Notre Dame Bay ~ Fogo District
The Sinking of the HELEN VAIRThe information was transcribed by MARILYN PILKINGTON, 1999. While I have endeavored to be as correct as humanly possible, there could be typographical errors.
The picture on the right is William H. Collins of Carmanville, (formerly of Indian Islands), who was the Master and owner of the Helen Vair. William was the G. Grandfather of Marilyn Pilkington. The Collins family of Carmanville were involved in the freighting business both around the island of Newfoundland and to the West Indies. They owned approximately fourteen vessels over the lifetime of their business. The picture below is of Frank Collins at the age of 18. Frank was a son of William H. Collins and was Mate on the Helen Vair when she was lost. Frank is the grandfather of Marilyn Pilkington, who wrote this story of the Helen Vair, with the assistance of her father, Marmaduke (Duke) Collins of Carmanville.
When, in the early hours of November 15, 1929, the Helen Vair set sail from St. John’s, Newfoundland, the day promised to be a fair one. Spirits were high as the schooner slipped through the Narrows under full sail, heavily laden with stores for the winter, gifts for the folks at home, and a beautiful chestnut mare.
The Helen Vair was a 79-ton schooner, built around 1900 in Liverpool, Nova Scotia. Purchased by Captain Bill Collins of Carmanville sometime in the early twenties for the local coasting trade, she’d made numerous trips to St. John’s, bringing with her the salted cod of the local fishermen. The cargo was then sold for the best price available and the profit used for winter provisions for communities such as Carmanville, Gander Bay, Ladle Cove, Musgrave Harbour, and Twillingate.
Bill Collins was an old sea dog, fearful of nothing and well versed in the trade. Born in 1878 on Eastern Indian Island in Notre Dame Bay, he came from a long line of seafarers, accustomed to the harsh life along the eastern coast and the vagaries of nature. Yet life had been relatively good, despite the recent loss of his wife of nearly thirty years. He’d fathered ten children, five of them boys, the youngest of whom, ten-year-old Dorman, waited at home for whatever gift the cargo would yield. Christmas was not far off, and Bill looked forward to the holidays.His son Frank, at twenty-three years of age, was already a veteran sailor. He’d taken to the water at fourteen and was competent enough to set his own sails a few years later. This trip, though, he was mate on the Helen Vair, navigating beside his father as the ship headed for open sea. He, too, was eagerly anticipating the trip home. Some months earlier he had become engaged to a young schoolteacher from Newtown, twenty-two-year-old Evelyn Burry, and the wedding plans were made. Evelyn, it had been agreed, would teach up until Christmas and then take the last coastal boat of the year to Carmanville. There, surrounded by family and friends, they would usher in the new year and begin their life together.
Besides the captain and the first mate, the Helen Vair carried a crew of four: Heber George Cuff, Levi Ellsworth, Theodore Ellsworth, and John Cuff. All were good, dependable men, no strangers to a schooner, and John at seventy-one was still adept at cooking up a scoff. For the return voyage to Carmanville, there were also two passengers: an elderly man named Stephen Blundon and his son Arch.
There had been an impressive send-off in St. John’s. A large crowd had gathered on Baine Johnson’s wharf to see the chestnut horse loaded aboard. The horse, which Bill had bought for hauling wood in the winter, was led down the wharf and put into a large crate. Then, with many hands helping, she was hoisted on board and lowered through the forward hatch into the hold. From there, she was pushed close to the forward bulkhead, through which a hole had been cut to facilitate watering and feeding her during the trip to Carmanville.
Despite the unusually stormy weather that prevailed in the fall of 1929, November 15 held no presage of the events to come. Only three days later, an earthquake some 300 miles south of the coast of Newfoundland would spawn a tidal wave of such proportions that it would wreak havoc on the Burin Peninsula and result in the loss of a number of lives. For now, though, the seas promised smooth sailing.
The first day out was as uneventful as the trip to St. John’s had been. With a light southerly wind behind them, in little time they were off Cape St. Francis. The men relaxed. Some went below for a cup of tea, while others turned in for a nap. As early morning gave way to mid-afternoon and then to late evening, the Helen Vair, her sails at their fullest, skimmed along, through Baccalieu Tickle, across Trinity Bay, and up towards Cape Bonavista.
When the next day dawned, Bill sighted Cabot Island on the starboard bow. He immediately ordered that the schooner be kept outside Gull Island and head towards the Penguin Islands later on. The wind had picked up and was backing into them from the southwest, so he anticipated a good run up the Straight Shore. Chances were they’d be home ahead of time, and with that thought he settled down to a hearty breakfast.
Within an hour, the Penguins were in sight. But it wasn’t the islands that held the men’s attention; it was the swiftly moving clouds coming from the direction of Carmanville. Anticipating a problem, the skipper held course north northwest, deciding to make a short run towards Musgrave Harbour when they had reached Edward’s Rocks. That would bring them inside Hennessey’s Rock and at least offer some shelter from the roughening winds.
It seemed to work. The Helen Vair arrived at Edward’s Reef at 10 a.m. and was making good time up the Straight Store. Then suddenly it happened. An offshore squall, of hurricane force, ripped towards them, churning the sea in its wake and almost capsizing them in the bargain. The force of the wind tore a hole in the mainsail and caused the foresail to be ripped from the top to the luff. Canvas pieces flew across the water, while the outside jib was torn from the ropes. Pandemonium broke out. The wheel was quickly wrenched to the starboard in a desperate bid to turn the schooner back to the Penguins.
In the commotion, Frank suggested they head to Deadman’s Bay and wait out the storm. He figured that by morning the wind might back around to southerly and give them a chance to get up the shore to home. The skipper agreed. The riding sail was rigged but was all too quickly ripped from the mast, leaving only the jumbo to serve the ship.
Their situation was becoming perilous. One of the men recommended that they run for Cat Harbour Island Tickle. There, perhaps, they could anchor until the storm passed. If not, it was argued, they could run the ship aground. As unpalatable as the latter course of action seemed to be, there was a distinct advantage in following it. The schooner was insured. Even if she ran aground, there would be no financial loss to the owner and chances were they’d escape with their lives.
Bill balked at the idea. While the Helen Vair might be insured, the cargo wasn’t. “The stuff below is all those people will have to get them through the winter,” he said. “They’re depending on us, and we can’t let them down. We’ve got to make a run for it.” The only way, he decided, was to go around Cape Freels and somehow work their way up Bonavista Bay.
Meanwhile, the schooner, the stormy northwester behind her, was rapidly moving on. Before the crew realized it, she had passed Cat Harbour and Gull Island was in sight. Then it too disappeared from view, as did Cabot Island a short time later. Saturday evening had come on, and the men knew, with sinking hearts, they’d be drifting seaward all night.
The next morning, Sunday, November 17, found the Helen Vair, her crew, and passengers about a hundred miles east of Cape Bonavista. The winds showed no signs of slackening, and with little of the sails remaining there wasn’t much hope the schooner could be brought back to land.
Things went from bad to worse.
Stephen Blundon, a passenger on the ship, had offered to take the wheel with Frank. Although both of them were secured with ropes, a monstrous wave broke over the rail, sweeping the older man forward. Luckily the ropes held, but there were more than a few tense moments until the ship came up out of the wave and they were able to breathe again.
The next incident involved Theodore Ellsworth, one of the crew. Tee, as he was called, was unfortunately in the line of fire when another massive wave swamped the vessel and shook the main boom loose. The boom catapulted into the air and then jerked downward, breaking the top end lift. As the lift crashed to the deck, Tee’s arm was caught between the cleat on the boom and the wheelbox. The arm snapped in two places.
The agony was almost more than Tee could bear. With the waves threatening to swamp the ship at any moment and the winds howling around her, the men worked feverishly to extricate him. Blackness was closing in on him when finally he was freed and none-too-gently brought below so the arm could be splinted. This accomplished, he was lashed to the bunk and pretty well left to his own devices while the others returned to the deck.
Still the storm raged. For the next six days the lives of skipper, crew, and passengers hung in the balance. One day they were caught in a vicious whirlpool, which threatened to shake them apart; another they watched helplessly as oakum and caulking floated from the deck planks and the vessel began to leak. In desperation the pumps were manned, with no respite. It was a race against time, and well they knew it, with little chance of winning.
By now, the Helen Vair was at least 500 miles from shore. They knew she couldn’t hold out much longer. Their only lifeboat was checked, and thanks was given that it was still intact. Nevertheless, the prospect of being adrift in those waters in a lifeboat was a daunting one. It was certainly not one they relished.
It was November 23, eight o’clock in the morning. The winds had at least died down, although by no means had they abated. Frank was on watch when he noticed what looked like a black funnel some distance ahead. As it came closer, he realized with a thudding heart that what he had assumed to be another storm cloud resembled instead smoke. Racing pell-mell to the cabin, he grabbed the long spyglass, quickly turned, and raced back on deck. He grabbed a rope, wrapped it around his waist, and shimmied up the main rigging, Holding the glass to his eye, he sighted his target, and cried out loud with delight. His black funnel was indeed the smoke of a steamer, some four to five miles away, and heading towards them!
At 9 a.m. the Norwegian ship the SS Terne hove to just windward of the Helen Vair. Although the Terne was close enough to effect a rescue, it wouldn’t be easy; in the circumstances, it was impossible for her to get nearer to the sinking ship. The biggest problem was in transferring Tee, who was still lying disabled in his bunk. As for the chestnut mare, there was no chance she could be saved. Little as the men liked to admit it, she had to be consigned to a watery grave.
Frank, Heber, and Levi volunteered to be oarsmen. The three of them together got the lifeboat over the rails, and Tee was brought from his bunk and lowered in. During the next smooth spell the oarsmen swung away and rowed to the steamer. The Norwegians were waiting with rescue devices and, as painlessly as possible, lifted the injured man onto the deck.
The three men then returned for Stephen and Arch Blundon. Once again, the lifeboat reached the SS Terne without incident.
Skipper Bill and John remained. For the third time, the men rowed towards the sinking ship. John was only too happy to get into the lifeboat, but Bill hesitated. He was reluctant to abandon the Helen Vair, the beautiful chestnut mare, and the cargo that the folks at home were depending upon.
Knowing there was no time to be lost, the men pleaded and cajoled and pointed at the lifeboat, which was bobbing precariously in the waves. Then they took the hard line, telling him in no uncertain terms that the ship was going down. The Terne, they reasoned, wasn’t going to wait forever; already the weather was worsening.
The remarks finally hit home. With a silent apology to the horse and a backward glance at the ship, Bill took his place in the lifeboat and they headed towards the steamer.
Just as they reached the Terne, the wind picked up and the water churned. John quickly grabbed the ladder and scrambled up. Heber and Levi followed. Frank and Bill, on the rungs below, clung for their lives as the lifeboat was swept away. Their benefactors lost no time in hauling them aboard.
The SS Terne was heading to Spain. And so, too, it seemed, were the castaways of the Helen Vair.
Once on board the steamer, the men were fed, given dry clothing, and urged to tell their story. The Norwegian captain immediately sent a message to Newfoundland, saying they were safe and on their way to Cartagena, on the Mediterranean coast of Spain. They would, he promised, be returned to Newfoundland as soon as it was possible. The message got through, much to the enormous relief of the families in Carmanville.
Their ordeal wasn’t quite over. When the Terne passed through the Strait of Gibraltar and entered Cartagena, they learned the Spanish revolution had begun. Given the political unrest, the Newfoundlanders were immediately transferred to Gibraltar, a British territory. Within twenty-four hours they had boarded the SS Blair and were finally heading home.
The Blair landed in Saint John, New Brunswick, on December 24, a bitterly cold day. From Saint John they travelled by train to Halifax, where they boarded the SS Rosalind en route to St. John’s. Two days later they were back to their starting point. News of the fate of the Helen Vair had spread, and well-wishers were on hand to cheer their arrival. Once Bill had notified his insurers of the loss of his schooner, the hapless crew and passengers boarded the appropriately named SS Home.
It was the last coastal boat of the year going to Carmanville. Along the way, it made a number of stops, picking up passengers here and there. At Wesleyville, young Evelyn Burry jumped on. She was heading to a wedding.
The SS Home steamed into Carmanville harbour on January 6, 1930. A wild welcome greeted the heroes, for heroes they had become. Bill’s worries had been for naught. Little thought, if any, was given to the cargo that had gone down with the Helen Vair. Postscript
Evelyn Burry and Frank Collins were married on January 7, 1930, one day after the survivors returned home.
The men from Carmanville were always grateful to the crew of the SS Terne. After their rescue, Frank wrote to them on behalf of “the Master and Crew of the Stranded Vessel Helen Vair,” tendering his heartfelt thanks to “the Noble Captain and Officers and Crew [for] Rescuing our lives from the Sinking Schooner in the Recent Storm.” He also sent to a Bergen newspaper a copy of his letter, which was duly translated and published. The captain and the crew of the Terne became instant heroes in the eyes of their folks at home.