Facing the gale

Book tells story of schooners that left St. John’s and sailed in 1929 hurricane

Kevin Higgins khiggins@ganderbeacon.ca
Published on August 19, 2013
Hare Bay author Gary Collins recently published his eighth book in six years, “The Gale of 1929.” It tells the stories of what the 11 schooners and those onboard faced after leaving St. John’s harbour on Nov. 29, 1929. — Photo by Kevin Higgins/The Beacon

If Ron Hynes is the province’s man of a million songs, then Hare Bay’s Gary Collins has him matched in terms of literary words.

Earlier this summer, Collins released his eighth book in six years, “The Gale of 1929.”

“It’s like 11 stories in one,” said Collins, referring to his book about 11 schooners that set sail from St. John’s harbour on Nov. 29, 1929, and were each sent on their own adventures when they encountered a hurricane. Collins gives the reader the adventurous story of a schooner in each chapter.

He said writing a chapter about each schooner was the most difficult part, even though there was a lot of work that went into the research that had to be done on a topic that not many people can recall first-hand.

“All 11 schooners left St. John’s on the same day and met the same storm under sail, so I guess there’s only so many times you can say ‘bare pole’ to keep it interesting for the readers. ... This was the most difficult thing of all in writing this book,” he said.

The schooners included the George K (Greenspond), Water Sprite (Wesleyville), Merry Widow (Brookfield), Gander Deal (Newtown), Effie May Petite (Brookfield), Northern Light (Bloomfield), Janie E. Blackwood (Fair Island), Lloyd Jack (Wesleyville), Neptune II (Newtown), Catherine B (Hant’s Harbour) and Jennie Florence (Hillview).

“What I decided to do early on was to draw on the characters of the men themselves and the ships ... so every schooner has its own chapter and its own story. And pardon the pun, but I hope they are all under their own canvass.

“The only thing I can say is I can guarantee — it is as factual as possible because of the documents I read and the relatives of those involved I spoke with.”

MCollins said the one thing he found in doing his research for The Gale of 1929 was the lack of credit given to the women of the day as this ordeal evolved. Because of this, the book’s dedication is written to the “women of seamen who wait on the shore then and now.”

“The women were home and didn’t know if the men were coming home. ... They agonized and stared out windows waiting for the ships to come back, and they were hardly mentioned,” he said. “That’s why the last chapter (Neptune II) is my favourite. ... It is written from the point of view of two women. One was on the schooner and was sick the entire time (48 days), while the other was a maid (Mary Sturge, who would later marry and become Mary Blackmore) in Newtown. ... Her point of view is what was going on in Newtown.”

He said he got an account of what was happening in Newtown from her daughter, Sophie Gill.

“It was amazing talking to the people, such as Ms. Gill, who had relatives that lived through it,” he said. “It really gives you a connection to what you’re trying to write. I’m a stickler to detail, so it took me six or seven months just to do the research.”

Even though he agonized over trying to make every chapter different because of the similarities in the stories of the schooners, he said he was very pleased with the finished product — even though he rarely reads his books after he is finished other than for proofing purposes.

With eight books behind him, Collins has already started work on a ninth — “The Newfoundland Disaster” — a project he said will be the retelling of the same sealing disaster in Cassie Brown’s “Death on the Ice.”

“This March is the 100th anniversary of the event, and the only reference to Cassie Brown’s book will be information that I had to go to because everywhere I went looking for information sent me to this book. ... It is the only inclusive book written about the event,” he said. “I was afraid of disturbing her book, but I’m about 50 per cent along, and I now see it as my story told my way from the point of view of the sealers. ... It is a very emotional thing to do.”

He said he now feels blessed to be writing such story, as he remembers being told first-hand of what it was like during the disaster by Cecil Mouland, who around 1971-’72 told Collins what he experienced.

Collins will be doing a book signing for “The Gale of 1929” Aug. 16 at the Barbour House in Newtown, whose namesake was synonymous with sealing along the Bonavista North coastline.


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