THE SHIP THAT NEVER SAILS
The Lurcher’s been at sea for 43 years—at anchor. But she’s cheated Davy Jones of countless victims
A GIGANTIC WAVE punched the little ship.
In the galley the cook screecheda normal reaction when a pot jumps off a stove and drenches you with boiling soup. In the officers’ mess everything on the table flew at the wall and the butter stuck where it struck.
Men were spilled from bunks, bounced from chairs, thrown from their feet.
The 396-ton vessel rocked and wobbled like a boxer absorbing an uppercut, then righted herself in the wild sea.
In the galley the cook, silent again, wrung soup from his clothing. In the officers’ mess the first mate extricated himself and two muffins from the debris, scraped a bit of butter off the wall, and resumed his dinner.
“Stormy,” he remarked casually.
“Yes, it is,” agreed the chief engineer, recovering dignity, muffins, butter and appetite with the same speed as the mate.
And the meal went on in a manner which proved that not even a wave of mountainous size and atom bomb violence can disturb equilibrium more than momentarily aboard the Canadian Government Steamship Lurcher, which has been at sea in the
roughest water in the v/orld for 43 years without going anywhere.
Lurcher is a lightship—a battered, barnaclestudded veteran with seaweed sprouting from her underplates. Stubby, almost barrel-shaped, she was never beautiful. And her bright red paint, instead of hiding the scars of age, makes you think of an ancient harridan who has used rouge too hopefully. But mariners from far-flung ports rave about her charms in a score of languages.
Love That Ship
THEY SAY she’s the finest sight you can see when you are entering or leaving the Bay of Fundy in thick weather. And they add that the raucous and dismal voice of her foghorn often sounds sweeter than a choir of angels.
They have reason to love her. She guides them through fog, snow, rain, darkness. She helps them set their course. She warns them of unseen danger.
Her business is cheating Davy Jones’ locker of victims.
Tethered to a 7,000-pound anchor by 180 fathoms of steel chain, each foot-long link of which weighs 25 pounds, she stands guard over Lurcher Shoals, 18 miles from Yarmouth, on the southwest coast of Nova Scotia. Continued on page 40
Continued on page 40
The Ship That Never Sails
Continued from paye 12
The word “lurcher,” according to Noah Webster’s dictionary, means “one who, or that which, lurches or lies in wait; one who watches to pilfer, or to betray or entrap.”
A dozen miles off the nearest headland, the Shoals are rock ledges, named Lurcher because they lurch or lie in wait a few feet under the surface to betray or entrap shipping. Old Fundy’s tremendous tide rushes over them endlessly, and the conflict of tide and rock churns the bay furiously at thus spot. When wind joins the combat all hell breaks loose.
The Lurcher lightship’s sentry post is on the fringe of this treacherous place where in former times countless ships
and sailors, caught in the struggle of elements, were carried to death.
The light at the craft’s masthead, her bellowing foghorn, her clanging bell, and in more recent years her radio beacon, have shorn the shoals of their menace. They have trapped nothing since she took on her tough, monotonous job.
Callers Once a Month
Shore is visible from Lurcher on a clear day, and members of her crew, all married men, gaze toward their homes.
“It gets on your nerves,” one of them told me. “You are so handy you can almost pick out your own chimney, but you might as well be in the middle of the Atlantic.”
He wasn’t exaggerating. Except in rare and brief spells of comparative
calm in the summer, pounding wave keep visitors away and rule out any chance of venturing ashore by launch.
If the weather permits, Lurcher has one caller a month—either C. G. S. Dollard or C. G. S. Franklin. Dollard and Franklin carry supplies to the 171 light and fog alarm stations which the department of transport maintains to protect shipping in the Bay of Fundy.
Weather does not always permit the monthly call, which the crew of Lurcher refer to as “the relief.”
I went to the lightship on Franklin, 450 tons, whose captain is 31-year-old Burnett E. Denton.
“Don’t know when we’ll get there,” Denton said as we headed out of Saint John, N.B., in the morning. “We’ll hit Yarmouth tonight, but sometimes we have to lay over at Yarmouth for two or three weeks waiting for the wind
to die down. You can’t go to Lurcher if it’s blowing hard. But maybe we’ll be lucky.”
We were so lucky, as it turned out, that eight o’clock the following morning found Franklin about 50 feet astern of Lurcher riding at the end of a hawser which had been passed from one ship to the other in a neat piece of nautical manoeuvring.
Franklin’s surfboat, an overgrown dory, 24 feet long with a seven-foot beam, capacity four tons, was lowered over the side to transfer mail, provisions and coal to the lightship. The surfboat looked clumsy, but it bobbed on the swell gracefully as a sea gull. 1 crossed on it, perched on top of bulging sacks of coal, and was soon receiving the sort of welcome you receive from lonely men eager for word from the outside world.
“What’s new?” asked Captain Leo L. Mallett of Lurcher -and it wasn’t a casual greeting. You felt he really wanted news from ashore. Radio, of course, had posted him on majorevents, but people grow hungry for chitchat about less momentous doings.
As we talked 1 could see other men excitedly opening mail—letters from home, newspapers, magazines. They read their letters avidly—letters about such things as Aunt May’s rheumatism, little Mike’s new tooth, young Alfred’s progress in school, the fire at the parsonage—letters conveying the love of wives and children. You could watch the expressions flit over their faces— amusement, gratification, worry.
“This is the day we all look forward to—the day the relief comes,” said Captain Mallett. He’s a bushy-browed, clean-shaven man, tall and lean and getting along in years. He was wearing a navy-blue sweater and trousers which had not had the benefit of recent pressing. Brass buttons and gold braid aren’t viewed as essential on Lurcher.
“You see,” said the skipper, “this is a mongrel—half ship, half lighthouse.” He lit his old pipe. “I’m half seaman, half lightkeeper.”
Mallett wasn’t always half seaman, half lightkeeper. Once he was master of passenger liners plying from Yarmouth to Boston. But for the last 12 years he has cruised on Lurcher with his anchor down. Anybody who thinks this is an easy life is mistaken. Not only is it lonely, it’s hard.
Hard and Lonely
Ordinary vessels nose into port once a week or once a fortnight, but Lurcher remains at her station month in, month out, never leaving save when she requires repairs. She has a riding sail on her mainmast, which is supposed to steady her and hold her head into the wind. But such are tide conditions that she more often rolls in the trough, sideways to oncoming waves, which wash over her decks and fling spray at her mastheads.
Lengthwise of the captain’s cabin there’s a bunk Breadthwise there’; a cot. “Can’t sleep in the bunk when we roll,” he said, “or I’m dumped out. I sleep in the cot when we roll and in the bunk when we pitch.” (A ship pitches when it rocks from bow to stern.)
But there’s more than constant rolling and pitching to contend with on the spectacularly rough water just off Lurcher Shoals. There is, in the winter, the nuisance and peril of ice.
When it’s cold and there’s a heavy sea, ice is likely to form on the deck taster than it can be removed The crew works frantically at such times, up top in the pounding, freezing spray. Ice has been known to capsize a larger vessel than Lurcher.
The list of hardships includes the
sort of food that used to be standard fare in the days of wooden ships and iron men—beef pickled in brine, or “salt junk” as it is called. This is necessary, because the old ship lacks refrigeration and is provisioned so seldom. Steps are being taken to install refrigeration now, so the salt junk may become a memory.
When storms prevent the relief from showing up on schedule the water in her tanks runs low When this happens the water flows from the taps mixed with silt and slime.
Then there’s the noise, which would drive most of us crazy. In thick weather Lurcher, three times a minute, toots a foghorn that is so loud it can be heard as far as 15 miles away. Its blasts seem to shake the deck.
Silence Wakens Skipper
“Sounds like the devil,” Captain Mallett told me solemnly, “but you get used to it. If the horn is stopped while you’re sleeping, the silence wakes you. Yes, you get used to it.”
You also get used to the danger that is present during every stiff blow. When a storm looms the engine room gang raises steam. For, massive as it is, her anchor chain parts occasionally and her engines have to have enough steam to keep her from being swept onto the reefs from which she protects other ships.
The chain has snapped more than a dozen times in the last decade and Lurcher has had several narrow escapes. When she breaks away she limps into the sheltered harbor of Yarmouth, for it’s impossible to rig a new anchor at sea.
During the war the Old Lady of Lurcher Shoals was menaced from another quarter —submarines. In waters where U-boats prowled, torpedoing their prey, she remained alone and unarmed—a sitting duck. She had to be in place to guide convoys back and forth, and her crew would speculate about how long she, and they, would survive.
Her skipper doesn’t know yet why she wasn’t sunk, but he thinks it may be that submarines used her. There’s another lightship on the Atlantic coast, off Halifax. A German submarine captain, who surrendered after hostilities ceased, admitted he had hidden under that floating navigation aid when his craft was being pursued.
“I have no wav of telling whether subs hid beneath the Lurcher,” Mallett told me. “but they might have. This is certain—that if one of them had wanted to sink us we wouldn’t have lasted 10 minutes. It was unpleasant to realize this.”
Illness is a problem on the Lurcher, cut off, as she is, from land. With a crew of 16, only 11 of whom are aboard at once, she has no doctor Years ago, five hands came down with typhoid and she was forced to put in for aid, a substitute vessel taking over on the Shoals. (One of the men died, another became a typhoid carrier and was subsequently assigned to a fog alarm station on a little island where there is only one other person.)
Captain Mallett has studied first aid, has a stock of medical supplies and does very well tveating ordinary ailments and minor injuries. When he finds himself stuck he sends a wireless message to Dr. G. V. Burton, Yarmouth, the two talk back and forth on the air about symptoms and cures, and the consultation usually produces a remedy.
There was a case in which the patient was Lurcher’s wireless operator.
Very ill, and propped up at his key, he tapped out the messages which described his own symptoms to Dr. Burton, via the Yarmouth wireless
station, and jotted down the doctor’s messages as they came back.
“It was tough on him, hearing he was in b;(d shape and getting directions about his own treatment, but it couldn’t be avoided,” Captain Mallett related.
Life on Lurcher wouldn’t appeal to most of us, but, in spite of all its discomforts, it has its points. “It’s a funny place,” Steward Jim Nickerson said. “Time seems to drag, hut a year goes quick.”
Nobody is better qualified to speak of this than Nickerson, because he had 40 years on Lurcher. When 1 was aboard he was spending his last day in the service—Franklin took him ashore to retire to a little home in a Nova Scotia coastal village. Sadness was written all over him. But then, every plank and plate of Lurcher was familiar to him, every fbot of the ship a reminder of some incident.
While saying his farewells he recalled the time the butter flew off the table and stuck to the wall; and the time he had to serve salt junk for Christmas dinner, because the relief forgot the poultry he had ordered; and the time he was acting as wheelsman, after the anchor chain had broken, and the wheel kicked and hurled him over the spokes.
Such incidents are discussed for i years on Lurcher, their importance magnified by monotony. You’ll hear • about the time the two whales came j alongside and somebody dropped an j egg into the blowhole of one of them;
I and the time the school of whales played around the ship for days; and the time the pet cat, tired of a life of celibacy, sneaked onto the relief and I went ashore as a deserter.
I asked Captain Mallett what kept the crew entertained.
“Well,” he said, “we do a little fishing, a little card playing, a little kicking, a little of everything.”
Fishing, in the summer, is the chief diversion. All the men have lines and they catch cod, hake, haddock, halibut, dogfish and catfish.
Fundy catfish are large, and can, I was informed, “almost bite a broom handle in two, their jaws and teeth are that strong.”
Some of the fish are eaten fresh; some are salted and sun-dried. One man a few months ago acquired a canning machine with which he cans his catea.
Most members of the crew have hobbies. Leboire Hubbard, for instance, makes children’s sleighs, silverpainted speedy-looking affairs that would delight any youngster. Mel Robiehaud makes hunting knives from old bayonets which he files down and ■ fits into highly polished handles of I plastic, leather and brass. Chief j Engineer E. M. Wyman makes fancy i lamps. Mate Andrew D’Eon is an j accomplished fiddler.
When the Federal Government first I decided Lurcher Shoals needed a j lightship, back at the turn of the century, there was unofficial talk of manning the craft with convicts. Some believed conditions aboard would be so grim that a crew could only be obtained by compulsion.
But according to Captain Mallett there has been no trouble finding men. Generally hands come on for a I month and wind up by staying a ! lifetime. Steward Nickerson did. So did Engineer Osborne Hersey, who was aboard before World War I, left for war service, and returned afterward. First Cook Arthur Surette has been on Lurcher 16 years. Mate D’Eon thought enough of his job to have his son, Edgar D’Eon, join him as second
mate. Edgar, infant of the crew, spent World War II in the Royal Canadian Navy.
One thing that adds to such attractions as Lurcher offers is the fact that the men, after two months’ duty, have one month of shore leave, which amounts to four months holidays a years. A third of the crew are always at home.
Also in the Lurcher’s favor is the atmosphere.
“You can’t have regular ship’s discipline,” the skipper explained. “It has to be a good deal of a family affair. We’re all friendly here. We have separate meases—sailors and firemen for’ard and officers aft, but we all eat the same food and the crew all have their own rooms.”
When the Mail’s Late
The bad days come when the relief vessel is overdue. The men slated for leave grow edgy; the men waiting for mail become irritable; the food and water deteriorate; all the reading matter has been read. But there’s no slacking up in the work.
Light, foghorn and radio beacon are meticulously checked. A bearing is taken thrice daily from radio direction finding stations at Red Head, near Saint John, and Yarmouth—just to make sure Lurcher hasn’t dragged anchor and shifted position.
Weather observations—air and water temperature, humidity, height and type of clouds, wind direction and velocity—are made at frequent intervals and the data are wirelessed to the mainland for the forecasts which Bay of Fundy fishermen find so valuable.
And it is never forgotten that the Old Lady of Lurcher Shoals belongs to a big team, every member of which must function efficiently to save lives and ships. On the team are the 171 light and fog alarm stations scattered all the way from Hopewell Cape at the head of Fundy, to Cape Sable, outside the mouth. There are lifesaving stations at Grand Manan and near Digby, radio direction finding stations at Red Head and Yarmouth, and the supply ships, Dollard and Franklin.
Lurcher’s role is probably the most dramatic, but her teammates are far from colorless. There is, for example, Garnet Light, eight miles off Grand Manan. It’s built on a bare rock over which the surf beats during storms. The youthful keeper, Frank Linton, and his wife often have to bail out their kitchen after a whopping wave has smashed across their small and lonely domain—but they claim they like the life.
Machias-Seal Island Light, 12 miles off Grand Manan, is on a spot almost as bleak, but Ottawa Benson, the keeper, and his wife boast that they have it over the Lintons because they have a lawn—a few pitiful blades of grass. The Bensons have even tried to keep a cow and some chickens—with indifferent success.
Nearly all the light and fog stations on hundreds of miles of Fundy’s coast
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are in isolated places, many on islands nearly, if not quite, as small and bleak as Gannet and Machias-Seal. At them live some 500 people — keepers, assistant keepers, wives, children. Like the men on Lurcher, they cultivate hobbies. And they read whatever they can get their hands on.
Most keepers used to be fishermen or seamen, and few have had the advantages of higher education, but plenty, from extensive reading, can discuss literature as intelligently as any professor. Mrs. E. M. Richardson, wife of the keeper of the light on Bon Portage Island, wrote the book, “We Keep a Light,” which won the Governor-General’s 1946 Award. You meet men and women among the Fundy lighthouse population who can discourse on anthropology, astronomy, organic chemistry, and other subjects usually too deep for the layman.
The lifesaving stations near Digby and at Grand Manan have sturdy boats and men trained to put out in every kind of weather to pick up the victims of wrecks—but they haven’t much to do along this line any more since navigation aids pulled Fundy’s fangs. Mainly they rescue fishermen whose small craft have been swamped by heavy seas or whose makeshift engines have conked out. They have also taken over, in their own areas, some of the chores of Dollard and Franklin.
The radio direction finding stations are like radio direction finding stations elsewhere. But Dollard and Franklin are not like other ships. A landlubber, seeing one of them loaded, might suppose the deck cargo consisted of bombs and lethal rockets, and might not be much wiser when told that those objects were conicals, dolphins, spindle beacons and spars.
Again the cargo might be automatic types of buoys—buoys which whistle, buoys which ring, buoys which flash a light and whistle, buoys which flash a light and ring, buoys which just flash a light. Some weigh tons, and there are 682 of them from Hopewell Cape to Cape Sable.
Winter, spring, summer and fall Dollard and Franklin patrol these buoys, replacing those which need replacement. Often one which has broken loose from moorings will have to be hunted down, because the buoy that goes astray is a menace. Drifting where it should not be, it could easily lure a vessel onto a reef. Then, too, the automatic buoys may get coated with ice in the winter, so they won’t whistle, ring or flash.
When that happens Dollard and Franklin have to manoeuvre alongside and lower men to chip off the ice. Chipping ice off a bobbing buoy in a midwinter storm is far from being a safe task. Those who do it have to be tough, sure-footed and fearless.
The other job of these small, elderly vessels is freighting supplies to light stations. That, too, is dangerous, for the final delivery must be made by surfboat—from ship to shore except in the case of Lurcher. Anybody who has seen Fundy’s pounding surf knows what that means.
Because of all these activities, directed from the port of Saint John by Marine Agent J. M. M. Lamb and Captain H. P. Bayer, superintendent of lights, mariners no longer fear the Bay of Fundy. Its tides, storms, reefs, scattered islands and jagged coast hold no more terrors for seafaring men. According to Sir James Bisset, captain of Queen Elizabeth, Fundy is “as safe for navigation today as any body of w’ater in the world.” ★