General Articles


Before Canadians "up-along” are astir, the Newfoundland outporter is at sea, full of brewis, tea and good humor

EVA-LIS WUORIO November 1 1948
General Articles


Before Canadians "up-along” are astir, the Newfoundland outporter is at sea, full of brewis, tea and good humor

EVA-LIS WUORIO November 1 1948



THROUGHOUT the night, shaggy, huge dogs howl at the moon. The village of unpainted flat-roofed houses crawling up the crags of the rocky hills rests dark in the short northern night. The surf on the rocks at the twisted harbor mouth sings a constant lullaby.

Then, with the first thin edge of light above the sea’s edge eastward, the cock crows. And another. The dogs pause in their howling. Their watch of the dark night is done. Lights flick up here and there on the hills, on the jutting crags. It is 4 a.m. at Petty Harbor, a 400-year-old settlement of 770 souls, eight miles south of St. John’s.

Lights come on in the bunkhouses above the fish stages of St. John’s Outer Battery, they stab the night at Logy Bay, Cuckhold’s Cove, Cape Spear and Herring Neck. Up and down the tortuous coastline of Newfoundland, in the 1,300 little outports, set in coves,|bays, tickles and guts, minute specks of light meet the coming day. The fishermen turn out of bed, children, sleeping together, stir restlessly under thin blankets, women, still slow with sleep, start the stove, put on the teakettle. Now there is a knock at the door below.

I look out of the window to the ghostly unsharp silhouette of the village below, to the lighter dark of the bay, to the faint light above the Atlantic beyond.

There is a knock again and I stick my head out of the window and say, softly, “All right, I’m awake.” The room is full of sleep and yawn and unfamiliar things and I am cold and it is only 4 a.m. But I must be quiet not to awaken Sandy Lee and his wife, for he is farming this summer and she keeps a store and neither of them need be up this early.

I grope through the black house, find the key

above the shop-door ledge, let myself out into the night. Mistily silhouetted by the white gatepost is a lean figure of a man in a cap and a smock, leaning on a high staff. It’s Hugh Greeley.

He speaks quietly, in the oddly undefinable patois of Petty Harbor, “Thought I’d come and get you. The dogs won’t bite but they are scary.”

“What a devil of an hour to get up,” I say, yawning.

I think he smiles for his voice has a light twist, “Come day, go day, God send Sunday.”

He swings his staff as he walks. The dogs, not at all like the pretty pictures of gentle Newfoundland thoroughbreds—shaggy big mongrels these with sharp eyes and ready growl—peer at us from roadside, from porches, follow a step or two, howling.

Hugh says, “We use them come winter, hauling wood from the forests. No use at all in the summer, they are.”

At his house Isabel, his wife, is up and the kitchen is warm, the breakfast ready. Isabel says, “We thought you wouldn’t be getting the Lees up to give you tea, so I told Hugh to bring you on in.”

I say the polite, inappropriate things. They do not sink in. A Newfoundlander is so wedded to his natural hospitality and kindliness he finds thanks not only sujjerfluous, but uncalled for.

Before we are finished tea the door opens and a broad-shouldered, solid man with a wide, pleasant red face looks in. It’s Skipper Richard White of the motor-driven fishing dory. His oilskins are thrown over his shoulders and he carries a pair of long rubber boots. “To keep you from the wet sea, my darling,” he tells me in a roLiing brogue.

We walk down the steep curving village street in the dark dawn and other shadowy figures straggle out of other houses, heading down to the fishing flakes by the harbor. Flakes are the grey wooden pilings that rise out of the water, topped by

platforms where the fish are cleaned (“stages” and dried (the “flakes” proper). Above these again, often, there are bunkhouses for the unmarried men, or those fishermen who live too far from the harbor to be promptly on the spot at 4.30 every morning.

The smell of dried cod and fresh cod and bucketfuls of dead squid for bait, and the mongrel dogs, and the salty sea wind, is pungent enough here to knock you flat. Yet it is not too unpleasant a mixture. It has a sharpness that is considering the origin of the smell fresh.

The streaked dawn is lightening now. A tippy, narrow boat dips below the pilings on the oncoming tide. It nearly throws me, like a bucking bronco, as I scale down to it. Skipper Dick looks down and grins, “Comfortable there, now, my honey?” he enquires.

A typical Petty Harbor, one-masted fishing boat goes out under power as we wait, for Frederick Chafe of John. There are a lot of Chafes and a lot of Fredericks at Petty Harbor, but they are easy to tell apart. This Continued on next page

Continued on next page

Before Canadians "up-along” are astir, the Newfoundland outporter is at sea, full of brewis, tea and good humor

Coni:nued from preceding page one’s father’s name, for example, was John.

“He hasn’t berm so long married, our Frederick of John,” Skipper Dick explains happily. “Used to be a prompt laddie. We wait for him in the mornings now.”

When we are finally on our way, engine choking and roaring, the small open boat nudging the Atlantic swell confidently, the dawn is already pale green and pale violet. And then, as we turn south from the harbor mouth, the sun comes up, an immense red copper hall rising rapidly over the straight edge of' the Atlantic.

Skipper I tick is softly singing to himself as he prepares the jigging lines we’ll use to catch cod.

“We’ll rant and we’ll roar like true Newfoundlanders,” he sings,

“We’ll rant and we’ll roar on deck and below.

And when we reach bottom inside of two sunkers,

Oh, it’s straight through the Channel toTuslow we’ll go.”

The last vestige of sleep has left me. This isn’t so bad at all, l think happily. And then we round the Thoroughfare, a long spindly barrier of sharply rising rocks, and hit the swell of the rough stretch of Atlantic called Petty Harbor Motion.

The small boat takes a tremendous dive. Above you a wave rises, curling, a small-house high. The dory climbs it and falls again. Hugh Greeley reaches out to give me a hand-rolled cigarette and shouts over the noise of the engine and the sea, “Tide’s high this morning, it is, and the wind straight against it. Then I here's always the high seas.”

“Never quiet enough to be dull out here anyhow,” Skipper Dick adds helpfully.

We dive and climb, dip and swoop, on and on. Probably at somit other time he notched the edge of the boat to mark the spot, for suddenly Skipper Dick signals for t he engine to he turned off. We stop over a submerged ledge. Now the motion oft he dory accelerates.

I swallow sharply.

breakfast at Sea

The hand lines are out now and in the tossing boat we begin to jig. This is a rhythmic, yanking motion which keeps the big unbaited hook, six fathoms deep, constantly moving, in the hope that it will snag a passing cod. The fishermen prefer to use squid for bait, but the year is bad and the squid have not begun their run.

Suddenly my line goes lead-heavy. A wave pitches the boat simultaneously.

I nearly go overboard.

“Bring er in!” the Skipper shouts over the roaring wind and sea.

The cod fights for its life. Finally it ’s by the side of the boat, a spiritless 30-pound lump of silver, gouged at the side by the hook, i hoist it in. At the same time Frederick Chafe of John gets one.

Again we jig. It’s a matter of shoulder, rather than arm muscles. After a luckless spell, Skipper Dick eyes the far shoreline, starts the engine and we move some boatJengths off, following the contours of the ledge, six fat homs below us, to perch on anot her house-high wave. My insides arc beginning to feel the Petty Harbor Motion’s motion. After a couple more moves my face is apparently showing green.

“A bit of tea and a spot of breakfast, now, would tix you,” the Skipper says. He nods to Frederick.

Hugh Greeley continues to jig. 1 sit desolate by the tiller. Skipper Dick reaches under the seat for a soggy oilclot h bag. While Frederick Chafe of

John hauls out an iron brazier partly filled with stones, neatly stacks a fire above them and puts the teakettle and an iron cauldron on, the Skipper draws out of his bag a couple of fatty, greenish chunks of meat.

He grins and spells out “H-Ö-R-S-E, cow.” Meat is a choice luxury among the fishermen.

Now the Skipper reaches for some of the big cod we’ve caught and neatly cuts off their faces. That is, the front of the head. He slices up a couple of the small fish, too. The potatoes are small and purple and he peels them “because this morning we have a visitor for breakfast.” All of this, plus a fistful of

hard tack, he throws into the iron pot. Frederick tends the fire.

It’s quite a scene, I think to myself, keeping my lips firmly closed. The small open boat, painted bright green but pealing with weather, tossing on the high swell. The morning mistypurple and blue. The bright flames leaping from the iron brazier around the two black pots. Beyond, a schooner out of Harbor Grace making for Nova Scotia, gulls patterned in a swirl above the masts. To the west the high black rocky crags of Newfoundland. To the east the limitless sea.

Frederick Chafe washes out a wooden board. This he places lidwise on the

pot, with a smart flip turns the pot upside down, and allows the spare fluids to slop overboard. On the plank now is the breakfast: fish heads and pieces, potatoes, meat.

“Hitch on, my darling,” says the Skipper to me.

They sit in a semicircle around the plank, eat tidily with their fingers, make room for me.

I take one staggering step forward, can barely get out, “Sorry—going to be—sick,” when I am.

When I lift my head, finally, Skipper Dick is standing by with a cup of black tea. “Nothing better than this for you, my honey,” he says.

Hugh Greeley says quickly, “Every year I’m sick myself at least once.”

Frederick Chafe of John, who hardly ever speaks, adds his bit, “You stood it a long time. Many a fisherman gives up, they do. Why, it could happen to myself.”

I try to thank them. After the second cup of tea stays down, I look mistily at the morning and recognize it as a fine day.

An Old Pattern

We chug back into the calm shelter of Petty Harbor about 11 a.m. The fishing stands are pale grey in the noon sunlight, and at the various wharves other fishing dories are pulling up with their catch. Their arms moving in circling rhythm, Frederick and Skipper Dick White hoist the big fish on long spiked poles, to the stage where Hugh Greeley swings them to the cleaning table. No motion is wasted, no words. Everybody has his job and does it. Frederick clips off the heads of the cod, Skipper Dick slits them with one quick slash, Hugh Greeley washes them and stacks them into a wheel harrow for salting. Drying will come later.

The morning is part of the age-old pattern of Newfoundland days. Since the first fishing schooners out of England and Spain found the banks by the western island filled with limitless fish, men have sought for the silver treasures of the deep here.

All of Newfoundland’s 1,300 outports exist on fishing income. “Outport” is any small village perche*! on the craggy shore line. Alen from the outports are “baymen.” There are in Newfoundland only “baymen” and “St. John’s men.”

Skipper Dick, and Hugh Greeley and Frederick Chafe are among the 37,000 Newfoundlanders who make their living in the fisheries. The people who catch, cure, freeze and handle fish form just less than half of the working force of the island and they produce slightly less than half of its exports.

For the fisherman in a dory it’s a slim living, even now when wartime prices still prevail. In 1945 Newfoundland sold about $22 millions worth of fish; for the fisherman this meant an income of about $800 or $900. During bad years he may average only $10 a week. That’s when he looks for a spare-time job.

Sandy Lee at Petty Harbor, for instance, is trying a little farming and storekeeping on the side. Others, such as Barney Delaney and Jerry Va teller at St. John’s Outer Battery, take on jobs as longshoremen during bad fishing years. Alany baymen also work in the woods during the winter for the cash which is otherwise hard to come by.

The outport families often get their provisions from the merchant who buys their fish, the whole business being on a very flexible barter basis. During bad years the merchant stretches credit as far as necessary and

Continued on page 27

Continued from page 24

half the good year’s fish goes to pay for that. That’s one of the problems of Confederation. This fall, so the talk is, the merchants are going to wait and see whether the Dominion Government has any new plans for provisioning the outports. If they wait too long the harbors close and the outports would face a starvation winter.

Shore fishery, such as jigging for cod at Petty Harbor Motion, or netting off Cape Spear south of St. John’s, is very mucha family industry. The men and boys catch the fish and clean it, women and children set it out on the flakes to dry. It has to be stacked up and covered every night because otherwise it turns black. If you should add these “family workers” to the number of people employed in fisheries, the figure would naturally be much, much higher.

Very few fishermen operate entirely by themselves. Either a small syndicate owns a dory or an open fishing smack, or one man owns it and goes shares with the men who fish with him.

It’s a hard, harsh life. Most inshore fishermen fish the year around. They set nets or trawl during the early season, then fish with baited hooks or go jigging from late summer on. They’re up at four each morning, have breakfast at sea after the nets are up or after a spell of jigging, as Skipper Dick and his men did, then back to port to get the first haul of fish ashore and out again by eight a.m., after another breakfast and perhaps a glass of beer “to take the numbness out of the day.” This time they stay until afternoon and fish again in the evening.

Cod is the mainstay the year around. In July also comes capelin, in August and October squid, late October and January herring.

No Time for Fun

In the outports there isn’t much time or strength left over for social life. But in practically every village, however small, there are two churches and two schools, the Protestant and the Roman Catholic. There is singing, too, chanteys that were old when England was young, the minor-tuned Royalist songs of Scotland, the folk tunes of Ireland, all adapted to Newfoundland words. They drift up from the wharves and fish stages, and sound from the hills where the small boys keep goats and weathered low houses have earthen roofs with daisies and goldenrod growing on them.

Though the Newfoundland landscape seems to lack the brighter warm shades entirely, the views are never dull. There is always the vastness of sky and sea, the rough immensity of high rock and crag. The mountain ponds are a dear eye in the vastness, the views Tom the heights have a barren magnificence.

This environment stamps the people, [t is in their very walk, an unconcerned, proud rolling step, on the vharves and hills and on board a schooner. It is in the warmth of their aospitality—and they don’t apologize or what they haven’t got, as smaller ninds do. It is in the imaginative turn >f phrase, the invented word, the heat >f argument.

In the outports, for example, there ire descriptive words of completely Newfoundland origin. Such as “sish” or the sound made by fine broken ice working in the ebb and flow of the sea m the shore. “Glutch” is when you wallow too fast. “Dwigh” is for a udden, short shower of rain or snow.

Brewis” is a morning meal of broken lard biscuit, soaked in water overnight, /ith small pieces of salt codfish and aelted fat pork mixed in. “Goulds”

are valleys with wooded sides. “Gut” is a deep narrows to the sea, “tickle,” a trickle of water between mainland and an island.

There are other words with distant origins. Such as the Jersey word for washing fish, “ramshorn,” which may be a corruption of the French “rencoir.” “Funks,” the island off the Wadhams, may come from the word the Danes and Icelanders use to describe a small haycock which the island resembles in shape. “Capelin” for the small fish, is Portuguese. There are also evidences of English and Irish dialects and the French influence. Everywhere the words have common usage, though the dialects among the fishermen vary according to districts, some of them being so thick a mainlander—in Newfoundland to come from Canada is to come from “up-along”—finds it practically impossible to understand.

“Don’t Make Strange”

The proverbs are as picturesque. When Skipper Dick White wanted to philosophize on how a man gets his just deserts he said, “You can’t hike out of a bag what you didn’t put into it.” Raymond Riche, a fisherman on Outer Battery, who started his cod-oil factory “in the spring of the year and life opening up,” pointed out that chance plays much part in a man’s success by saying, “it’s hard to tell the mind of a gull.” Bernard Delaney, who fishes for Riche, was speaking of foolish extravagances when he referred to a friend who “sits in one end of the tilt and burns the other.” To a lazy fisherman his friends will say, “The fish is in eating the rocks.”

When a visitor comes into an out port, home he is as likely as not to say, “God bless the work.” When 1 sat down to tea old Mrs. Greeley, Hugh’s mother, said, “Don’t make strange,” and when I lit my second cigarette on top of the first one, Skipper Dick grinned and said, “You smoke like a winter tilt, my darling.”

Fishermen tell stories here, too, and the comeback is, “All big fish in the sea were lost, at the gunnel.”

Why, after a while you find yourself saying, “And as God would have it,” or “As good as ever water wet,” “As foolish as a mazed capelin,” and, referring to indefinite future, such as “When are you leaving Newfoundland?” “Tomorrow nextday.”

It is an easy thing to love this brusque, off - the - shoulder, magnificently lonely province-to-be of Canada. It. is easy to be delighted with her nonartificial, good people. But it is not easy to forget twilight at Petty Harbor and the pattern of nets spread to dry on the purpling crags of the rocky slopes when the netting season is over. And you remember, too, the cliffscaling silvered-wood flakes at Pouch Cove and the salt wind flying, the schooners drifting in slow majesty through St. John’s narrows, the tales of big salmon from the mountain streams.

But the strongest memory is that of predawn and the outports awake. The sun climbing the Atlantic but softly yet, the misted shades, the sea lighter with drifting fog than the sky. A small boat chugging under the forbidding Black Head point toward Cape Spear and the traps heavy with silver fish, there in its shade. And young Skipper Jerry Vatcher singing softly to himself with a long drawn, “Oooooh THIS is the place where the fishermen gather . . .” and, all around, the small fishing dories nosing toward their nets.

And you know this is how it must be, upon the sea this dawn, all around the long high coastline of Newfoundland. ★