Legend of the Sylvania


The Legend of the Sylvania”

A Tale of Heroism on the North Atlantic


The Sylvania was a fine schooner by all accounts. A big vessel at 161 feet, she was one of the famous Indian headers designed by Thomas McManus and built in Gloucester.  Her Captain, Jeff Thomas, was well known along the Gloucester waterfront as a top fisherman and one of the best schooner men alive.

In early August 1918, the Sylvania left Yarmouth bound for the banks of Newfoundland to fish for cod and halibut. It was a fair day with a fine southeasterly breeze when. Capt. Thomas rounded her up a mile or so off Yarmouth harbour and the crew set sail starting with her main then foresail, jumbo and jib. The mate ordered them crew to coil down, and the captain put her on a north-easterly course. Soon the big schooner was rolling slowly to a low swell as she made her way under four lowers.

Her crew were at ease and they knew that this was the best of times. When all was squared away, they lounged in the lee of the aft deck house and smoked their pipes and chewed tobacco. They spoke of great catches on the banks of Newfoundland and huge cod that they had jigged there. All experienced men, rugged and hard as only a schooner dory man can be.

Two days passed and the Sylvania took a slant away from the land when she was at the latitude of Northern Cape Breton. Some hundreds of miles ahead lay the edge of the great banks of Newfoundland where she was bound. Once there, the skipper Jeff Thomas would either anchor his schooner with a long rope rode or heave too and launch the two-man dories.

It was a scene played out on the Grand Banks a thousand times before. For one hundred years or more, men from the eastern seaboard of Gloucester and Nova Scotia sailed their schooners to what was known as the finest fishing grounds in the world. The schooners were tall sparred and good sailors, able to get to the banks and then return laden with cod, while taking on the worst that the great north Atlantic threw at them.  Once the vessels arrived over the shallow banks, the two-man dories would leave the ship and they would row out a few miles to set their baited long lines with 150 hooks or more before standing by for a few hours to give the cod time to bite. During this time, the dory man would unroll their shorter jigging lines and lower them over the side of the dory to jig for cod.

These men knew their trade well and they looked forward to the challenges that lay had. There were no men tougher than these. However, unbeknownst to the crew of the Sylvania, fate had already set the stage for a deadly challenge against the sea. The crew of the Sylvania could not know that they would be fighting a battle for their lives against the great Atlantic. Hundreds of their fellow dory men over the years and decades had perished in this trade and the situation that was unfolding over the horizon ahead of them would test the brave seamen of the Sylvania to the limit and her crew would need to draw on bravery and strength in the coming days.

It was April 14th 1918, a fateful day to be sure. The dawn broke clear and the weather proved to be holding for yet another fine day at sea. The big schooner was making a fast passage of it to the banks when the forward starboard lookout let out a cry.

“Submarine off to starboard” he called aft.

Capt. Thomas walked quickly forward and put his hand to his brow and peered to the northeast. The rest of the crew followed him to the rail and followed the lookouts raised arm.

Sure enough, a grey hulled submarine was on the surface steaming towards them. Capt. Thomas knew right away that this meant trouble. He walked back to the helm.

“Hold her steady now,” he told the helmsman

“Aye skipper” he said handing a spoke to the starboard

At perhaps 700 yards, the submarines forward deck gun barked and a pillar of water rose ahead of the Sylvania. It was a warning shot to be sure, but Captain Thomas and his crew were left in no doubt as to its meaning.

“Lower away from forward,” he shouted.

The brave crew of the Sylvania went about their task with great uncertainty in their hearts. They leapt to the sheets and halyards to lower away the sails, as they had done so many times in the past. Many of her brave crew might’ve guessed that this could be the last time.

With canvas stowed, the Sylvania lay rolling in the slow Atlantic swell, her masts tracing a wide arc across the sky. Capt. Thomas ordered a dory launched, and he and two others boarded and rowed to the submarine. The German captain appeared in the conning tower and a brief conversation ensued.

“What is your cargo?” the commander asked.

“We have no cargo, we’re bound for the fishing grounds to fish for cod,” Capt. Thomas replied.

“I must sink your ship,” the German commander stated. “I will give you ten minutes to get off your ship.”

Capt. Thomas and his two crew members rowed back to the Sylvania and came along her lee side.

“All right boys, they’re going to sink her, they’ve given us ten minutes so grab what you can. Get what water you can and launch two more dories.” he ordered.

The crew of the Sylvania launched two more dories and loaded them with what meagre water and supplies they were able. Then they rowed slowly away from the proud schooner for the last time. They watched as the Germans launched a small boat from a deck hatch and rowed to the Sylvania. Some of the submarine’s men went aboard and left after perhaps ten minutes. After perhaps another fifteen minutes, Capt. Thomas and his crew heard a massive explosion and the Sylvania, a once proud Gloucester schooner was ripped in half and sunk in a matter of moments.

The German submarine turned quickly and made off to the north, where she disappeared from view. Capt. Thomas and his brave crew were in four dories and he knew that the chances of seeing landing again were slim. He knew that hundreds and hundreds of brave seamen had perished at sea through bad weather storm and wreck. He also knew that pitting his dories against the sea with his brave crew would be a hard fight to win. But the captain was a schooner man, a brave strong man and he would not go down without a fight.

Taking the cover off the dory compass box come, Thomas laid a rough course for Cape Breton Island. It would be no easy task, for what when there was albeit light was from the southerly and the men would pull against it.

“There’s nothing for it boys, we must pull slow and steady if we’re to make landfall,” the skipper told his crew.

And so began a battle of men against the sea, a battle played out so many times before, with sad endings. The men picked up their oars and began to row. The three dories lay spread out over a rolling sea, with more than 200 miles between them and the land. Capt. Thomas was under no illusions. He knew this would be the test of his lifetime. The dory men tried to keep the dories within 100 feet of each other and every few hours they stopped so the men could eat some bread or dried biscuit and drink out of a small barrel of water.

The sun set to the west of them beneath a cloudy sky. All hands were cold by now and tiredness had begun to set in, but there would be no solace. They faced only hardship and misery. But these were the dory men of Gloucester and Nova Scotia and were tough hardy men.

The night passed and all hands were grateful to see the sunrise slowly in the east. The wind had held light and the sea low swell roles in from the north. Rising sun offered a modicum of warmth to the men, but it was still cold for the most part.

Capt. Thomas pulled his watch from his vest pocket and popped the top. It was 8 o’clock in the morning.

He signalled for the dories to come close together and they passed line from bow to stern

“I’m sorry boys, but there’s nothing for it, we must row or there will be widows in Gloucester and Yarmouth if we fail,” he told them with a tear in his eye. He knew that every hour in the dories lessened their chances and he knew many of the wives and families of his crew, but Capt. Thomas was great schooner man and he would lead them to the end.

The men ate sparingly of the remaining biscuit and bread and drank some water. Then Capt. Thomas ordered the lines cast off again, the dories drifted abreast of each other, and on that unforgiving North Atlantic Sea, the brave crew of the Sylvania marshalled what remaining strength they had and began to pull again. Few words were spoken as all knew there was nothing much to say. By late afternoon, the wind rose abaft the beam of the dories and although it gave the Sylvania men an easier slant to pull against, the sea rose slightly and spray began coming over the rails, so the dories and the men became wet, thus doubling their suffering.

By evening of the second day, Thomas and his crew knew that there was trouble ahead. The men tried to take turns at the oars, while some took their time off trying to sleep in the bottom of the dories. This proved impossible as the men were wet and uncomfortable. But some fell asleep through sheer exhaustion. Most had blistered hands and others had cuts across their palms, where the oar handles had worn the skin.  The suffering of the Sylvania men that night was great, and as they shivered they thought of their wives and families over the sea ahead of them.

There was a full moon that night. Capt. Thomas could see his crew huddled over the oars or laying the bottom of the boat and, although he was sympathetic, he was tired as well. Through the early morning hours the wind blew stronger and the waves grew higher. The breaking crests looked eerily white in the moonlight as they broke to windward of the dories.

Just before dawn the third day the lead dory took a wave on her beam and rolled over, throwing four men into the sea. The other two dories backed water and pulled over to the capsized boat. They pulled the men aboard and the remaining two dories took two men each. Capt. Thomas looked at the swamped boat and realized that it would be pointless to try and bail it out, as the waves washed over it. In any case, the oars had gone and were nowhere to be seen. And so on the last day, two heavily laden dories pulled once more towards Cape Breton.

And so the brave captain and crew of the Sylvania started their third day in the dories rolling towards Cape Breton Island. The exhausted crew were near death and could hardly pull on their oars and the fact that they had any strength left at all was a testament to their hardiness and stamina.

Finally, towards noon on about third day, they saw a dark smudge on the horizon to the west.

“Land ahead boys” shouted Capt. Thomas and every man turned to see the low distant hills

By early afternoon, they knew for sure that land was ahead and the men drew some final reserves form their aching cold bodies to take up the blood stained handles of the oars one last time. By late afternoon, the utterly exhausted crew of the Sylvania, led by their brave Capt. Thomas made landfall in a rocky cove in Cape Breton. There were homes there, and after walking to the closest one, they were soon seated next to a roaring fire. Capt. Thomas and all her crew survived the ordeal.

And so ended one of the great struggles of men against the sea. Capt. Thomas and all the Sylvania crew survived the ordeal. The Skipper and crew had fought against all odds and done the impossible. Certainly lesser men would’ve failed, but these men were dory men and tougher, stronger men you would not find. Their story became legend along the waterfronts of the Eastern Seaboard and the Canadian Maritimes and the name Sylvania, along with the names of her captain and crew, were spoken with respect.

It will be noted that the crew list of the schooner Sylvania held the names Devine and Boudreau. We, their descendants, salute them now. They were great men.

Fair Winds,

Capt. Lou Boudreau

Song: The Legend of the Sylvania by James Devine

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