The tragic loss of three members of one family from Shea Heights, St. John's when they went fishing outside the Narrows in September 2016, brought to mind my own frightening experience when I was a boy. It seems that only by a quirk of fate, we did not suffer the same outcome.
I can relate to Shea Heights because our family lived on Mill Bridge Road which was just below South Side Road West. In those days Shea Heights was called the Brow.
In my story, the main character, Mr. Smith and his family lived on South Side Road West just below the Brow. The house where the Smiths lived is still there; however, Mill Bridge Road and where our house stood are gone, being absorbed by the expansion of the harbor.
My story begins in the late summer of 1945. I was ten years old.
Mr. Smith At The Narrows
It was only about two weeks before school started and shortly after we had arrived home from Aunt Eliza's when Mr. Smith came to visit us with an unusual request and it was a complete surprise to me. Mr. Smith and his family were good friends of ours, and they played cards together often, Mr. Smith was Chef Petty Officer in the Canadian Navy, and he was stationed in St. John's.
As it was he arrived at our house one day and asked Mom if I would like to go fishing with him in the harbor outside the Narrows. Mr. Smith was on leave, and it would be the last chance he had to take his son Ray out fishing before his leave was over, and wondered if I would like to come along as it would be company for Ray; who was a year younger than me. It was alright with me because I loved to go fishing.
Mom asked him how he was going to go fishing, since she knew he did not have a boat. He assured her by saying he had a fisherman friend down in the Battery and had arranged for a loan of a boat and gear from him. So it was arranged we would go out the following Saturday morning.
When we got to the dock where the fisherman had the boat, I was surprised to see it was not a fishing skiff like my Uncles, but it was more like a dory, about twelve feet overall; with one end squared off on which was mounted a small outboard motor. It looked like a coffin to me.
However, I had every confidence in Mr. Smith; him being a sailor and all. The fisherman friend showed Mr. Smith how to start the motor and after several tries, finally got it going, the outboard was not new and no more then a four hp motor and had a very unhealthy sound. My confidence factor dropped a little as we left the dock.
Mr. Smith was a big man and when he sat in the stern, by the motor, the bow stuck up in the air, so he had me sit at the bow and Ray sat in the middle on the thwart, to balance out the load.
Mr. Smith was in a jovial mood as we headed to the Narrows; saying how many fish we would catch. Now, as most people know the St. John's harbour is a naturally land-locked harbour, and inside the Narrows the water is always calm. Outside the Narrows it could be blowing a gale with waves up to four feet, but once a boat got inside the Narrows; the winds were abated by the high cliffs of Signal Hill and the harbour was like a mill pond.
Once we got to the mouth of the Narrows and faced the open Atlantic, we could see it was all white caps and it was blowing a small gale, and there was an appreciable drop in the temperature of about ten degrees that you could feel.
We were almost outside the Narrows, about even with the Fort Townsent lighthouse, when the first big wave hit us. The wave hit the bow of the bow and almost knocked me overboard, but I had a good grip on the gunwales and held on. Ray on the other hand who was just sitting on the center seat was knocked to the bottom of the boat, and began wailing like he was scared to death. Mr. Smith was not jovial any longer and kept a good grip on the tiller to keep the boat pointed into the waves. The boat was bouncing up and down like a cork; and then the worst thing happened: the motor conked out. The next big wave hit the boat broadside, and there was a note of apprehension in Mr. Smiths voice as he told us to sit still and not stand up. This was hardly necessary as Ray was lying flat in the bottom of the boat and was drenched by the cold water as it cascaded over the side. Mr. Smith was trying desperately to get the motor started, and now without any power the boat was blowing in the wind and waves toward the Fort Townsent side that was just a huge grey rock rising out of the ocean, and I could see the waves crashing high in the air as they hit the rock.
Mr. Smith was working feverishly on the cord trying to get life into the motor, but each time he pulled the cord it sputtered, but would not start; I said, "don't worry Mr. Smith, I can row" and crawled over Ray and put the oars into the pins in the gunwales and pulled on one oar to get the boat into the wind. The effect of the one oar dragging on one side and me pulling the other helped steady the boat somewhat.
The outboard was really old and did not have the recoil housed internally with an automatic recoil; instead the cord had to be manually wrapped around a large fly wheel that was mounted externally on the top of the motor. This was extremely difficult to perform in a small boat that was bouncing up and down in waves up to three feet, and the wind blowing the boat toward the rocks.
Each time he pulled the cord and it did not start, he had to wrap the cord around the fly wheel again, and although it was probably less then a minute to do, it seemed like forever.
We were now within a stone throw of the Fort Townsent side, and after about six tries, finally and not a minute to soon, the motor sputtered into life. Mr. Smith gradually turned the boat back into he harbour, and once inside again it was calm.
"Well boys," Mr. Smith said, "I guess it's a little to rough to go fishing today; we'll go again another time."
When we got back to the dock, and faced the boats owner, Mr. Smith was fit to be tied. Being a big man and also a sailor he had a few choice words for his fisherman friend; saying something about not giving that motor to his worst enemy, and also a few swear words about the thing conking out, and how we were almost swamped. These words were not for young ears, but I was old enough to know what they meant, and they were my feelings exactly.
When Mr. Smith dropped me of at my house, Mom asked, "how come you're back so soon, and why is Ray soaking wet?" Mr. Smith told her briefly of our adventure, and downed played the danger because he did to want to alarm her. He said in parting that we would go fishing again when the weather was better; but we never went fishing outside the St. John's Narrows again.
The quirk of fate, mentioned beforehand was the fact that the motor stalled before reaching outside he narrows. What seemed like a misfortune at the time, was probably what saved us, because had we gone beyond the Narrows completely, our little boat and motor were not made for the three and four foot waves, and gale of wind of the Atlantic. We would have been swamped for sure. In those days we had no life jackets or flotation device of any kind. As I write this, we learn of another tragedy to a family of crab fisherman and a friend, which just occurred in May 2020 off St. Lawrence on the Burin Peninsula.
The Transportation Safety Board investigation into the loss of the small open fishing vessel, Pop's Pride off Cape Spear NL on September 6, 2016 concluded on October 18, 2017 and was released on November 27,2017.
Marine Transportation Safety Investigation Report M16A0327 which can be found at https://www.tsb.gc.ca/eng/rapports-reports/marine/2016/m16a0327/m16a0327.html