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By Jonathan Prince Cilley
The tired crews get an hour or two of sleep just as they are; then, after a pot of black tea and a handful of bread, start out to begin the next day’s work, resting and eating during the hour between the trips, and then going out again, and repeating the some monotonous round over and over till we wondered how they lived through it, and what was to be done with all the fish. When there is a good breeze the boats are rigged and a large part of the weary labor of rowing is escaped. How tired the crews would look as the big twenty—four feet boats went dashing by our vessel in the fog and rain, on the outward trip, and how happy, though if possible more tired, as they came back three or four hours later, loaded to the gunwale with cod, and thinking, perhaps, of the bags full that they had left buoyed near the trap because the boat would not carry the whole catch. It is a hard life, and no wonder the men are not much more than animals; but they work with dogged persistence, for in a little more than two months enough must be earned to support their families for the year. When the “spurt” ends the crews get a much needed rest, and attend to getting a supply of salt ashore from the salt vessel from Cadiz, Spain, one of which we found lying in nearly every fishing harbor, serving as a storehouse for that article so necessary to the fishermen.
As to the magnitude of the industry, it is estimated that there are about 3,000 vessels and 20,000 men employed in it during the season. Some of the vessels are employed in merely bringing salt and taking away the fish, notably the great iron tramp steamers of from 1,500 to 2,000 tons, which seem so much out of place moored to the sides of some of the little rocky harbors. The average catch in a good year is, we were informed, from four to six hundred quintals in a vessel of perhaps forty tons, by a crew of from four to eight men. The trap outfit costs about $500 and is furnished by the large fish firms in Newfoundland, to be paid for with fish. As the market price, to the fishermen, is from five dollars to six dollars a quintal, the value of the industry is at once apparent.
The great bulk of the fish go to Mediterranean ports direct, to Catholic countries, chiefly, and also to Brazil. The small size and imperfect curing which the Labrador summer allows make the fish almost unsalable in English and American markets. Many of the cod are of the black, Greenland variety, which are far less palatable, and are usually thrown away or cured separately for the cheaper market.
All storms come to an end finally, and at last the sun shone, the windlass clanked and we were underway. The long delay seemed to have broken our little schooner’s spirits, for after being out three or four hours we had gone but as many miles, and those in the wrong direction.
At length the gentle breeze seemed to revive her and we gently slipped by the Ragged Islands and Cape Mokkavik. That Sunday evening will long be remembered by us, for in addition to the delight we felt at again moving northward, and the charm of a bright evening with a gentle, fair wind and smooth water, allowing us to glide by hundreds of fulmar and shearwater sitting on the water, scarcely disturbed by our passage, the moon was paled by the brightest exhibition of the aurora we saw while in northern waters. Its sudden darts into new quarters of the heavens, its tumultuous waves and gentle undulations, now looking like a fleecy cloud, now like a gigantic curtain shaken by still more gigantic hands into ponderous folds–all were reflected in the quiet water and from the numerous bergs, great and small, that dotted the surface, till the beholder was at times awe—struck and silent, utterly unable to find words with which to express himself.
The next day we rounded Gull Island, which we identified with some difficulty, owing to the absence of the flagstaff by which the coast pilot says it can be distinguished, and, after a delightful sail up the clear sound leading through the fringe of islands to Hopedale, we spied the red—roofed houses and earth—covered huts, the mission houses and Eskimo village, of which the settlement consists, snugly hidden behind little “Anatokavit,” or little Snow Hill Island, at the foot of a steep and lofty hill surmounted by the mission flagstaff. Here we were destined to pass five days as pleasant as the five at Webeck had been tedious.
[Hopedale] The harbor at Hopedale is the best one we visited on the coast. The twelve miles of sound, fringed and studded with islands, completely broke the undertow which had kept our vessel constantly rolling, when at anchor, in every harbor except those up Hamilton Inlet and Lake Melville.
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