Of course as a tiny island the whole story of human occupation of St Pierre is about sailors; fishermen and their families. From the earliest summer visits by the Mic’maq to the cod fishermen of the 16th century it has been the sea and what it can give that created the entire raison d’etre for anyone to seek out these islands, and indeed in the earliest days no one thought of actually living here.
The French sailors who came from St Malo and La Rochelle in the summer seasons to fish cod off the Grand Banks brought their wives and children to salt their catch; preserving it to take back to Europe; and so the earliest settlements here were makeshift summer camps … when you speak of pioneer spirit and hard work, I can hardly imagine the lives of those women; sailing the Atlantic with their children; camping in the damp fog that is a St Pierre summer and returning to France in the winter …
Not only was the journey arduous but of course dangerous; and so it was probably not too long before some brave souls decided that it would be better to build something more permanent and remain through the winter; continuing to fish and preserve to build up even more stores and income to try to better their bitter lives.
So from the women who sailed with their men came the story of the women who remained on shore while their men went to sea; and all too often didn’t come home.
When I first came here in the summer of 2016, one of the first things that my friend the Sage asked me was; “Are there any shipwrecks?”
I had to laugh, more than a little bitterly. To the left of our front door; at the bottom of the stairs and immediately as you enter the house, is the museum of an office that was once the GC’s fathers’ . On the wall, surrounded by photographs of boats, is a map of the island and all of its shipwrecks. 600 of them since 1800. The once-separate islands of Miquelon and Langlade are now connected by a permanent sand spit that was created in the mid 1700’s from the bones of the myriad of ships that met their ends there; interlocking with the existing, shifting sand bars. Until 1900, the stretch of water between Langlade and St Pierre was known as the Gueule d’ Enfer – the Mouth of Hell.
To us, though, the most poignant is not the most recent, though that was tragic enough. The Cap Blanc, a 37m cargo ship on it’s way back from Argentia in Newfoundland with a cargo of salt was lost with all hands on the 2nd December 2008. I remember the GC receiving the news in Oman, he was devastated. The details were chilling. Quite probably she capsized because she was badly loaded and the salt became wet and heavy; or moved on deck; but three of the four crew were trapped below in the hold. At least someone was still alive when the Canadian rescue divers reached the boat; for they could hear them knocking; but despite their best efforts no one was recovered in time. One of the crew was a cousin of the GC’s; the others all friends or acquaintances. Their bodies were returned to St Pierre a week later.
The wreck of the Ravenel, however, throws a much longer shadow over our lives. A fishing boat, she disappeared on the night of the 28th January 1962 with all hands.
The Ravenel belonged to the GC’s father’s company, based, as I mentioned, in this building. The last communication with her was to the GC’s father, on the big radio that still sits in our living room, when she had reported in as normal. The night was not particularly stormy, but she was never seen or heard from again.
The GC’s earliest memory – he was just 6 years old – is of sitting with his father and the pilot in a search aircraft flying over the sea looking for survivors; or indeed anything that would give them any hint of what may have happened to the Ravenel. They – and Royal Canadian Air Force aircraft from the Argentia base as well as search vessels – found nothing. Some time later some debris washed ashore in Newfoundland that included a life preserver with her name on it; but that was all. 18 men; swallowed by the sea; this was a disaster that affected the whole town. No family seemed unscathed; everyone had a son; a brother; an uncle; a cousin; a friend on board. Even now, more than 50 years later, it is impossible to know St Pierre without knowing the hole ripped into it on that night. The granite memorial that the GC’s father commissioned stands in the Place Joffre; dedicated to all those lost at sea. It is a stark reminder to us all that disaster can be just a heartbeat away.
What happened? Maybe one day the wreck will be found and that question answered. All we can know is that whatever happened took place so quickly that there was no time to send a MayDay; no time to cry for help. The most likely theory is that as she came home on that freezing January night, ice gathered on her superstructure, un-noticed by the tired crew. As she turned to make the port, top heavy with ice, she rolled and capsized. The crew, caught inside and below, would not have had a chance.
If that is true, they are still there, with their ship. One day we may find them; and return their bones to the land where we all, after all, do belong.
I think a bit too much about the Ravenel, these days, for suddenly – and very unexpectedly – I have become one of those who wait ashore.
The GC has taken a stint on the cargo ship that does the Halifax run; mainly so that he can register locally with the French Social Security but also because it’s good for him to be busy and better still for us to have a bit of income to pay the exorbitant heating costs of this antique that we live in, while we sort ourselves out properly. It should be a safe and secure job in the engine room BUT … it’s winter and these are treacherous waters. He assures me that the Canadian crew who took over recently are cautious professionals; he assures me that he knows these seas well, is doing his own weather analysis and has no intention of taking the slightest risks, even if the Captain was prepared to, and that he’d jump ship rather than put himself in harm’s way. But they left here on his first trip with them in 55 knots of wind with insufficient ballast and the damn thing was thrown around so much that cupboards were coming off the walls and the stove was flying around the galley …. And that Captain and Chief Engineer thought that WE had a rough time in Cyclone Gert!!!
So here I sit; keeping the home fires burning, literally, and waiting for my man to come home from the sea. Talk about bienvenue à St Pierre … this is one aspect of island life that I certainly didn’t anticipate being so much a part of.