Sea stories

Published on April 13, 2013


There’s something about a Sunday morning. For Jim Wellman, it represents serenity, reflection and a certain mood that fits writing the type of stories he likes to write.

Sunday mornings are when he does his best writing, he says, particularly when it comes to tales of the sea and all the excitement, survival and tragedy they often include.

Wellman grew up in Port Anson on the northeast coast of the island, the son of a schooner captain who learned to walk, quite literally, on the deck of a fishing boat. He’s perhaps best known to the public as host of CBC’s “Fisheries Broadcast” from 1982 to 1997, after which time he retired from broadcasting and began writing for the newly founded Navigator, a fisheries and marine magazine. Five years later, he ended up as managing editor of the publication. He retired about a year ago, but still writes for the magazine.

When Wellman began working with the Navigator, he pitched the idea for a series called “Final Voyages,” going somewhere he felt a lot of other writers hadn’t gone.

“I said, ‘How about if I write about not necessarily just loss of life, but incidents of the inshore fishery, the smaller boats, as small as, say, a lobster-type boat and a single-handed fisherman, that type of thing,’” Wellman explains.

After a couple of years, once he had two dozen or so stories written, he rejigged them for a book, published by Flanker Press. Since then, Wellman has written five books with marine connections, the most recent one called “Sea Folk,” released a few weeks ago.

This one is a little different than his previous books, in that it consists of stories of 23 men and women who make their living from the sea — not necessarily tales of tragedy and final voyages, but profiles on the individuals’ lives and work. It’s something Wellman had always wanted to do, but had never quite found the time when he was the Navigator’s managing editor.

“I wanted to be representative,” Wellman says. “I wanted to have people not necessarily in boats, but some people who work in different parts of the industry. That’s worked out quite well, too. There’s a couple of the old skippers in there, a couple of women, one of whom is a captain in her own right of a fairly large vessel. I just wanted to profile people in the industry that some people know, but not everybody.”

Capt. Tracy Button is the female captain Wellman speaks of. A native of Happy Adventure living in

St. John’s, Button decided on her career when she was just seven years old and, after working with her father on the boats for years, she received her FM Class IV certificate in 2004. Today, she owns and operates the 50-foot Shanarie Cruiser out of Happy Adventure.

Among Wellman’s other profiles are fisherwoman and country music performer Sabrina Whyatt,  Wayne “Whale Man” Ledwell and skipper Fred Barrett from Old Perlican, who is in his 90s.

There are still some dramatic tales of life, death and near misses, and many of them are special to Wellman for a number of reasons.

“In the case of tragedies, the family sometimes really become friends,” he says. “I’m in there talking to these people about the most terrible time of their lives. They lost a loved one, a father or a son or a husband or a brother. You become involved and it’s a lasting relationship because of the intensity. In some cases, you become really close to the families like that because they’re opening up to you and they trust you.”

In “Sea Folk,” one of the stories that Wellman has spent a lot of time thinking about is one written by his friend Clem Dwyer, a retired teacher on Fogo Island, called “Down Perish April 11.” It tells the tale of a small group of sealers from Joe Batt’s Arm — brothers Joseph, Stephen and Walter Jacobs and their friend, Francis Pomeroy — who, in early April of 1917, walked out over the ice floes that had been pushed into the shoreline in search of a few seals for food. The wind changed and the ice was pushed out to sea. Despite the community’s best efforts to find them, the four men were never seen again.

Months later, a man from Twillingate picked up a gaff that had washed ashore. On the handle was carved, “Down perish April 11,” with the initials “J.J.” It had belonged to Joseph Jacobs, and the message is believed to signify that the men were lying down to perish on the ice. Today, the gaff is displayed in the Anglican church in Joe Batt’s Arm.

“Maybe it’s got something to do with the fact that I’ve held that gaff in my hand,” Wellman says. “That one had a huge impact on me.”

Wellman plans to continue writing profiles, and expects to have his next book published within the next two years or so. Fishermen and women are among the best communicators in the world, he believes, often having a way with words and painting great pictures in the Newfoundland tradition of storytelling.

As long as there are tales of sea folk, people will read them, he says.

“I think there’s always been an attraction to the sea and anybody connected with it,” he says. “Of course, it’s who we are, what we are and why we’re here. We didn’t come here for the weather, that’s for sure. When our ancestors settled here, it was all about codfish at that time, but the sea has some kind of magic pull on people. I think the people who make their living from it have always been interesting to the rest of us.”

Twitter: @tara_bradbury