Nfld. & Labrador

The Blue Wave and Blue Mist sank more than 50 years ago. But Grand Bank never forgets

The vicious storms of February — with gale-force winds and mountainous waves — are a constant reminder to Grand Bank of the price its people have paid to earn a living from the sea.

Side trawlers sank 7 years apart, victims of vicious February storms that have extracted a heavy toll

Bonavista Cold Storage Co. side trawlers Blue Wave and Blue Mist. (Robert Stoodley Photography)

The vicious storms of February — with gale-force winds and mountainous waves — are a constant reminder to Grand Bank of the price its people have paid to earn a living from the sea.

For more than 200 years the men of this Burin Peninsula town, and other south coast communities, have challenged the North Atlantic in dories, longliners, schooners and draggers. But too often the sea, from which we wrench a living, turns from a friend into an enemy and master.

The names of men from this town lost at sea, and the ships that have gone to the bottom. would fill pages and pages of a book.

From 1862 to 1936 — during the offshore schooner bank fishery — our ancestors recorded the names of 197 fishermen who died when the 25 banking vessels they were crewing sank. During that time, there were 110 vessels from Grand Bank lost. In total, there have been more than 300 men lost on ships sailing out of Grand Bank.

February was and always will be a very hard month for our family. Even though it is 61 years ago, we never forget.- Betty Stringer

Many of us still have painful memories of the loss of the schooner Mabel Dorothy in 1955, along with her six-man crew. This tragedy was followed less than four years later when the steel side trawler Blue Wave capsized and sank, carrying her 16-man crew with her. Just seven years after that in 1966, a similarly designed ship from the local fishing fleet, the Blue Mist, met the same fate, taking the lives of the 13 men onboard.

The Bonavista Cold Storage Co. (BCS) fish plant opened in Grand Bank in the early 1950s, just as the days of the wooden schooner deep-sea fishery were coming to an end. The first two steel side trawlers purchased by the company, the Blue Wave and Blue Mist, came from the U.K. and were designed for the North Sea fishery.

It wasn't long before it became painfully obvious that the small 40-metre vessels couldn't stand up to the ferocious winter storms of the North Atlantic.

Thick heavy ice covers the deck of this Burin trawler, circa 1960s. (Submitted by Allan Stoodley Photography)

The two trawlers weren't sister ships but they were very similar in design. Lying low in the water, they were susceptible to icing up as gale-force winds whipped up heavy seas, sending tonnes of freezing salt water crashing over them on the fishing grounds and as they butted their way to and from port.

The 29 men lost on the Blue Wave and Blue Mist left behind 98 dependents, including widows and children under 17. Any child 17 or older was not considered a dependent.

Every winter emotions and painful memories resurface in the people left behind. Betty Stringer (née Barnes) lost her father, Abraham J. Barnes, on the Blue Wave. He left behind his wife and four dependent children as well as a son, George, 22, and Betty, 20.

"February was and always will be a very hard month for our family. Even though it is 61 years ago, we never forget," Betty told me.

At the time, George was working at the fish plant in Bonavista and she was teaching at the Salvation Army school in Grand Bank.

"When Dad was leaving on that last trip, he told my sister, Meta, that he would be back for her birthday on Feb. 10. He said, 'I will make ice cream for you because it will be your 13th birthday and you will then be a teenager.'"

Charles Walters was the captain of the ill-fated Blue Wave. (Submitted by Allan Stoodley)

On the morning of Feb. 9, 1959, a Monday, George and the other workers — including myself — at the BCS plant reported for work as the Wave was scheduled to land with a load of fish for processing. But as employees arrived they were greeted with the devastating news that the ship was missing.

The 40-metre steel side trawler, under command of 34-year-old Capt. Charles Walters, had left the fishing grounds the day before with an estimated 120,000 pounds aboard. About 100 kilometres southeast of Cape St. Mary's the vessel ran into a savage Atlantic gale with 95 km/h winds whipping up eight-metre waves, coupled with sub-zero temperatures that caused heavy ice to form on the Wave's hull and superstructure.

Even in fair weather the Blue Wave had been known to "go over on her beam's end" — completely on its side. When that happened the engine would have to be immediately stopped to allow the ship to right itself. But adding a furious North Atlantic winter storm and a buildup of tonnes of ice proved to be disastrous.

At 3:45 a.m. Walters told Capt. Bill Vardy of the Burgeo trawler Triton that the Wave was taking on ice, and the ship would have to slow down or stop, so his men could get out on deck and beat off the ice.

Fifteen minutes later Walters sent out an SOS telling the Triton to speed toward them because the Wave was over on her beam's end. The Triton immediately made its way to the position Walters gave, but because of the blinding snowstorm and gale-force winds, nothing could be seen.

Bonavista Cold Storage Co. side trawler Blue Wave sank in 1959. (Robert W. Stoodley Photography)

Boats and planes searched the area day and night but found no sign of the Blue Wave. Then early on Tuesday morning an aircraft spotted what appeared to be an overturned lifeboat or dory.

All hope vanished on Wednesday when the company trawler Fortune Star recovered one of the Wave's dories, which was bottom-up, as well as a hatch cover and a flagstaff. Another BCS trawler, the Luckimee, picked up a lifeboat and a dory.

The towns of Grand Bank and nearby Fortune lost a total of 16 men.

For three days the towns were in mourning and all social activities were cancelled. Businesses, dwellings and ships flew flags at half-mast. Memorial services were held in all churches.

Similar fate

It was on Feb. 18, 1966 that the Mist, while fishing in the Gulf of St. Lawrence, met the same fate as the Wave, another victim of savage wintry weather. The vessel, carrying a crew of 13 men and captained by 29-year-old Stuart Price, radioed that they were fighting a severe storm and would probably be delayed in returning to Grand Bank with their 200,000 pounds of fish aboard.

Price had last reported between 8:30 p.m. and 10:30 p.m. that the ship was near the Port au Port Peninsula and he would be a day late arriving back in port.

The next afternoon, search and rescue crews were alerted.

We saw some rough times, and I was on her when she went over on her beam's end.- Allister Stone

For the next two days five aircraft and many ships searched the area, hindered by poor visibility, strong winds, snow flurries and freezing spray. Finally on Feb. 22, three dories belonging to the ill-fated trawler were found about 16 kilometres away from the ship's last-known position.

According to the report into the loss of the trawler published late in 1966: "The storm had commenced on Feb. 17 and is recorded as one of the worst storms for many years in the gulf area. Three other trawlers all reported severe icing and had to cut loose their trawls from deck."

The raging storm — bitterly cold with fierce winds — increased in intensity the night of Feb. 18 and raged unabated until Feb. 22.

Retired trawler skipper Allister Stone is now 88 years of age and lives in Marystown. (Submitted by Allan Stoodley Photography)

Of the 13 men who drowned, 11 were from Grand Bank and two were from Creston. An emotional interdenominational memorial service for the crew members was held on Feb. 27 with more than 1,200 people attending.

At the time, deep-sea fishermen were still not covered under workers' compensation, so within days the Grand Bank-Fortune Lions Club launched a disaster appeal, which raised more than $170,000. In 1959 the club had also spearheaded a fundraiser for the families of the men lost on the Blue Wave, collecting $114,000.

Retired trawler skipper Allister Stone is now 88 years old and lives in Marystown.

He was very familiar with both trawlers,describing them as "not very good sea boats." He served for five years as bosun (second mate) on the Blue Mist with Capt. Frank Thornhill when the ship first came to Grand Bank.

"We saw some rough times," he said.

"And I was on her when she went over on her beam's end. She fell out to port near Green Island when we had to change course and go broadside to the wind. We had to stop the engine and let her come back."

The veteran skipper added the crew said they wouldn't be going back out on the Blue Mist.

"But they all did, because back then it was a job to get a job. Jobs were hard to come by," he said. When the Blue Wave sank, Stone was on the Blue Mist, fishing farther south where the weather wasn't so bad.

These Grand Bank women have all lost loved ones to the North Atlantic. (Submitted by Allan Stoodley Photography)

Following days of mourning and church services in Grand Bank, the Mist put to sea again with 16 wreaths onboard, one for each of the missing seamen.

The boat steamed out to the position Walters gave when he sent out his SOS. Thornhill stopped the Mist, assembled the crew on deck, and dropped the wreaths overboard.

Even today Stone gets emotional as he remembers. "It was heart-wrenching to watch all the wreaths float away in different directions," he said. 

The annual Seamen's Memorial Service will be held on Sunday at the United Church in Grand Bank. 

To the sound of a tolling bell, family members will be invited to light a candle in memory of loved ones who were lost at sea and to honour those who still challenge the ocean to provide for their families.

Read more from CBC Newfoundland and Labrador

About the Author

Allan Stoodley has travelled around Newfoundland and Labrador during the last six decades, camera in hand, recording and writing about the province's local history and its people. He lives in Grand Bank.

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