Brief careers at sea for me and the Abberrance

Joy prevails when I reflect that I never had any thoughts about going to sea. I have made some voyages as a passenger, one of them notable. It was on the liner United States eastbound during hurricane Edna in 1953, the roughest crossing in the vessel's log. We came into Le Havre with a following wind that busted the ship's anemometer and left us without documentary proof. I was a good sailor, but lonely. I also enjoyed passage from Montreal to Hamburg, Germany, on a North-German rust bucket on lend-lease from the Ernst Russ line, a closing episode in transatlantic comfort because within a few weeks you flew.

The eight selected passengers for that voyage ate every meal at the captain's table. That's the only table we had aft. Captain Eichorst was partial to filets, so we all had filets while the Wolfgang Russ ground out 10 knots for 10 wonderful days. We saw an iceberg off Cape North, and Captain Eichorst said the Strait of Belle Isle was named for Alexander Graham Bell, the German inventor of the Fernsprecher.

Still, I was brought up in a nautical Maine village by the sea, and about everybody who was older than me was a blue-water man with salt crusted on his boots. In school, we never said "him-MAHL-ee-yuh" or "cuh-RIB-bee-un," but always "him-uh-LAY-uh" and "cair-rib-BEE-un," the right way. We bent hitches and handled lines, but the day was gone when town boys rolled down to Rio and on out east. We already were Down East.

When I embraced journalism as an excuse to avoid work, I came to know Thatcher Soule, who was of a distinguished seafaring family but now operated a salt-fish foundry. The first story I worked up about Soule Salt Fish was about the factory cat, Spinoza, who ate salt fish. Cats will not eat salt fish, but this one had nothing else to eat and had adjusted.

It took some effort to get a picture of puss, which I took with a box Brownie and the assistance of the packaging crew. They caught the cat in a smelt net and held it while I handled the camera.

Mr. Soule, now owning the only fish-factory cat ever to have his picture in the paper, became friendly, and one day asked me if I'd like to go to Nova Scotia with him next time he went for fish.

Mr. Soule's salt-fish factory had two Nova Scotia-style schooners, and while the schooners were equipped to fish the Banks, they seldom did and mostly were transports to carry fish already caught. Thatcher could buy fish at any number of Nova Scotian ports, and could do this more cheaply than he could catch them.

I didn't know about this, so I thought when we sailed away I was going to spend some time with a trawl-tub crew off the deep ground. Instead, my total Grand Bank experience was two nights out to Madam Island, and two nights back with salt cod. The only adventure worth mention was a sea-gull stew made by a Portuguese cook from Fairhaven, and it was delicious.

The schooner, however, can be cited as something else. First, against all instincts of the seafaring tradition, she was named the Abberrance (pronounced abber-RANSE). Superstition said no craft should ever be named anything that starts with an "A."

The day she was launched at Lunenberg, a hawser parted and she drifted ashore in a bony place. Things never got much better. She'd bump a pier and lose her skiff and hit a nun-buoy, and then one day she caught a bolt of lightning. A couple of years after I was aboard, the Abberrance burned to the waterline. The Old Salts said they always knew that would happen, what else could you expect?

At the time of my trip east she was tight as a cup and in A-1 shape. She had good quarters and a small but able crew. As master, Thatcher Soule was as good as we had.

Nobody knows until he's been there, but the Atlantic Ocean has its surprise when you first sail Down East and get into a cross-chop with a southerly and the 50-foot tides of the Bay of Fundy.

DURING the war, when the Navy "took" a lot of fishing boats and pleasure craft to help the big stuff, many longshoremen of Maine signed up to skipper them. Also, a lot of Great Lakes sailors were brought on as one-year admirals or "90-day wonders." The Great Lakes men would make fun of these in-shore Down-East officers, and brag about the high seas of Superior, Michigan, and Huron.

But then the little harbor boats and trawlers now sweeping for mines would come up against the Fundy Tide, and the Great Lakes wonders would go below. Oh, yes! It was a new kind of sea, and new rules were in effect. Captain Soule told me I took on Fundy in good shape. Actually, the Fundy thing is merest routine. It does that all the time. In an hour or so, all is again serene and you don't need to look up to the masthead to find the horizon.

So I came to Canso, where Cape Breton Island begins, and at the MacKenzie wharf there we took on salt-slacked cod and then came home.

The salt-fish cat was at the fish-factory wharf and jumped aboard when we came close. Captain Soule gave me a souvenir Canadian "fish scale" coin for the voyage, in lieu of seaman's stipend. I still have it, if I knew where to look. On my wall here as I write is a twilight view of the Abberrance, her dories nested. Peaceful and serene. I never really downed to sea again.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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