In the early morning of February 9, 1959, a winter storm swept across Canada’s eastern coast. In Southeast Newfoundland, an area particularly hard hit, winds gusted at up to eighty miles per hour [nearly 130 kilometers per hour] and the temperature dropped to -20 degrees (F) [-28 degrees Celsius] (Galgay and McCarthy 1997:145). It was in this weather that the Bonavista Cold Storage trawler Blue Wave was making its way back to Grand Bank after a successful fishing trip that had filled the ship’s hold with 120, 000 pounds [54,431 kilograms] of fish (Western Star, February 12, 1959:1). The ship’s captain was Charles Walters, “a veteran deepsea coasting and fishing captain,” who had taken command of the Blue Wave a year earlier (The Daily News, February 12, 1959:1).
In the early hours of the morning, Blue Wave began to experience severe problems due to ice buildup, which is commonly experienced by ships in freezing temperatures. It is caused by the spray of the ocean freezing to the superstructure, making it difficult to operate the ship properly and is potentially deadly as the ice can damage the integrity of the ship or even cause it to become top-heavy, capsize, and sink. It is therefore imperative that as ice builds up, the crew is able to remove it. On this particular night, the wind and extreme cold expedited ice buildup on ships across the Maritimes. The Western Star reported, “Several trawlers arrived in Halifax coated with so much ice it took crew members all day to chop it away with axes and sledge-hammers. The trawler Thomas V. Hollett from Burin, Nfld., had ice a foot thick [approximately 0.3 meters] on some parts of her deck” (February 10, 1959:1). As ice continued to build up on Blue Wave, she became unstable. At approximately three-thirty a.m., she sent a mayday that was received by the nearby Belle Isle II. Captain Joseph Primm, who was the first mate on Belle Isle II at the time, recalls: “Captain Walters said they had developed a heavy list from the ice build-up on his deck and superstructure and he was trying to hold her head into the wind and sea. His crew were all out trying to pound the ice off, and ours was the only reply so far to his Mayday signal” (quoted in Galgay and McCarthy 1997:147). The term “mayday” comes from the French “venez m’aider,” which means come and help me. It was first used after the sinking of Titanic in 1914.
The Belle Isle II immediately altered its course to help Blue Wave, which had been about five miles [eight kilometers] away when the signal was received (Galgay and McCarthy 1997:147). Belle Isle II also began to transmit the distress position, which was subsequently picked up by Cape Race and broadcast (Galgay and McCarthy 1997:147). At about four a.m. the time Belle Isle II arrived at the position Blue Wave had broadcast from. Blue Wave was nowhere in sight.
Within the next hour, other assistance began to arrive at the scene. Several American search planes arrived, as did five other ships: the Carmina, the Campbell, the Sylvania, the Pennyluck, and the Triton. However, little could be done as the area was covered in a heavy fog (The Western Star, February 10, 1959:1). The search resumed the following day with even more assistance: an RCAF Lancaster from Search and Rescue at Torbay and four more aircraft joined the search (The Daily News, February 10, 1959:1). The weather was only marginally clearer.
On the second day of the search, February 10, 1959, “two empty dories and a lifeboat from the Blue Wave were found near the point off Cape St. Mary’s Nfld” (The Western Star, February 12, 1959:1), the same area from which her distress call had been made. This put an end to the search and the hope for survivors. Under the apt sub-heading “Story Pieced Together,” The Daily News attempted to give some sort of closure in regards to the loss:
Officials can only speculate on the exact fate of the “Blue Wave”. However, her last radio message has provided a clue. Captain Walters radioed his position as about 65 miles [105 kilometers] southwest of Cape St. Mary’s. He said the 289-ton ship was on “her beams end”. Other vessels reported heavy icing and shipping experts say the “Blue Wave” was probably capsized by ice forming on her superstructure. The exact story has probably been lost forever in the black waters of the Atlantic. (February 11, 1959:1).
Lost with the ship were sixteen men: Captain Charles Walters, Herbert Price, John Walters, Arthur Kearley, Otto Dodge, Garfield Prior, Samuel Dodge, Michael Price, Reginald Baker, James Fizzard, Roy Baker, John Hillier, Abe John Barnes, John F. Barnes, George T. Miller, and Philip Fizzard (The Daily News, February 11, 1959:1; The Daily News, February 10, 1959:1). All of the crew was from either Grand Bank or the neighboring town of Fortune and tragically, as revealed by the names of those lost, many of the affected families lost more than one member with the wreck: “One woman, Mrs. Reginald Baker, has lost a husband and son, Roy, who was on his first trip, and a son-in-law. Two families have six relatives each in the crew. Fifteen widows and 39 children have been left in the tragedy” (The Daily News, February 12, 1959:1). A relief fund was set up to benefit the families and received a $500 donation from the Grand Bank Town Council before it officially began (The Daily News, February 13, 1959:3). A three-day mourning period was also declared in Grand Bank and Fortune, during which schools and businesses were closed, and flags were flown at half-mast (Galgay and McCarthy 1997:150).
In an attempt to express the meaning of the tragedy, The Daily News published E. J. Pratt’s poem, Erosion:
It took the sea a thousand years
A thousand years to trace
The granite features of this cliff,
In crag and scarp and base.
It took the sea an hour one night,
An hour of storm to place
The sculpture of these granite seams,
Upon a woman’s face (reprinted February 13, 1959:4).
Early 1959 seems to have been a particularly dangerous time to be at sea. As The Western Star remarked: “[the] loss of all 47 men on the two fishing vessels would raise the toll of ship sinkings in the North Atlantic in the last two weeks to 142” (February 12, 1959:1).
“All 16 On Blue Wave Feared Dead Air Search is Halted.” The Daily News (St. John’s). February 11, 1959, p. 1.
“Appeal For Disaster Dependents.” The Daily News February 13, 1959. p. 4.
“Blue Wave: All Hope Vanished, Grand Bank Mourns.” The Daily News. February 12, 1959, p. 1.
“Fears Grow for Safety of Newfoundland Ship: No Sign of Trawler, 17-Man Crew As Air-Sea Search Gets Underway.” The Western Star (Corner Brook), February 10, 1959, p.1.
Galgay, Frank and Michael McCarthy. Shipwrecks of Newfoundland and Labrador Volume IV. St. John’s NF: Creative Publishers, 1997.
“Grand Bank Relief Fund.” The Daily News. February 13, 1959, p. 3.
“Hope Fading Fast for 17 on Blue Wave: To Renew Hunt This Morning Fear Trawler Capsized.” The Daily News. February 10, 1959, p. 1.
“Search Fails Locate Missing Nfld. Trawler: Planes Find Two Overturned Dories; Stricken Grand Bank Families Mourn.” The Western Star, February 12, 1959, p. 1.
Tags: 1959 Blue Wave