Tropical storm Able was no friend to the North Shore

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Former resident remembers storm’s fury like it was yesterday

In August 1950 tropical storm Able struck the island of Newfoundland.

Dr. William O'Flaherty

I have previously described the massive storm of 1775 — one of the most destructive, in terms of loss of life — that ever occurred in the North-West Atlantic Ocean. My description of that tragic event was based upon my research into the recorded history of the storm and also on the oral tradition still rife amongst some people of Conception Bay North, especially in the Northern Bay area, references passed down through many generations.

In contrast, my description of the August storm of 1950 is based on the fact that I lived through it, on the coast, in the small fishing village of Long Beach.

Tropical storm Able had peak winds of 140 miles per hour, was 350 miles in diameter, and crossed the island and its coastline on Aug. 20, 21 and 22, lashing the area for 54 hours.

The sustained winds that hit the North Shore came out of the south-southeast, hitting ashore perpendicular to the coastline of Long Beach.

A community of fishermen

The small community, in 1950, was well populated with most of the people making a living from the sea; as well there was significant dependence on agriculture and animal husbandry; every inch of land being fenced, enclosing hayfields and vegetable gardens, especially that of potatoes cultivated by most families living there.

On the offshore collars, 10 fishing boats were anchored, boats that were there since the spring, all used for fishing codfish and salmon, powered by one cylinder heavy flywheel gasoline engines. Their anchors were large grapnels, heavy enough to keep the boat in place during all but the most destructive storms.

The collars had been used as an anchor area ever since the community had been settled, centuries before; anchors held on there; it was good “holding ground” in a small limited area.

Your boat was safe as long as you knew where to drop your anchor in the spring of the year, the spot pointed out to you by your father and to him by his father.

Our home, the family homestead, faced the salt water, a mere two hundred yards away. The house was a two-storey affair, with the usual roof, almost flat, common to most of the houses in the area. Many of the windows faced into the south, looking out across Conception Bay. 

The house was so near the ocean that we could look out the window and watch as salmon became enmeshed in my father’s nets, sending salt water high into the air.

Vegetables in the garden

The O’Flahertys owned all the land surrounding the homestead; as with other families it was cultivated with potatoes, other vegetables and hay.

In late August, when the storm struck ashore, the vegetables were just beginning to mature. The potatoes, especially, having a few weeks to go before full maturity.

The fishermen knew the storm was coming; the prediction was that it would hit ashore in Nova Scotia and then move up the west coast of the island, leaving the east coast unaffected. Because of that forecast all the fishermen decided to leave their boats on the collars.

It was too late when the forecast changed, stating that the storm had “bounced off” Nova Scotia and was now heading for eastern Newfoundland.

I remember it like it was yesterday; I had just celebrated my 14th birthday, three weeks before.

The fishermen had taken precautions, just in case: everything on board the boats was lashed down, the sculling oar tied to the gunnels, the compass, battery and gas tank brought ashore, the rudder tied in place.

And, then, on the night of the 20th of the month, the storm came ashore.

Hell on earth

The first night wasn’t too bad; the wind, still not reaching full force, came straight in off the water, hitting the house directly in front. The old building groaned all night long but in the morning there was no damage done and all the boats on the water were just as they were the day before.

The men said to each other: ”It’ll be over, b’ys, be the time the night comes on ....”

The second night was like hell on earth. There was no shelter for the old house; the wind and rain howled in off the water, worse than the night before, rattling the windows and shaking the whole building.

A loud crash, close by, sent my father out with a flashlight into the storm (the electricity was gone). He found part of the roof of the barn had blown off. The house was now at the mercy of the elements and so, too, were all the boats, out there, coping with the whims of an unmerciful sea.

Dawn broke from a dark sky onto a miserable rain-soaked land. The wind continued, unabated, the waves pounded the cliffs, sending spumes of salt water high into the air. 

Only one thing had improved — the rain had stopped so we could easily view the collars area — and found that none of the 10 boats was to be seen in the thrashing sea.

Toward the middle of the morning the sun came through the clouds and something happened that was never seen before in that area: the wind, still blowing in off the sea in full force, was taking the salt water thrown up by the waves, bringing the salt spray inland, covering the hay, the crops, and, now, helped by the sun drying the area, turning all the windows facing the sea white with salt.

Damaged crops

By late afternoon the wind started to die down. With binoculars we could now see the stems of some of the boats poking their noses above the waves. They were filled with water but still afloat, the only heavy object on board — the engine — not heavy enough to sink them.

The next day, as the sun dried out the land, it became evident that the salt spray had severely damaged the crops. The potato plants had turned black, and, for all practical purposes, the harvest destroyed.

All of the boats, save one, survived the storm. The remains of that one, which had dragged its anchor outside the collars area, was found on the beach in Northern Bay pounded to bits by the waves.

When the seas — the big heave — went down, the fishermen went out as a group in their dories and bailed out their boats. Soon, with a day of drying out by the sun, a little gas in the cylinder head, a minor adjustment to the make-and-break, and a scattered curse here and there, the familiar putt-putt of the one cylinder engine was once again heard in the waters of Conception Bay North and tropical storm Able was but a memory.

— Dr. William O'Flaherty is author of a best-selling memoir entitled "Tomcats and House Calls: Memoir of a Country Doctor." He worked a 40-year career as a country doctor in Newfoundland and New Brunswick. He was the country doctor in Western Bay, on the north shore of Conception Bay, from 1967 to 1989, and was born in the tiny fishing village of Long Beach, at the lower end Northern Bay. He writes from Moncton, NB.

Geographic location: North Shore

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