Shipwrecked at Hantís Harbour!

by Kris Mullaly

            Years ago, residents of isolated communities in Newfoundland depended on coastal schooners to bring stores of food, materials and medical supplies from St. Johnís, Newfoundlandís Capital port.  Oftentimes, ships carrying goods were lost at sea as a result of hostile weather and rough sea conditions.

            In 1835, Captain William Kelson Jr. and a crew of seven set sail for St. Johnís from Trinity, Trinity Bay.  His schooner, The Fanny, was specially designed and built for the transport of supplies.  The trip to St. Johnís was important because everyone in the community depended on that delivery of goods to keep them through winter.

            These days, traveling from St. Johnís to Trinity takes a few hours by car.  By sea, the voyage is considerably longer and in the days of wind and sail, took anywhere from two days to a week or longer.  Kelson and crew had their work cut out for them as winds and tides, not motors and global positioning systems, determined their destination.  Under the fairest of conditions, the voyage would be punishing, but the Fanny was beset by less-then-favourable conditions.

            The first leg was a success and the schooner made it to St. Johnís, where her crew proceeded to gratify to hull with precious stores.  The Captain wasted no time in making preparations for the return home.

            Things looked good on the return trip, but as the schooner approached the south head of the Bonavista Peninsula, about 21 miles before they would be safely home, a surprise ďsnow squallí jeopardized safety on board.  December is a particular dangerous month as a calm southernly breeze can quickly change into a deadly north-easternly winter gale.  Kelson decided to wait out the storm in Catalina.  Later, a deceptive calm pushed through and urged Kelson onward.  By this time, his crew had been reduced to six as one man decided to venture forth on foot, a decision that proved to be his salvation.

            About 10 nautical miles out, the gale returned with a vengeance.  Before long, the sails were destroyed under wintry wind and with that the Fanny began to drift.  South by west and across Trinity Bay she was tossed and thrown until finally meeting her fate upon the stark cliffs near Hantís Harbour.  Maybe the Skipper, despite the loss of navigation, was somehow aiming for the Arches, a 1200-square-foot, hollowed-out sea cave that is often used as a through-fare for small vessels.  But whether he did or not, weíll never know now.  But in any case, thatís where his ship was smashed and shredded to bits.

            The next day, splinters of hull, fragments of masthead and straying cargo told the tragic story of death caused by a merciless sea.  Richard Pelley noticed wreckage near Capelin Cove Road, Barbourís Head and immediately assessed the danger involved in retrieving the drowned sailors.  The cliffs in the area are hundreds of feet high and the beach near the wreckage was not accessible by foot.  Another strategy was required.

            It was decided that Pelley would be lowered down the cliff face.  A fully intact cow hide, normally cut up for shoe repair, was fashioned into a crude stretcher, and wrapped inside it, Pelley was on his way to the wreckage area.  One by one, Captain and crew were pulled some 152 meters (500 hundred feet) up the cliff.

            Afterward, a huge bonfire was lit on the top of the cliff as a beacon of tragedy for the families across the Bay.  No one from Trinity could safely cross the Bay, since the storm raged for several days on end.  The dead were waked as long as possible and were finally laid to rest in the Methodist cemetery in Hantís Harbour.  Without the supplies the Fanny had aboard, that must have been a cold, hungry winter in Trinity.

            Kelsonís wife could not make the trip to Hantís Harbour until later that spring.  When she came she brought with her a slip from a Willow tree, possibly from a tree in her garden.  This she planted at the head of the seven graves.  To this day, that Willowís issue stands in silent monument of the loss of life at sea.  To this day, there are those who remember.


The Downhomer Magazine.

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