This is the second Spectator installment of report Al Bruce's unpublished novel about the day Capt. Charles Bruce was killed in the North Atlantic Nov. 9, 1854.
His ship, the tern schooner Elizabeth B. Muir, is struggling against shifting winds and a hold packed with granite blocks plus pine and hemlock spars and planks bound for Oporto, Portugal.
The last human contact had been with crews from more than a dozen salt bankers, big fishing schooners out of Boston, Portugal, Spain, Newfoundland, and Nova Scotia, whose dories trolled vast acres of Grand, Middle, and Saint Pierre banks of the North Atlantic. The shallow underwater mountains were deposited where cold Labrador current and the northern arm of the warm Gulf Stream met. Sebastian Cabot first fished the banks in 1497. His success had brought fishermen from all of coastal Europe and eventually Maritime Canada and the American colonies to cod schools feeding over underwater plateaus.
The big schooner had maneuvered back and forth through twenty-fathom sea lanes crowded with small dories dangling baited fishing lines, big salt cod schooners, fog, and the first Arctic ice mountains of the season. Thousands of eager birds circled bankers and dories: sheerwaters, kittiwakes, puffins, all types of gulls, and too many Captain Bruce could not identify. He recognized petrels, traditional messengers of hope and good luck to superstitious seamen. I hope some of that good luck falls on the Elizabeth B, he thought silently, rocking with the rhythm of the pitching schooner.
Crews from Nova Scotia and Boston bantered with good natured insults: “Need more hands for this breeze, old Boston Beans?” the Elizabeth B crew had shouted across rowdy seas.
“From the way your ship and hands are leaping around we’re ready to tow you, Blue Nosers,” came the reply.
Both crews laughed and shared more mild nautical insults.
A fishing captain from Lunenburg who had served as mate with Captain Bruce a decade ago presented a huge cod. “Looks as if she’ll fetch up a leedle blow,“ the fisherman had predicted correctly while the old friends discussed threatening skies and long-ago wakes.
The fish was almost as long as the able-bodied seaman who rowed across bouncing gray water to retrieve the gift. Supper that night was cod poached in a bucket of seawater, the best meal the crew had tasted for a week.
The eastern edge of the infamously foggy banks marked the last sunshine, moonlight, or star shimmer the crew had seen, the last time Captain Bruce had pinpointed their location with his sextant.
Erratic gusting wind had grown to a cruel damaging storm with twenty-foot-tall waves less than a day after the ship sank the banks into the western horizon. Solid deep dark clouds raced low, barely above mast tops. The gray-haired captain longed for his destination, the fairway of the protected inland Portuguese seaport on the Douro River. He wondered how long before ocean waves would diminish and the ship could resume her journey on more placid waters.
Captain Bruce dead reckoned his location, guessed in reality, because he had been unable to use his ebony sextant for three sunless days and starless nights. Cross currents and shifting winds made calculations an almost pointless exercise. If she doesn’t founder, this could be a rapid passage, the skipper hoped.
“Cases of Madeira would sell well in Shelburne,” he mused aloud, contemplating potential cargoes from Portugal he could sell. More practically, he looked aloft through spray and attempted to imagine where above gray murk shimmered Polaris, Vega and Arcturus, his celestial beacons. Wonder if Venus still outsails Jupiter across night skies? Bruce smiled at his navigator joke.