Via Hudson Bay

An eyewitness’s account of the voyage of the Pennyworth, first vessel to bring a commercial cargo to Churchill

D. WILSON MACARTHUR December 1 1932

Via Hudson Bay

An eyewitness’s account of the voyage of the Pennyworth, first vessel to bring a commercial cargo to Churchill

D. WILSON MACARTHUR December 1 1932

Via Hudson Bay


An eyewitness’s account of the voyage of the Pennyworth, first vessel to bring a commercial cargo to Churchill

THE S.S. Pennyworth, of Newcastle-upon-Tyne, England, left Antwerp on August 2. On August 17 she was berthed in Churchill and preparing to discharge cargo—the first commercial cargo ever to enter Canada through the new port.

The voyage was, practically speaking, without incident. Yet we had gone prepared for anything, and the underwriters had imposed a very heavy additional premium because we were bound for Churchill.

We carried cargo - and what a cargo ! Three teddy bears going to a region of real live bears; bales of rag dolls, indoor games, cases of toffee and chocolate, and—delirious thought !—no less than thirty tons of genuine liquorice allsorts. What an orgy for the papooses and squaws of the Northland—if only they could have raided our holds! Bizarre harbingers of civilization, surely, as they lay cheek by jowl with bales of cute “undies,” woollen and leather gloves, pins and needles and thimbles and thread, blankets and Turkish towels. There were bricks, boot laces, and steel cutlery; pencils, nibs, stationery, and printing paper; shovels and spades; galvanized wire clothes lines, mincers and gramophone needles; books and bread saws; cheese and chickory and barbed wire; steel netting and glassware; china stamped as part of the first cargo ever shipped through Churchill so that proud housewives might ever after glow as they display such treasures to jealous friends; and the inevitable and ubiquitous “Scotch”—1,200 cases of it, for the liquor commissions of Manitoba and Saskatchewan.

In spite of the heterogeneous conglomeration, the ship was light—more than 8,000 tons short of capacity—and Nature has an unerring nose for a light ship. So when we thrust our bluff bows through the Pentland Firth and breasted the long steep swell of the open North Atlantic, she was ready to pounce.

Iceland’s Greeting

OUT of grey skies the west wind came tearing to meet us, lashing itself to gale force and raising gigantic seas that roared past in scudding clouds of spray. The ship pitched. She flung her bows into the air, poised giddily, then, as the solid support swept from under her forefoot, she came down with a crash upon the next wave. It rose in a solid wall high above her fo’c’s’le head, hung for a moment, then curled over to crash down upon her. The stem heaved up, the hull quivered violently with the vibration of a racing screw; then, with a staggering lurch, she recovered, thrust her bows up, and set herself at the next giant comber.

Iceland’s principal export is depressions: and we were near enough to meet them on their way to Britain or elsewhere. The North Atlantic, from Lewis to Greenland, must be

one of the stormiest stretches of water in the world.

A 10,000-ton tramp looks big and solid enough in port. But on the face of a heaving wilderness of ocean it is different. She is a cork tossed at the will of the waves.

So for days we pounded into it, while the gale, hourly gaining force, howled and shrieked in the rigging. Spray, flying in clouds over the bridge, lashed our faces; and at night, peering down over the dodger on the bridge, we could watch the phosphorescence running like liquid fire over the streaming hatches and the well deck.

The squalls grew’ fiercer, grew berserk; and our skipper, Captain Mouat, a big Shetlander to whom weather wisdom is an instinct, grinned encouragingly.

“That means the worst’s over,” he declared. “She 11 blow’ herself out in a few hours now.”

The ship staggered under each successive blow. For nearly twenty-four hours we had logged little over four knots, after our proud twelve in the North Sea; but there were lulls now, growing more frequent, and the squalls became intermittent, lost force, and finally died away. Sunlight burst through.

“That’s that!” the skipper remarked, and promised us clear weather for days.

Guided by Wireless Messages

BUT as the barometer rost» the thermometer fell. Next morning there was an ominous chill in the air, and when I went on deck I was met by the icy breath of a gigantic berg, a floating island of ice. gliding majestically past less than a quarter of a mile away. The long seas battered against its sheer precipitous side, throwing up cascades of spray, and where the sunlight caught it it glowed emerald, superbly, mysteriously beautiful. Its jagged ixaks towered high above our short foremast.

We were fully 200 miles east of Greenland; but now other ixrgs rose upon the horizon in silent procession, awe-inspiring in their al&l;x>f and sculptured beauty.

I'he skipper eyed the hard, dark line of the horizon.

“Plenty more where those fellows came from,” he declared, and altered course to hold more south and give Cape Farewell a wider berth.

Within a few hours this precaution was justified. A ship taking supplies to the British trawlers working on the Greenland Banks reported herself hemmed in by bergs thirty miles south of Farewell; while we, just thirty miles south of her, were able to proceed in safety.

The night was clear. The lookout in the bows and the officer on watch could detect the occasional bergs that appeared long before they were near enough to endanger the ship, and in the morning we were crossing the wide mouth of the Davis Strait.

A nor’wester met us there, sending a long steep swell down the Strait, and the thermometer dropjxd still further. There was nothing to relieve the monotonous grey immensity of jumbled sea and cloud-swept sky but the glistening magnificence of the Arctic bergs making down toward the Labrador coast, whence one day they might reach the Newfoundland Banks, shrouded in inevitable fog. to give some nasty moments to the big ships on the St. Lawrence lanes.

Away to starboard, whales appeared now and again, blowing, lolling on the surface, undisturbed by the passage of a harmless old tramp. After all, our armory consisted only

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of two ancient and corroded carbines of the last century, relics of the Great War that some heroic souls had used to explode enemy mines with. We managed to fire a few shells—but only by lashing one of the carbines to the rail, tying a lanyard to the trigger ; then, when every one in the vicinity had taken cover, yanking at the lanyard. No one but the mate, a sturdy and intrepid Tynesider, would risk firing from the shoulder. The whales were perfectly safe.

The Pennyworth carried other reminders of the Great War, for a torpedo from a German submarine had exploded in her engine room, and she still bore the marks of it in dented metal work. Yet in spite of that she had done over thirteen knots on more than one watch in the North Sea, a performance that she repeated later on. Of course, she was Clyde built !

The horizon, illimitable, stretched all round, empty and bleak ; but now there was a sense of land somewhere beneath it, and Sparks came dashing down from the Marconi room, waving a buff envelop. The skipper signed for it, and read it aloud —a message of welcome and warning from Resolution Island, the cliffbound northern sentinel of the Hudson Strait, where a wireless direction-finding station is located, with three men marooned in an utter desolation of barren rock and ice.

Presently Sparks reappeared with another message, this time from Captain Balcom, master of the N. B. McLean, a Canadian Government icebreaker and patrol ship. He sent greetings to the captain, and a warning of ice ahead; a vast field that had been broken up by several days of persistent wind. It was drifting across the Strait, and we were advised to hold close over toward Resolution and slip round the north end of the field.

And now, far away on the port bow, something emerged from the low haze, something definite and recognizable—land! It was one of the Button Islands, which lie above Cape Chidley at the northern extremity of labrador. A long brown bank of fog lay uj>on it, hazing the rugged contour of its cliffs and mountains, and spreading gradually north. Our first landfall! A thrill ran through the ship, and the feeling of something accomplished, of almost an arrival. Less than a thousand miles to go now, and all in comparatively sheltered water.

Running The Ice Gauntlet

TO THE NORTH, Resolution gradually took shai)e. As we approached we could make out some enormous bergs stranded close to the shore and, presently we could distinguish through the glasses the low buildings and tall masts of the radio station. The ice was thicker now—we could count as many as fifty bergs at one timesetting in with the current westward along the northern shore of the Strait. Later, those that escaped grounding would cross over to the south, and IK* carried back eastward and out into the Atlantic, to drift slowly down the Labrador coast to Belle Isle.

We came u|*>n the ice field presently. Soon the sea was white with great chunks of ice, swirling past close to the hull, bobbing and swaying in our wash, weathered into the weirdest and most fantastic shapes. As we dodged in among them, word came from the N. B. McLean that she was awaiting us, and would escort us through the thickest part of the field.

Captain Mouat was quite at home. Last year he took out the Farnuvrth for the same owners, Messrs. R. S. Dalgleish of Newcastle, making Canadian history by inaugurating the new northern route. His was the first British freighter to tie up in Churchill harbor, and he brought away the first Canadian grain ever ship¡>ed from Churchill. This year he was making history again, for ours was the first cargo to be shipped to Churchill.

His reports liad proved invaluable. We

had all the benefit of past experience to make the voyage safe and swift, and there were new Canadian charts—result of patient and exhaustive surveys—not only for the passage of the Strait and Bay, but for the entrance to Churchill and for the harbor as well.

We found the icebreaker lying-to ahead of us, and she gave us a royal welcome. It seemed that every one of her sixty men was on deck to wave a greeting, and Captain Balcom spoke to us over the wireless telephone—a neat little speech combining a message of welcome with full reports on weather and ice conditions, and advice as to our course. In his crisp, matter-of-fact tones one could detect the emotion he felt at our presence, justifying the arduous work he and his men have done in aiding in the navigation of the Strait.

We fell in astern, and hour after hour passed uneventfully. The horizon was still white with glistening masses of ice; then magically it cleared. Blue water showed through ahead, then all abeam, and for the moment at least all danger was past. The skipix;r relinquished the bridge, and went below to snatch a well earned and long overdue rest.

But he was out of luck. Almost at once, as it seemed, there was a sudden earsplitting roar of sound, ominous and desolate, a long drawn wail that shook the hull. It was the ship’s siren. On the instant, he was up, muffled to the chin, taking the bridge again.

The horizon had vanished. The N. B. McLean, ahead of us, was gone, swallowed up by a heavy grey pall that descended upon us, pouring in trailing wreaths over the fo’c’sle head, over the decks, enveloping the masts and smokestack.

The ice field was safely astern, but there was still ice—occasional gigantic bergs coming down from the frozen wastes above Baffin Land, down the Foxe Channel. We were within a few degrees of the Arctic Circle. At any moment the grey immensity of a berg might loom up through the fog, right in our path.

Again the icebreaker wirelessed, promising to keep a strict lookout for ice and to rei>ort by siren if she detected any bergs. So long as we kept dead in her wake we were comparatively safe.

It was then that the result of Captain Mouat’s previous report proved itself. The ordinary marine compass is useless in these waters, for at certain points it goes dead, refusing to function. Besides that, there are only two charted courses as yet, and we were well north of these.

But we were fitted with a gyro compass, which enabled us to steer an accurate course irrespective of magnetic attraction, and in addition, we had the Marconi Echometer Sounding Device, a wireless instrument that directs a beam from the hull to the sea

bottom, picks up the echo, and transforms it into readings on a fathom scale in the chart room. It is silent and so does not interfere with the watch for siren echoes that would indicate land or ice near at hand. It gives over fifty readings of soundings per minute with perfect precision, and thus no matter how quickly the bottom might shelve there could be no danger of running aground.

So we carried on through the fog without losing speed. But fog never lasts long in the Hudson Strait, and presently it cleared. On the port was a dense wall of white, stretching away ahead and astern, and on the starboard the thin sunlight glinted upon an enormous berg that seemed hardly a stone’s-throw away.

In Hudson Bay

TT WAS just sunset. We watched the sun

sink beneath the horizon, while the golden glow of sea and sky gave place to a dull and shadowed grey; then, miraculously, it reappeared, suspended above the dark horizon line, dull red and distorted by a layer of cloud. It hung there, sinking slowly, and it cast no reflection upon the water. It was itself only a reflection; a perfect mirage of sunset.

That night the sky cleared, moon and stars came out, and for hours the heavens were illumined by the iridescent radiance of the Northern Lights, trailing like glowing smoke clouds across the stars, or stabbing in long slender poignards of rainbow light almost from horizon to horizon.

The temperature fell still further, with a strong and bitter north wind to enhance the chill of the night, and a shimmer of thin ice appeared on the decks and hatch covers. But morning brought a change—brilliant sunshine and blue skies and sparkling seas, with a shade temperature of forty-five degrees Fahrenheit that gave the illusion, after the night frost, of a summer morning.

At last we were in the Hudson Bay, a vast inland sea, and there the patrol ship left us, first sending over a dory with mails for us to deliver in Churchill, and a great pile of magazines—Maclean’s among them—in exchange for books and English magazines we had ready for her.

There was nothing now but clear water ahead, and we steamed on through sunlit seas, with a steadily rising thermometer, all day. But as a last salute from the North, we ran into the tail end of a nor’west gale that had been raging round Churchill for days; and so, rolling and plunging, we raised at last the low flat coastline of Manitoba and the tall white structure of the grain elevator that stands out dearly as its only landmark.

A tug, the Graham Bell, appeared, bringing out the one-armed Nova Scotian, Captain Pentz, who acts as pilot, and within two

hours we were alongside the quay at Churchill, preparing to discharge our cargo.

We were just fifteen days out from Antwerp. We had seen any amount of ice, we had encountered storms, but we had met little real danger. History was never more easily made.

We set up new records. We took home prairie flour, specially milled, so that the time in transit from Saskatchewan to the Millenium Mills in London was well under three weeks—the freshest prairie flour that ever reached London. The potentialities are enormous. With a rapidly fluctuating market, grain and flour buyers must feel added confidence when they know that these commodities can be delivered in Europe within three weeks of their purchase. But not only that; Churchill could tap the entire prairie belt and the whole of Central and Western Canada.

Churchill is a thousand miles west of Montreal, yet only the same distance from Britain that Montreal is. It is not so much the immense saving in railroad freights that matters, it is the saving in time. Grain, flour, cattle, zinc, nickel, copper—they must all benefit by faster access to the European market.

The passage is the coolest in the world. We took back thermographs in our hold and ’tween decks to record the temperatures during the voyage, with a view to deciding whether dairy produce could be carried without refrigeration. The saving there would be immense. The possibilities opened out are incalculable.

Churchill’s Advantages

CHURCHILL, with its magnificent grain elevator and freight sheds, its welldredged harbor which ocean freighters can reach direct within an hour or so of sighting land—a condition that exists in practically no other seaport in the world—and its splendid facilities for loading or discharging three large ships simultaneously, can handle any type of cargo whatsoever. Berthing and clearance are fast. The passage of the Strait and Bay, with four direction-finding stations—at Resolution, Cape Hopes Advance, Coats Island, and Churchill—the icebreaker and patrol ship N. B. McLean to ensure the safety of incoming and outgoing vessels, and with such essentials as the gyro compass and echometer on board these ships, is, in my opinion, as safe as that of the St. Lawrence River.

There are only four courses from Chidley to Churchill. Fog is sporadic on the Hudson Bay route, whereas on the St. Lawrence run it occurs throughout seventy-five per cent of the year. With the steady change in climatic conditions, the Hudson Strait is almost certain to be open longer and longer each year—and it never actually freezes. Navigation is stopped only on account of the floes from the Foxe Channel, the Davis Strait and Baffin Bay.

The new route has proved its value. It remains to be seen whether it will be permitted to develop along the best lines.

It need not enter into competition with the East. There is no question of that. With its special facilities and advantages, it is not merely the opening up of a new trade route. It is the inauguration of a new era.

Britain is clamoring for Empire products. No shop dare expose for sale any articles of foreign make or foodstuffs of foreign origin where Empire products can be substituted. Canada has an opportunity such as has never existed before; and Churchill may well prove the chief avenue by which that opportunity can be explored and exploited.

Churchill should not take trade from Montreal or the Lakes. It should create an entirely new trade for itself—in grain and flour, in live cattle, in dairy produce, in minerals—by offering special facilities for exports, and for the imports that the Dominion can take in exchange.

The End