Toronto Telegram, July 21, 1945
Schooner Days DCCI (701)
By C.H.J. Snider
BLIND DATE WITH THE EASTERN GAP
NO Schooner Days last Saturday, and the customers – all both of them – are kicking. What they want is not explanations, but Schooner Days. Here goes a 1945-er.
We were homeward bound with a full cargo of fresh ones picked up in Kingston, Sackett's Harbor, South Bay Point and Cobourg, not to mention San Francisco, Baltimore, Botwood, Poole, Foynes, Paris, Rouen, Caen, Bayeux, Dieppe and London, when we struck the week-end’s fog.
The last land we saw was the high banks a mile west of Raby’s Head about four miles below Oshawa. That most important landmark, Raby’s Head, by the way, is not named on the 1945 American chart of Lake Ontario, which is otherwise a very fine and most up-to-date document. After this there was nothing but steady drizzling rain and thick-o’-fog, with light to moderate breezes. These were, fortunately, from the east and therefore “fair" for us. Radio forecasts we got were southwest to northwest winds, just the opposite, but sometimes two advertisers contradicted one another in the same broadcast. The facts contradicted both.
The fog was not pea soup in color, or texture, but skim milk, chalk-and-water, a whiteish opaque medium which seemed to limit our 65-foot ship to a 65-foot puddle. All around you could see the little waves, except ahead or astern. Vision ended at the bowsprit. The tack of our jib on it seemed to fade from view. We were under sail and sail only, all the time, as were the schooners of grandpa’s days and like them we relied on our compass, chart, leadline, logline, and ears. Eyes were no use. It was all blind flying.
After nine hours of this we heard the faint snore of the Eastern Gap trombone. Then anxious groans from inquirers who couldn’t find the keyhole into Toronto Bay. Travelling slowly, we were a long time getting the signal any stronger. But it persisted, and at length it seemed not more than a mile away, and a little to the port side of our bowsprit. As we knew the horn was located in the middle of the east side of the Gap, this meant we were steering too much towards the beach, for the outer ends of the piers are a quarter of a mile almost south of the horn. So we altered course and brought the sound of the horn on the starboard bow.
Anyone should be able to bring a 65-foot vessel into port under sail alone without seeing the piers, with such a crew as we had – three lads from the Wavy Navy, three Newfoundlanders, and a good lawyer. The man of the gown took as much pains plotting and charting our necessarily wobbly course as he would in drawing up an appeal to the Privy Council. The navy boys were as alert as radar and took turns in blowing a duet on our own two fog horns, the odd man acting as conductor of the orchestra and getting perfect timing – one blast for starboard tack, two for port, three for running free. This was to keep us from running down unhappy neighbors or being run down ourselves. The Newfoundlanders, being bred to picking up trawls in the dories and returning to the ship in fog and finding holes in the bank in snowstorms, were invaluable in locating sound bearings with precision. It was they who first heard and located the bell – and that was what brought us in.
KEEPING THE BLIND DATE
"By the deep four!" sang the leadsman.
"Maw-wugh!" roared the fog horn in the Gap.
"Dingle-dongle!" answered the bell on the pier end.
"And a quarter three!" hailed the leadsman.
"Double baww!" blared our own two trumpets.
"By the mark five!" hailed the leadsman, with relief. “You can haul up now, sir. We‘re in the dredged water."
"Dingle-dongle!" donged the bell right overhead.
The skipper gave her a few spokes, and up she came. Sheets had been flattened in for instant gybing, and the change in course made everything draw better, so that she shot ahead at doubled speed. It was only then that the skipper envied the power-boat man. With an engine one could go ahead slow, even back up. Sail had only one direction, forward – and no brakes; at least not in close quarters. Even if she was in the invisible channel it would take just one minute going at the rate she was to cross from one side to the other; so she might hit either pier without seeing it before the bowsprit splintered on the concrete. He hauled her to NNW, the general axis of the channel, as the bell clanged dingle-dongle right over his head.
"There it is now, sir," said the No. 1 Newfoundlander. A black, wet baulk appeared in the water to starboard. It was recognizable as the inside of the eastern pier end. Only a second later, but seemingly an age, a vast grey shadow of the lighthouse materialized out of the whiteness, fifty feet away, but vague as a dream. Only the black, wet stringpiece of the east pier was a reality. The west pier, a hundred yards to port, was as invisible as Australia.
Groping swiftly along by the east pier, like a somnambulist racing downstairs with a hand on the banister the good ship passed the invisible but deafening fog-signal amidships in the Gap, came to the little inner lighthouse, another grey shadow, and shot around it, head to wind, into what Capt. Winslow, Lord of the Lights, has christened the Gas House Yacht and Country Club moorings; the little basin between the east pier and the coal docks and the nub of Fisherman's Island.
SO SCHOONER DAYS DALLIED
"Alabama!" shouted the skipper into the whiteness. “Here’s where we stop till it clears, Schooner Days or no Schooner Days. Stand by the anchor and look out we don’t ram the wall of the coal docks!"
She was across the hundred yard basin in no time and had to circle back to cool off, before the hook could be let go. But after shaking the wind out of her sails the crown of her anchor scrubbing on the deep bottom – five fathoms – stopped her, and another ten fathoms of chain heir her until the flailing canvas, shedding barrels of loosened rain, descended to the booms. Then ten fathoms more, and four more yet, to let her settle back so that she could be warped to the inner side of the east pier of the channel, out of the way of anything else that might come in.
Soon afterwards the jaunty Moosabac of Buffalo, a neat little jaybird with blue trim and grey body, sailed into this improvised fog harbor, only a few hours from Youngstown, N.Y. And then Kelnordic, home for a cruise to the Bay of Quinte. She had power, and went on to the RCYC moorings, which was risky enough, for the yacht slaying Island ferries were raging about in the fog seeking whom they might devour, and the outbound excursion steamers were on schedule.
As dark closed down and the red light on the inner-end lighthouse glowed like a sunset m the fog, came the real exhibition of seamanship. Capt. Jimmy Sprachan, late mate of the Cayuga and now in command of her, was due in from Niagara on the evening trip.
Three hundred feet of steamboat, two thousand tons register, with no one knew how many hundred passengers, had to be threaded (with the eyes tight shut) through a halfmile needle eye, little wider than her length, and landed safely at the foot of Yonge Street, on time for the evening’s “moonlight." We could hear him blowing his three blasts a mile outside, creeping in dead slow. Then his thousand lights made a dim glow in the fog, though we could see no one of them, and he could not see the pierhead light, nor hear the bell. The glow passed eastwards, vanished as he circled around, then came a little stronger as his next turn brought him closer. Still too thick to see the pierhead light, he went west, vanished, and reappeared. Probably his lead was going all the time, to keep him in deep water. At length he must have located the light, or bell, but at too sharp an angle to make the turn in; so he backed out into the fog blanket and vanished, and came ahead again, with light and bell safely to starboard.
Only when he passed us at the inner end of the Gap, two hundred feet away, could we make out his outline. “From ilka bore the beams were glancing," and he was lighted up like a Christmas tree, every cabin window and brassbound port-hole glowing yellow in the white, and his green starboard lamp a soft, emerald point. Couldn’t see his searchlight. It was probably moving like a glowing finger along the stringpiece of the pier, and so not visible.
WALKING THE WATER
The lightkeeper told us of a steamer that came in a few days before in a fog so thick ten feet above the water that it cut off all her upper works, and she looked like a landing barge. Her Old Man had a sailor slung over the bow in a boatswain’s chair, with his feet brushing the water. He could see under the fog, and hailed the bridge, which could not see over or through it.
Both these instances of merchant navy seamanship confirm an opinion the writer has never had cause to revise, that all the heroism of the sea, salt or fresh, is not confined to gold braid and bell-bottomed trousers. All honor to the anxious captain, mate, wheelsman and lookout, who perils his life and livelihood, to “make time" for excursionists, to give the line a good name, or to get next winter’s supply of coal in. One misfortune, and he is in the black book, no matter how admirable his intentions. The insurance companies, like Schooner Days customers, don’t pay on explanations.
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