Adrift on an lcefloe in the 1860s
by Michael Harrington for The Evening Telegram, March 21, 1983
As reprinted in The Greenspond Letter, Volume 6, Number 1, Winter 1999
... This is the time of year when many people recall with justifiable nostalgia, the days when the sealing industry was a key component of the Newfoundland economy. One of those persons is Roy Decker, formerly of Cape Onion at the tip of the Great Northern Peninsula, now a resident of St. John's. Roy, a retired school teacher, regaled us recently with some interesting information and yams, associated with the fishermen's custom of "Brimming" their boats. He has now delved in to the history of his wife's family, the famous Blandfords of Bonavista Bay North, to present some colourful, even enthralling material from the days when Greenspond, the home and the base of the Blandfords, was known as the "Capital of the North".
Roy wrote of the sealing industry: "... there were the instances of high adventure and near disaster, which were never recorded, because they had a happy ending. They are only memories in the minds of the old timers, memories of stories told to them by their fathers and grandfathers who were participants in these events. I propose to relate to you one such story of adventure and potential disaster, but disaster happily averted."
This story was told to Roy in the 1930s by Darius Blandford III, of Greenspond, father of Nina Blandford, Roy's wife. For more than 40 years, Darius was the pillar of the Church as well as customs officer of that community. As customs officer, he would "clear" as many as 400 vessels in a single season, fishing vessels, sealing vessels, pitprop boats, all kinds of craft that sailed outside Newfoundland's coastal waters. It was one of the numerous ways why Greenspond got the title of. “The Capital of the North”.
The particular episode to be detailed was connected with his father Darius Blandford II, and Captain Darius's brother, Captain Samuel Blandford, the narrator's uncle, and grandfather of Nina Blandford. Both captains, of course, hailed from Greenspond. The event occurred in the spring of 1868 or 1869. Sealing steamers were still quite new on the scene, and most of the ships going to the ice at that time were sailing vessels, mostly brigs or barques or their diminutives, eg. brigantines and barquentines.
As Roy Decker correctly points out, both the Blandford brothers were famous sealing skippers, and in the annals of the Newfoundland seal fishery, each man had his own claim to fame. I might add, at this point, that the full account of the exploits of either one of them would fill a book. For the time being, we will have to content ourselves with this one special occasion which highlights the character and personality of those "jowlers".
Early on the morning of March 12, 1868 or 1869, Captain Darius and Samuel Blandford, each in charge of his own sealing vessel, left Pool's Island for the Front, i.e. the northeast coast of Newfoundland. Captain Darius, in addition to his crew of 18-20 men, also took along his dog, a favourite pet. The dog was very much a key figure in this tale. Unfortunately Roy Decker doesn't know the names of the vessels. He does know that the Blandford brothers commanded such vessels as the Hebe, Renfrew and Isabel Ridley; but he's not clear if one or two of those craft
were the ones involved in this story.
In any case, the vessels set sail on a fresh southerly wind, with not a pan of ice in sight. The two vessels kept "close company" throughout the day and, as darkness fell, with some fog building up, they were in the "run" between offer Fogo Islands and the Funks. Throughout the night, Captain Darius continued on a northerly course, and when dawn broke on March 13, there was still no ice visible and his brother's ship was nowhere to be seen on the horizon. Darius presumed that, during the night, brother Sam had altered course, hoping to find the ice out to the northeast of the Funks, a presumption that was later confirmed.
Captain Darius continued on his course to the North-North-West, NNW, and during the next several days he surveyed the area between the Grey (Groais) Islands northward as far as Cape Bauld. So far, he had found no ice; but crossing the Strait of Belle Isle he did encounter scattered "strings" of ice drifting out of the Strait. He decided to probe the Strait farther North, as far as Point Amour on the Labrador side, but without success. He therefore concluded that the "whelping" ice must be still farther north. He then sailed out of the Straits and up the Labrador coast to Cape Charles. Rounding the Cape, he met his first real ice, which gradually increased in quantity such that his progress became slower and slower. His glass was falling rapidly and he knew that a storm was imminent.
At this stage, Darius Blandford decided to put his vessel into the ice for protection from the approaching storm. But, during the night the ice continued to tighten, and by daybreak there wasn't a drop of open water to be seen. Meanwhile, the wind continued to increase, pressure ridges began to build up, and the ship was lifted almost completely out of the water by the force of the ice as it rafted. The wise skipper, quickly decided the hull of his vessel was punctured by the ice and that the craft would sink when the pressure relaxed and she slipped back into the ocean. He therefore instructed his men to go below and remove from the vessel all the food, guns and ammunition they had on board. They also took a quantity of coal and two topsails and piled all the salvaged items on a very large and flat piece of "pancake ice" nearby. Two days later, the wind dropped, the pressure from the icepack was removed and Darius Blandford's vessel went to the bottom.
Now they were alone - 18 men and a dog, on a large single pan of ice surrounded by an ocean of ice with no conceivable hope of human rescue. Their only hope was that the ice would stay together and that the Arctic current would sweep them south to some point where they would come into contact with land. On March 26, their ice-jam crossed the Strait of Belle Isle and by the first of April they were off the northern Grey Island. From then on their southward drift became painfully slow, impeded by the jam of ice which already filled White Bay. Then, to their chagrin and sadness, when daylight came one morning, their dog had disappeared. They felt lonely and forlorn on the icy wastes.
Now the scene shifts from Captain Darius Blandford to brother Captain Samuel. Some days after the former had lost his dog, Captain Sam, 50 miles northeast of the Funks was picking up his crew with their last tows of old seals in preparation for the trip home. As the last stragglers came aboard, they were accompanied by a dog that they had found on the ice. Sam took one look at the thin, half-starved animal and exclaimed: "My God, that's brother Darius's dog. They're all lost." Thirty-six hours later he was back home in Greenspond with the sad news, and his brother's dog.
Meanwhile, back on his ice-pan, Captain Darius Blandford and his crew were noting that the enormous pressure from the great ice-jam to the north of them was slowly, but relentlessly, forcing their "raft" south towards the southern Grey Island. From the top of the highest pressure ridges, some 40 miles to the south, the higher peaks of Cape St. John and Partridge Point were now plainly visible.
Already down to short rations, Captain Darius made the decision to make a last desperate effort to reach shore. Taking only their remaining food and a single gun and ammunition they left their ice-pan which had brought them safely from the Labrador Coast to the Grey Islands.
Two days later, the 18 men, footsore and weary, landed safely at Harbour Round, a few miles west of LaScie. From Round Harbour, they crossed the Baie Verte peninsula to Snook's Arm and "Iandwashed" their way to Smith's Harbour in Green Bay. From there, with the local settlers, they "island-hopped" the entire width of Notre Dame Bay, eventually reaching present day Musgrave Harbour. Another two and a half day's walk brought them to Shambler's Cove, one short half-mile from home. As the fishermen of Shambler's Cove ferried them across the Tickle to Greenspond the weary sealers looked back with awe and gratitude at the incredible feat they had accomplished. They had only one regret, over their only casualty, the skipper's dog which had given them such comfort during the first part of their ordeal.
Try to imagine their surprise and delight as they landed at the small wharf on the back side of Greenspond Island on May 1, 1868 to be met by a welcoming committee of one - the captain's dog that they thought they had lost nearly a full month before off the Grey Islands on the French Shore. But even more exhilarating must have been the joyful reception as the glad tidings spread through the community that Captain Darius and his crew, given up for lost by their families and friends, were back home safe and sound. It must have been a great day in the Capitol of the North.