- Historic Sites
The Terrible Odyssey Of Howard Blackburn
February/march 1982 | Volume 33, Issue 2
Soon my hands began to freeze. It is surprising how quickly a man’s mind will work at such a time. I could imagine a vessel coming along to pick us up and find Welch at the oars trying to row ashore while I sat on the thwart helpless if I allowed my hands to freeze as they were. Reaching down I picked up the two oars and sqeezing my fingers around the handles, held them there until I could no longer move my fingers. I knew then they were frozen stiff.…
I took my turn with Tom bailing out the water and breaking off the ice which formed on the inside of the dory with a gobstick, and throwing the ice overboard. (This stick is what we hit the big halibut on the nose with to kill them.)
I took off one of my rubber boots, pulled off the sock and tried to put it on one hand in place of the lost mitten. My hand was so swollen I could not get it in the sock farther than the heel. Soon the foot of the sock was a ball of ice and its weight kept pulling the sock off my hand. I had to haul it back with my fingers. Finally I lost the sock overboard as I tried to break the lump of ice in it on the gunwale.
Just before nightfall on the second day I finished my turn at bailing and was about to lie down in the bow of the dory with Welch when the dory shipped a bad sea. It was now Welch’s turn to bail but he did not move.
“Come, Tom, jump quick,” I said.
When he replied, “I cannot see,” I went back to bailing the dory again.
“Come, Tom,” I said again, “this won’t do. You must do your part. Your hands are not frozen and beaten to pieces as mine are,” showing him my right hand with the little finger nearly off.
“Howard, what is the use, we cannot last until morning. We might as well go first as last.”
I went aft and sat down in the bottom of the dory with my back to the wind, and taking the thwart with my two arms, moved it back and forth all night, when not obliged to bail the dory or break the ice. This kept me awake.
Welch kept groaning for some time with what might have been a prayer. I could not understand what he said. He called me twice by name but when I answered him, I could not understand what he said. The breaking sea made too much noise. After a while, hearing no sound from him, I went forward and shook him but found he was dead. Taking the body in my arms and watching my chance, I carried it aft and laid it down in the stern of the dory, where it was soon covered with ice for the spray froze as it fell.
Shortly after daylight of the third day it began to moderate. The Grace L. Fears was not on the horizon when I searched it. The wind had driven us from where she was anchored so I decided to row for shore. At first I had trouble getting my frozen fingers over the ends of the oars. After Tom died I took off his right mitten but my hand was so badly bruised and swollen I could not get it in.
After hauling in the drag I started to row for the shore which I figured was about 40 miles away. The friction of the oar handles soon wore away the frozen flesh on my hands. I had no extra pair of hands now to keep the boat clear of water. Welch’s body had slumped well down into the stern sheets and acted as ballast. However, we did not ship much water and I had little bailing to do.
I rowed all day and as night came on I put out the drag again and lay to the drag until morning. It blew quite fresh during the night but the dory shipped but little water. At daylight I hauled in the drag and began to row for shore once more.
Before nightfall of the fourth day I made a landfall. I rowed into what I knew was a river because the surface water was black, which meant it was fresh water riding on top of the salt waves. … I descried a fisherman’s hut and wharf but there were no signs of life.
I knew the habits of the Island fisherfolks. Those who could afford to make the move went into the deep woods at the foot of the mountains to spend the winter. There they were sheltered from the wintry blasts. Game was plentiful. With a sufficient supply of staple provisions they lived comfortably.…
I tried to row up the river but the current was so strong I could not make any headway. The sea was not bad. You’d call it rough, but the waves that were licked up by the wind were nothing to a fisherman. I did not have presence of mind enough at that time to take advantage of the eddies so reaching the little wharf near the hut was difficult. It was fast falling into decay. There was a flat rock on the outer end on which the sea was breaking. After a while I managed to get the stern of the dory on the rock.…
I decided to go ashore and make use of whatever shelter the hut offered. It was poor enough. There was no wood with which to build a fire and no way of lighting it had there been some. The only things in the hut were a table and an old bedstead with boards nailed across instead of a spring. The doors had rotted away and there were holes in the roof. The snow on the dirt floor was up to my knees. I turned the board on the bed dry side up, took a fishnet for a pillow and laid down. I soon began to doze and I knew that it would not do for me to sleep so I walked the floor until morning.