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Wednesday, 2 April 2014


This week Newfoundlanders are remembering the one hundredth anniversary of the sealing disaster which took the lives of so many men. It was March 30,1914 and vessels which had left Newfoundland ports in pursuit of the seal herds were in thick ice with seals all around them. 

That morning, the S S Newfoundland, dropped 132 men on the ice. They were tasked with walking the ice flows, killing seals and hauling them back to the boat. However, a sudden winter storm foiled those plans. Many of the men froze to death or plunged into the icy water as the ice pack undulated with the wild seas below them. Only 55 survived that disaster.

That same day, due to the same storm, the S S Southern Cross sank on its way back from sealing in the Gulf of St. Lawrence, killing all 173 men aboard.

Pursuing a livelihood on the ocean is a dangerous pursuit, even today, but in that time it was much more so. The cold, shortage of food and clean water, the danger to the ship in the packed ice, the danger on the ocean itself to the poorly dressed, ill-equipped men were part of the danger. The enticement was the $30-$40 that the 6-7 week trip afforded each man and a share of seal meat.

The driving force behind the dangerous pursuit was 'the long and hungry month of March' as Newfoundlanders called it. The supplies stored for the winter during the previous fall were greatly depleted by the time March came around each year. The money and meat from the 'swilin', (sealing),  got families through the spring. Starvation was the alternative.

My grandfather O'Brien went sealing one year, but that was enough for him. He thought it was too dangerous and his family needed him in the long term, so he didn't go a second time. However, in the spring, he and some friends from Maddox Cove, went to St. John's 'at the fat' as they called it. The friends stayed at a boarding house on the Southside Road, working all day to extract the oil from the blubber on the seal pelts. It was better to board rather than walk home each night after the long day's work. The money earned got their families through the spring.

Nights in the boarding house saw the friends sat around joking, telling stories, playing cards. The meals served included copious amounts of beans, prepared various ways, a cheap but filling meal served with rustic, thick slices of bread. My grandfather, of course, didn't need beans to supplement his passage of gas. One night in particular, he regaled his friends with the loudest, longest fart they had ever heard.

One commented, " I hope Lindberg has already passed over, Gus, because if he isn't, you just shot him down." The story was repeated long after my grandfather died.

There you have it. My grandfather had a connection to the Lindberg flight from New York to Paris, May 20-21, 1927. History in the making.

Source material:  The 1914 Sealing Disaster:  100 Years Later, CBC News, March 30, 2014.

A family note today, our own history in the making:  Frank and Michele's daughter, Samantha, my niece, is participating in the Canadian Powerlifting Championships today. Samantha gives a whole new meaning to the term 'strong woman.'  Happy lifting, Sam!

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