A rescue on Marticot Island

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The Monday, Dec. 22, 1980 dawned with a promising start at the Marticot Island Light Station, on the west side of Placentia Bay.

Burton K. Janes

The principal lightkeeper, George Earle, and his assistant, Gord Price, had brought their wives and children out to the island, where they spent the day preparing for the holidays

At 15:30 hours, Earle spied a company of ducks swooping into the cove. "Have a look!" he called to Price. Grabbing their coats, rifles and shells, they went outside. "We’ll have fresh duck for Christmas dinner," Price promised his wife.

Half an hour later, the keepers positioned themselves and waited. As the ducks flew within range, the men fired. However, searing pain in Earle’s arm told him something had gone awry. His gun had exploded, shrapnel cutting into his flesh.

Back inside the light station, the men could see a piece of the gun bolt protruding from Earle’s parka. The blood flow indicated the steel had severed a vein or an artery. Price pried out the metal and tied a shirt around Earle’s arm.

By 16:50 hours, snow was falling heavily and the wind had increased in intensity. Calling St. John’s, Price spoke with the technician supervisor on duty, who told him to apply the tourniquet pressure to slow the flow of blood.

The supervisor phoned the Canadian Coast Guard Rescue Centre. The Rescue Officer, Harvey Buffett, contacted Rescue Coordination Centre. Winds and heavy wet snow in Gander made it too dangerous to dispatch a helicopter. The rescue vessel at Burin was alerted to evacuate Earle from Marticot, but it was a four-hour voyage.

Meanwhile, Joe Hayden of Rushoon, having heard about the rescue attempt, offered his boat and services. The Burin doctor agreed to drive across the peninsula to meet Hayden. Meanwhile, Joe’s brother in Petite Forte offered the use of his vessel, as well.

At 17:50 hours, the Haydens set out for Marticot, one from Rushoon and the other from Petite Forte.

Following a rough trip, Joe, along with two fishermen, the Burin doctor and an RCMP officer, anchored in Marticot Island cove. A two-kilometre trail led them to the light station. Refusing the stretcher, Earle set out with his rescuers to walk across the island to the landing.

At 23:00 hours, the bedraggled rescue party reached the cove, where Earle was transferred to the other vessel. Following a terrible night, they reached Rushoon, and Earle and the doctor sped off. Early the next morning, Earl called the families on Marticot and told them he was fine. On Christmas Eve, Earle was transferred from Burin Hospital to St. John’s for an operation on his arm.

On Christmas Day, the Earles had to settle for turkey instead of duck for their main dish.

This is but one of scores of stories my friend, Harold Chubbs, and Wade Kearley, tell in their book, "Facing the Sea: Lightkeepers and Their Families."

"This book," Chubbs says, "is committed to preserving the history of, and raising public awareness about, the unique place that lightkeepers played in the maritime heritage of Newfoundland and Labrador. While lightkeepers had peaceful and secluded lives, they faced great difficulty maintaining complex lights and fog signal systems, living in some of the most isolated lighthouses, through some of the fiercest winters ever recorded."

Kearley adds, "What a debt we owe to the lighthouse keepers, to their families and to their descendants who inherited their command over the dangerous and exposed headlands, capes, and islands of Newfoundland and Labrador."

In 1965, Chubbs, a native of Carbonear, began a 30-year career with the Canadian Coast Guard in St. John’s, eventually servicing equipment on light stations around the province’s coast. During those years, he kept a record of the oral history of the lightkeepers and their families. This book is the result of his personal initiative.

"I enjoyed my visits to the lighthouses," Chubbs says, "servicing and maintaining lighthouse equipment and working with the lightkeepers. I spent many hours listening in awe as they reminisced about their experiences and about difficulties they had to overcome."

"Prepare to enjoy yourself as you read these stories," Kearley suggests, "because the people you will meet are of a kind not often encountered. The men and women whose lives you will glimpse had their foibles as well as their strengths. They cared for their families while at the same time exposing those they loved to unpredictable dangers."

"Facing the Sea: Lightkeepers and Their Families" is published by Flanker Press of St. John’s.

— Burton K. Janes lives in Bay Roberts. His column appears in The Compass every week. He can be reached at burtonj@nfld.net.

Organizations: Canadian Coast Guard, RCMP, Burin Hospital Flanker Press The Compass

Geographic location: Marticot Island, Gander, Newfoundland and Labrador Carbonear Bay Roberts

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