend and neighbour
But three souls are still at sea
Not far from Merritt's Harbour

Sad folks in their sad abodes
Their loved ones' loss belabour
While children play upon the roads
In solemn Merritt's Harbour

It's been years since the three passed on
From the village by the sea
Yet it seems somehow they are not gone
And somehow can never be

But the ones who loved them most
No longer are around
They've left the outport and its ghosts
Where memories abound

But three ghosts will not leave this shore
The place of their last harbour
They will be here for evermore
In tiny Merritt's Harbour