“There have been Fundy pilots since the city of Saint John was incorporated in 1785; thus the profession is among the oldest in America”
LOUIS ARTHUR CUNNINGHAMJune151929
The Pilots of Fundy
“There have been Fundy pilots since the city of Saint John was incorporated in 1785; thus the profession is among the oldest in America”
LOUIS ARTHUR CUNNINGHAM
LONG AGO, yet still in the memory of some, when steamers were not so plentiful, the Bay of Fundy had an evil name among those who followed the sea. Its racing, treacherous tides, its ledges and shoals, its tempests, its wild caprices, were things to conjure with; and foreign shipmasters and all those strange to these waters came to know and rely on the Fundy pilots . . . sturdy, reckless seamen out of the port of Saint John.
I look on the yellowed parchment of an old Admiralty chart I have before me . . . Clarks Ground (heavy rip on the ebb), South East Ledge (makes a tide rip), tide rip of great extent, Old Proprietor Ledge, Gull Rock, Lurcher Lightship, Frenchman Elbow . . . can’t you see Neptune, hoary old graybeard, sitting on the sea-lashed rocks with a weathereye for hapless vessels? Hazards by the hundreds in the Bay . . . not so many now, for lights and whistling-buoys, foghorns and bell-buoys mark each dangerous spot. But fifty years ago it was a different story and an account of the ships that have made the rocky shores of Fundy their last resting place, and of those that have sailed these waters and vanished without trace, would fill a goodly volume.
There were pilots then . . . the grandfathers and granduncles of men in the service now; the fathers of old pensioners who sit back with their pipes and their reminiscences. They were a stronger breed in the old days. They’d traverse the Bay of Fundy in a row-boat, even as far as where it meets the Atlantic at Cape Sable, and very often they would not row, but merely stand in the stern and scull. They served then, as they still do, in the rugged tradition of the service, a long, gruelling apprenticeship of five years. They have to cross the ocean and learn to be deep-sea sailormen, learn to read charts, to understand navigation, to make sail on all rigs of ships, to cook, to do all that a sailor needs to do and learn a lot more than the average tar needs to know. They must be familiar with the waters of the Bay, as the schoolboy must know his numbers. Their period of training is thus as long and trying as that of the doctor or lawyer; their work just as specialized, for lives and fortunes hang upon their decisions. Even today, a wrong move will cause
loss of life and thousands of dollars damage. Yet the slate is marvelously clean and complaints are negligible. As many as seventy steamers dock here in one of the winter months; in addition, there are many tern-schooners and smaller craft, each requiring, according to port regulations, a pilot. And if the lights along the shore are better, if bells and whistles now sound through the fog, the Bay is still the same . . . still treacherous; and the pilot must be ever on the alert; he must have judgment, perception, seasense and uncanny intuition, or he will meet disaster.
When Pilots Raced
THERE have been Fundy pilots since the city of Saint John was incorporated in 1785; thus, the profession is among the oldest in America. In that year, when Saint John became a city there were only three men in the service —Pilots Reed, Mills and White. At one time there were as many as forty, when ships were smaller and more numerous. Today, when an ocean freighter can carry as much as three or four windjammers, there are eleven, a number which suffices. Once there were as many as five pilot boats, each competing with the others, racing for the ships. Often they would be provisioned for three weeks, and often, in the race, would cruise as far as 200 miles from port, sometimes ending up in Bar Harbor or Boston. Sometimes they never came back.
They watched each other, like racers at the starting-line . . . the men of these little vessels—the Howard D. Troop, the James U. Thomas, the Nina Blanche, the David Lynch, the Twilight. One couldn’t slip away without some of the others tagging along in her wake. Presently they would race. They were built, usually in Saint John, for speed . . . which they attained. No auxiliary engines in the beginning; they carried canvas far in excess of that which the Glooscap, the modern Shelburne-built schooner, carries now, and they wore it in the stiffest gales. They would be “iced-up,” their crews would be worn and exhausted, but they’d carry on, cruising over the tumbling green waters of the Bay, nosing into the surges of the Atlantic, fighting
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the spindrift from their eyes ... in quest of ships.
Then there was the trick of putting the pilot aboard a vessel in a heavy sea. All manoeuvring had to be done by sail; whereas now a few turns of the engine will keep the pilot-boat alongside. They used to have to run ahead of the ship to be boarded and lower away a small boat which would be rowed to the ship as she came abreast . . .
It was not unusual for a pilot, taking a ship out in rough weather, to be compelled to remain on board. Pilots have been carried across to Europe, down south, wherever the boat happened to be bound for. Only last Christmas, Pilot William Murray was carried off to Nejv York on a ship where the heavy seas had marooned him.
Often the pilot-boats would be weeks on a cruise . . . and they were anything but pleasure cruises. One pilot tells of a trip he took in a row-boat with his father, a grizzled old veteran, one of the foremost men in the service. They rowed about the Bay all night and finally reached land somewhere along the coast toward noon of the next day. The son’s “stomach thought his throat was cut”. He was famished. They went ashore. The old man grunted, “Well . . . it’s about dinner-time, I guess. Better smoke a pipe.”
Then, in the long, long, ago, there was some surreptitious foraging for food. Fish, the pilots caught themselves and potatoes were the staples. Onions were described as a luxury. Once, driven by necessity, one of the mariners crept up on a harmless sheep and set about the work of butchering it. The owner, spying him, came a-running with many loud cries of rage and asked him, how dared he? The forager, undaunted, said, “No damn sheep’s gonna bite me, an’ live!”
Their hardy existence, however, made them long-lived. At seventy they are pensioned off and there are now eight on the pension list, ranging from the retirement age to very near the century mark. As a rule they are very active and retain to a remarkable degree the full possession of their faculties. Often and often I have heard octogenarian pilots declaiming bitterly against a law that compels a man “in his prime” to go on the retired list..
Besides the retired ones, the widows and dependents of those who lose their lives or die in the service likewise receive an allowance. There is a fund of forty thousand dollars. The pilots buy their own vessels, their food, pay all expenses, and split each year a handsome bonus. Today they have a vessel thoroughly modern in equipment, have their own cook and can order what food they will. This, of course, is under the system of Dominion Government control. There is no competition now, save that of individual achievement. The pilots take turn and turn about, each standing his trick in command of the Glooscap, and shore-leave is regular where once it was a matter of chance.
Mr. John C. Chesley, Agent of Marine and Fisheries, has been Superintendent of pilotage since the new system was inaugurated in 1920. A very genial and popular person is John Chesley . . . and very proud of his pilots.
“You couldn’t find a sturdier or better body of men anywhere,” he told me. “In this, our busiest year in Saint John, there hasn’t been a single complaint. The service has grown more efficient each year and the addition of the trim Glooscap has helped matters greatly.”
Framed pictures of the Glooscap were being distributed to the pilots when I was in the office and it was good to see the pride with which the men looked upon their vessel. In the winter months
they spend more time aboard her than they do in their homes.
Pilot John Abbott, one of the younger men, worked under the competitive system as well as under the existing one.
“It’s much better now,” he said. “When I first started it was neck-andneck to get a ship. Often, one pilot-boat would beat another to a vessel by a matter of inches. I was in the David Lynch, and one day, we sighted a vessel coming up along the lee shore. We were to starboard of her; another pilot-boat, the Howard D. Troop,, was on her port side. We came within hailing distance and, lowering a boat, called to the captain to haul his ladder up from the port side and throw it over starboard. He did this and we put a man aboard, but the fingers of one of the Troop’s men just missed the ladder as they yanked it up ... a matter of seconds.
“Wireless wasn’t as highly developed or efficient in those days and the usual way we knew about the coming of a ship was by figuring the approximate time it would take her to cross, when we knew on what date she’d left the other side. We had many an exciting race and developed as much skill in handling our craft as a yachtsman would. Sometimes we’d spend a week hunting for a ship, only to miss her entirely or see her go by us flying the flag of some rival pilotboat. Each one had her distinguishing flag or pennant and at night you could tell if a vessel had a pilot aboard when she showed a white light over her side light.
“The rival crews would play many tricks, each trying to outwit the others; there were fake telephone calls and all sorts of ruses to keep competitors off the scent. You had to be more on your toes then as regards getting a ship, for your living depended upon your speed and resourcefulness.”
Each job of piloting presents its special problem. Among many there is the misconception that when a pilot is put aboard a ship and steps up on the bridge, he is in supreme command and his word is law. It is not, unless the captain agrees to it. Most shipmasters leave the work of bringing in the vessel and docking her to the pilot, but will assist him by telling him the peculiarities of disposition and quirks of character of their ship; the things she will do and the things she won’t. This is of vast importance in a harbor like Saint John, where the tide runs in, the tide runs out, and wind and tide may play the deuce with the navigator’s calculations. A strong wind will make an appreciable difference in the height of tides and in their time.
There was one case where a ship with her nose partly in Carleton slip was seized by the current, which started to drag her back into the stream. The closeness of her bow to the wharf made a quick thrust forward a most dangerous and unlikely move. The pilot might have let her back out, and into mis-
chief; might have gone slow ahead and into more, since there was danger of fouling another vessel in the slip; might have let go an anchor . . . which might not have held her.
“How far are we from that wharf?” High up on the bridge in that tense moment when the big steamer felt the irresistible pull of the current, with the various forces of the tide, tug-boats which couldn’t hold her, and the ship itself, to contend with, he had a few seconds in which to decide.
“How far?” he called to the captain of the tow-boat.
No answer even from the man in the bow.
They knew that he thought of driving her full speed ahead, and into the slip. They couldn’t trust themselves. It was one man’s decision. Then, the pilot “told by the shadow” . . . the shadow of the lofty bows thrown out on water and wharf.
“Give her full-speed ahead!” he ordered; and she was in. But only the power to estimate, instinctively, instantaneously, by the size of the intangible shadow, how far she was from the dock, saved the loss of thousands of dollars, for no other manoeuvre would have saved her. Such are the duties of a pilot.
The tide runs rapidly in and out of the harbor. At ebb the mighty Saint John River pours in its quota over the Reversing Falls through the wide mouth, through narrow Buttermilk Channel, and when a ship is in the current or “stream” it takes the combined powers of several tugs to hold her and the anchors must be let go. Pilot Abbott told me of an Italian shipmaster who stood on the bridge beside him as the tide did tricks with his ship; now carrying her broadside-on out the harbor in the direction of Digby, Nova Scotia; now defying her slow speed; now making her do things she had never done before. She contradicted the captain’s verbal estimate of her gloriously. The Italian was worried sick, but the pilot knew there was no danger; knew that, if necessary, he could actually take her out of the harbor broadside-on, and bring her back.
When, at long last, the anchors were over and holding fast, the captain, a much shaken man, said:
“I never before see my sheep act like that!”
But the pilot knew it wasn’t the ship; it was the Fundy tides, more capricious than all the women who have sailed down the Bay.
In fair weather or foul, the pilot must be on watch. At Reed’s Point, historic spot in the harbor’s history and rendezvous of all sailormen, is their headquarters, high up in a little well-windowed room at the foot of the Hill of the Three Lamps. From there, through a powerful telescope, they can scan the horizon for the smudge of smoke that betokens the approach of a steamer, and in case the Glooscap is not out to meet her, they can put off in their motor-cruiser.
In summer it’s not so hard, though schooners are plentiful and there are regular steamship comings and goings. But the real work comes in winter, from the closing of the St. Lawrence to its opening, from early December to April. Then the pilots must work in the ice and snow and driving sleet, in the thick white vapor from the icy water, in the dense fogs of the Bay. Steady nerves and keen eyes and snap-judgment and unfailing accuracy are imperative. And they carry on . . . behind them the proud record of good men and true, who have served well; laid down their lives, many of them, that the ships might reach safe harbor.
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