Maurice Kearley was 16 when he first went fishing on the Grand Banks in 1944, during an era often referred to as "the days of wooden ships and iron men."
During the next 36 years — until he retired from the sea to work on land at age 52 — he fished on vessels that evolved from the wooden schooners to steel-side trawlers and then to steel-stern trawlers.
Each mode of fishing was always dangerous, and Kearley, 93, can speak first-hand of narrow escapes, harrowing experiences and the loss of a close family member to the unpredictable North Atlantic.
He was born and spent his early years at Baie de L'Eau, a small community of only eight families at the bottom of Fortune Bay. He started cod fishing with his father at age eight and then lobster fishing with his brother, Art, at age 12, when he earned enough money to buy his first suit of clothes.
Kearley, after going to school for a few years — only as far as Grade 4 — left home at age 13 for his first job, as a "water nipper": carrying drinking water for the men laying cable across the island.
At 16, he signed on as a doryman, onboard the 12-dory schooner Tweedsmuir, owned by the Warehams of Harbour Buffett, with his father, Thomas, as his dorymate.
He spent nine years as a doryman on schooners going to the offshore banks, including seven years on the J. Petite and Sons vessel Palitana, with captain Victor Fiander of English Harbour West.
It was while he was fishing out of English Harbour West that he met his future wife, Rita Hepditch; her family had moved there after a tidal wave devastated the Point Aux Gaul area of the Burin Peninsula in 1929. Married in 1950, the young couple moved to Fortune in 1953.
To say the life of a doryman aboard a banking schooner was rough would be putting it mildly. The 12-dory vessels carried 24 fishermen, plus the captain, cook and engineer, all sleeping below deck in cramped quarters, often for weeks at a time.
There were no bathroom facilities aboard.
"We kept a wooden bucket on deck, with a rope attached, to do your business in," said Kearley, explaining the rope was used to lower the bucket over the side to wash the bucket out with salt water.
Danger was always lurking when they were away from the mother ship in their small dory. There were times when sharks would come to the surface, following the hooked cod as the fishermen reached over the side hauling their trawls.
"At times the bloody sharks chopped off our lines," said Kearley.
His memory races back to the time a pod of whales surfaced in among their dories.
"There were so many big whales around that we had no choice but to hoist all the dories back onboard the schooner," he said — and it wasn't safe to stay there. "It was their rutting time."
The most harrowing experience he had on the Grand Banks was when the fog rolled in while he and his uncle, Newman Baker, were returning to their schooner just before dark.
"It was so thick that we missed her; so rather than keep moving and possibly venture further away we anchored our dory and stayed out all night."
The next morning the fog was still thick and they were still unable to hear their schooner's horn. They felt they had no choice but to pull up anchor, put the sail up and head toward land — but luckily, after only about 15 minutes, they ran right up to their schooner looming out of the fog.
His last year as a doryman on a schooner was in 1953 when he sailed on the L.A.Dunton' out of Grand Bank with captain Arch Evans: "halibutting and landing it fresh in Nova Scotia."
The late 1940s and early 1950s saw a major shift in the offshore fishery with the building of fresh-fish filleting plants around the island, ushering in the end of the schooner salt-fishery and the arrival of steel side-trawlers.
Many of the experienced schooner fishermen soon had trawler job offers. Kearley joined the crew of the Bonavista Cold Storage side trawler Blue Wave with captain Freeman Hatch, fishing out of Grand Bank. Although he continued to sail on the Wave for more than three years, it didn't take him long to feel apprehensive about the dragger.
The MT Blue Wave and the MT Blue Mist were the first steel trawlers purchased by BCS; they came from the United Kingdom and were designed for the North Sea fishery. Lying low in the water, they were susceptible to icing up as gale force winds whipped up heavy seas, sending tonnes of salt water crashing over the trawlers on the fishing grounds or as they butted their way to and from their home port.
They were not good sea boats and even in normal weather conditions both the Wave and the Mist were known to have "gone over on their beam's end" — completely on one side in the sea.
When that happened, the engine would have to be immediately stopped to allow the vessel to right itself. If you add a savage North Atlantic winter storm — coupled with a buildup of tonnes of ice — to the mix it would prove to be disastrous.
Kearley wasn't on the Blue Wave very long before he experienced this frightening event.
"I was on her when she went out on her beam's end, far enough that her rail was underwater," he said. The event shook him up.
"I started having bad dreams and something told me I had to leave that boat," he said — meanwhile, his brother, Art, had joined the Wave as second engineer.
The fate of the Blue Wave
Maurice's bad dreams kept recurring, so he finally decided to leave the ship. Eighteen months later, on Feb 9, 1959, the trawler, laden with ice, sank, carrying its 16-man crew to a watery grave — including Art.
Just seven years later, in 1966, the Blue Mist met a similar fate in the Gulf of St. Lawrence, taking the lives of another 13 Burin Peninsula men with it.
A raging winter's storm, bitterly cold with fierce winds — recorded as being one of the worst storms for many years in the area — lasted from Feb. 17-22 that year. Three other trawlers, including the Booth Fisheries side trawler George Kentner' with Maurice Kearley as mate, reported severe icing and had to cut loose their trawls from deck.
Kearley said their trawler iced up so much that before daybreak, with her rail underwater, the entire crew was summoned on deck to "beat ice." After several hours his face became so frostbitten that he spent more than a week in the hospital after they returned to port.
For the rest of his fishing days he was mate with captain Vern Myles — first on the stern trawler Sandra L. Gage and then on the stern trawler Nathan Cummings.
The introduction of stern trawlers in the mid-1960s was a real game-changer for the men who had previously manned the smaller side trawlers in the 1940s and '50s. These newer and larger vessels — designed specifically to fish in our challenging North Atlantic waters — provided more comfort and safety for the men aboard.
With the traditional side trawler the net was hauled in over the side of the boat and, no matter how bad the weather, the men on deck had to handle the fish there. Cod would have to be gutted, whereas flatfish would be forked directly down the hold.
The design of the stern trawler changed that; now the netload of fish was winched up the ramp on the stern of the boat by conveyor belts and carried directly below to the factory deck, where it could then be handled in much more comfort, said Kearley: "Out of the wind and cold and working in much warmer conditions."
Kearley, now a widower — his wife died in 2010 — will be 94 in August. He still drives his car, lives alone in his home and keeps active with his vegetable gardening. He enjoys talking about his days fishing on the offshore banks — but, he said, sometimes when he thinks about his days on the schooners and in the dories he wonders: "How did we ever do it?"