The exploits of the sealing schooner Hilda R.
By Robert S. Munn, Harbour Grace.
Adapted from Sea Breezes, No. 129, Vol. XIV, August 1930.
The Hilda R., built at Lunenburg, [1910, for the Canada Sealing Co. Ed.] Nova Scotia, was especially intended as a South Atlantic sealer, and for several seasons the waters round Falkland Island, South Georgia, Cape Horn and Cape of Good Hope were familiar to her. While at this work she was commanded by the celebrated Captain Matt Ryan, who a few years previously was the subject of international controversy when he and the crew of the Agnes Donohue were imprisoned in an Argentine gaol for alleged poaching—but Captain Ryan’s experiences would no doubt be a story in themselves. Anyway, sealing getting bad, or Captain Ryan having had enough of this hazardous employment, the Hilda R. was sold, being purchased by McRae & Sons, of Newfoundland, who at once put her in the Atlantic trade – fish cargoes from Labrador to Spain and Italy, and salt back to Newfoundland. These voyages were not without incident, for the whole career of the Hilda R. seemed to bristle with it.
Coming West from Lisbon in the Winter of 1914, she was thrown on her beam-ends, decks washed clean, and even hatches washed off; how Captain Yetman righted this little vessel and got her back six hundred miles to Fayal is a wonder to all of us who know the sea.
Again, a year later, when she got caught in the ice near Cape Race, five of her crew abandoned her, preferring to take their chances on the ice rather than remain on board. Captain Yetman held on and by so doing greatly minimised the salvage charges when rescued from the perilous position by the ice-breaker Sable I.
Now John Sheehan, her cook of October, 1917, will relate his story :—
We loaded a cargo of dry codfish at Grady, Labrador. Seamen were very scarce, as all our young men had joined up with the Naval Reserve. We had to come back to Harbour Grace to complete our crew, and it was a mixed crowd our owners picked up at St. John’s. Captain Yetman and I were the only Newfoundlanders; William Swaney, of Scotland, was mate; Robert Shepherd, another Scotchman, was seaman, as well as Pat Miller, from Dublin, and a young Frenchman called Bishard.
It was October the 20th we sailed, but the wind was light and veered South-east before we got clear of Conception Bay, so we returned to Harbour Grace and anchored alongside a large barque there. The following morning, weather conditions being more favourable, the captain decided to make a start, but the boys being ashore, it took some time to round them up, so it was about noon when we left port, and with a quick run out of the Bay we took our departure from Cape St. Francis.
Our little craft, 130 tons, was one of the best and smartest of her kind; she was well found in gear and provisions, and it was a pleasure to serve under Captain Yetman, with whom I had previously made several voyages. We had a good time across, mostly fair winds, and it was on the fifteenth day after leaving that we made Cape St. Mary’s [Cabo de Santa Maria, Faro. Ed.] on the other side.
Next day, November 5th, we bore away for Gibraltar, which was then about thirty miles distant. I had given the boys their breakfast, and was now getting dinner ready; my kettles and boilers were all steaming away in the large forecastle under deck, where all the cooking was done. The captain sent one fellow up to reef a signal halyard, another followed to have a look round, but in answer to the Captain, who was at the wheel, both reported they could see nothing, and soon returned to the deck, while I went back to my job of peeling turnips and potatoes in the forecastle.
I was sitting a few feet from the stove, when suddenly, to my surprise, there was a great crash – the kettles and boilers were on the floor and the place was full of smoke; and a hole right through our bows from side to side. Two sailors, who were in the bunk, and myself scrambled to the deck; we looked about, and there some distance away to leeward was a submarine shelling us. Her first shot was a direct hit, which came without the slightest warning, but shortly afterwards our foremast went five feet from the deck. The mate shouted to get the boat out and we got right at it, but with the schooner rolling heavily it was difficult to handle the heavy boat with a small crowd. The shelling was going on all the time and the captain ordered us into the boat. Miller, Shepherd and I got in, but a roll from the ship capsized it and the three of us were left floundering in the water. The painter must have rove out as the overturned boat went adrift. I managed to reach the boat unaided, the other sailor was a better man in the water than I, and he caught Miller, and between the two of us we hauled him on the keel of the boat.
Meanwhile the shelling was going on all the time and the scene was hell on earth. The ship was hit many times; the mate hove two boat chocks overboard and jumped after them, but being heavily dressed, failed to reach them, and we never saw him again. The captain and the French boy were on the sinking vessel, but the three of us on the overturned boat could do nothing to help, and gradually drifted out of sight.
Here we were miles from the land – nothing to be seen in any direction. But "Never despair" is the Newfoundlander’s motto, and we dropped off the boat into the water in an attempt to right her. How we managed it I cannot tell you, but finally we got her turned over. It must have taken hours, and we were much exhausted when we hauled one another aboard. The boat was well tanked – that was the reason she floated. One of us still retained a long rubber boot, and it was utilised to bail her out; it was a long hard bail, but we had hope, and it was finally accomplished. Two oars were found lashed in the boat, and it was seventeen hours later, being all this time without food or water, that we landed near a place called Ferroll in Portugal, having rowed over thirty-five miles.
We must have walked five miles without seeing anybody, when we met a man and a little boy gathering shell-fish. We could not make our-selves understood very well, but they guessed we were from a ship and took us by boat to the Consul at Ferroll. [There is a geographic inconsistency here: there certainly was a British Consulate in El Ferrol, but this is over 600 miles from Gibraltar. Ed.] We were well treated and sent to Lisbon, thence by boat to Liverpool.
The two seamen left me there to return to their homes in Scotland and Dublin. I was sent to Newfoundland via Halifax, N.S., where I duly arrived.
So ends John Sheehan’s experiences with the Hilda R., but we must return to the scene of the wreck and those still left there.
The crew of the submarine, after shelling this helpless little craft till they were tired, came alongside, and must have been astonished to find the captain and the boy still unhurt. Here they showed a spark of humanity by taking them on board; Captain Yetman had the experience of being three whole days on board this underwater boat before being landed near Bonanza [a little North of Cadiz, about 90 miles from Gibraltar. Ed], in Spain. The Germans, however, were very careful to hide all traces of identity of their submarine, and Yetman never learned to which one they owed their loss and rescue.
Captain Yetman was sent to Gibraltar, thence to Halifax, N.S., and while there a month later the disastrous explosion took place. There he received injuries from which he never recovered, dying at his home in Harbour Grace a year or so later.
Editor's note: Memorial University of Newfoundland have this schooner, Hilda R. as "lost due to fire at sea in 1917." We were asked if this sinking could have involved U-69. which did sink some 31 ships, but none recorded with a name anything like 'Hilda.' The submarine's last report was from 60°N, close to the coast of Norway on 11 July 1917, and she was reported most probably sunk by HMS Patriot the next day, 12 July 1917; she was certainly never seen after that date. The sinking reported here is some four months later.