One of the great annual rituals in Newfoundland, stretching back to our very earliest days, was the drive each fall to ensure that communities along the northeast coast had adequate provisions for the winter. There were no roads to many of those communities and the branch railroads built in the early 1900s served only portions of the long coastline.
The railway coastal boats met some of the need, but could not possibly move the volume of provisions and other freight that would be needed in the long months of winter, when navigation was closed. And so each fall hundreds of schooners brought that year's production of salt fish to St. John's, loaded up with provisions, and made their way to communities all along the northeast coast as far north as St. Anthony and the surrounding settlements. By the 1920s, many of those vessels had engines; but many more, perhaps the majority, were powered only by sails.
Newfoundland's coast is rock-bound and treacherous, and storms and gales are common. Many scores of those vessels came to grief and many of the seamen who manned them perished.
There are many tales of shipwrecks and danger, and many stories of heroism and inspired leadership. But no story of those men and that era matches that of Capt. Job Barbour and his Neptune, a three-masted schooner driven only by sails.
The story is well-known: Barbour wrote an extensive account of it in "Forty-Eight Days Adrift," published in England in 1932. An enthralling account of courage and resourcefulness, the book is one of the classic accounts of Newfoundland's past.
Neptune's story can be summed up briefly in a few paragraphs. Early in November 1932 she carried a load of salt fish from her home port of Newtown to St. John's. After discharging her cargo, she took aboard a full load of provisions, and on Nov. 29, she sailed through the Narrows bound for home, about 100 nautical miles away.
There were 11 people aboard her that evening — Capt. Barbour and his five crewmen, together with five passengers. One of the passengers was a woman, Mrs. Humphries, whose husband was the ship's bosun. Soon after the little vessel left St. John's she was overtaken by a southerly gale which grew into "a steady and severe snowstorm." The gale continued throughout the night and the next day. One of her sails and the boom which carried it were swept away.
"Each steersman in turn was lashed to the wheel for an hour only. It was too cold for human flesh to stay there any longer," Barbour recalled.
The wind then came round to the west, and by early morning on Dec. 1, their third day at sea, Barbour and her crew were 150 miles northeast of Cape Bonavista, and had "overshot our home port, Newtown, by 120 miles." As the ship had no engine, Barbour and his crew had no choice except simply to run before it. They were blown steadily eastwards.
On Dec. 30, Barbour decided that he could not possibly sail back to Newfoundland and decided instead to make for the British Isles.
They made their landfall on Jan. 14, but had no idea where they were; they thought they were in the English Channel, but instead were just off the northern coast of Scotland. A day later, a lighthouse tender vessel towed them into Tobermory. For the first time in 48 days, they stood on land.
But the full story of how Capt. Barbour and those aboard the Neptune survived their ordeal is even more dramatic.
On Dec. 12, far out in the northwest Atlantic, the Neptune's crew spotted a steamer. "We lost no time in signalling her," Barbour recorded, "and, thank Providence for the ethics of the sea, she directed a course straight for us and came alongside."
The ship was the Cedric, a large passenger liner of the White Star line. She came alongside Neptune, but heavy swells prevented Barbour from climbing up the ladder that her crew let down. Instead, they exchanged messages. Barbour asked her captain to send a telegram to Newtown, to tell the people there that the Neptune had not been sunk, and her captain gave Barbour, as requested, their latitude and longitude. Barbour, his crew and his passengers made no attempt to abandon their vessel, and so the Cedric steamed away.
The most dramatic twist to the entire story was as they approached the coast of Scotland. The vessel that towed them to harbour, the Hesperus, had been ordered to make an emergency trip to Saint Kilda, a nearby island, to bring a doctor to visit a dying woman. But a kindly fate, the first encountered by Neptune in nearly seven weeks, intervened.
When all were safe ashore, the captain of the Hesperus told Barbour that: "I would not go and leave you flying your distress signal, so I turned my ship and came to your assistance, but I had no thought that you had been out on the Atlantic Ocean, and especially blown across from Newfoundland ... I knew your vessel would be a wreck before morning, and to run the risk of losing 11 lives to save one was unfair, so the doctor and I agreed that we would change course and tow you into Tobermory."
Has the biblical story of the good Samaritan ever been better exemplified?
But the ultimate irony came months later. Neptune's owners had insured her, through Lloyds. But the underwriters there refused to pay the cost of repairing her, because the insurance was only against a total loss. They did agree, however, to pay the bill — just under $60 Newfoundland currency — to the Northern Lighthouse Service, the owners of the Hesperus.
Had Capt. Barbour abandoned her in mid-Atlantic, and had he, and his passengers and crew gone home aboard the Cedric, the little Neptune would have been a total loss and Lloyds would have had to pay her owners the full value of the policy - $8,000.
Seven schooners left St. John's on Nov. 29. Six of the vessels, but fortunately only one life, were lost in the gale that swept the Neptune out to sea and across the Atlantic. The Neptune saga, however, had a happy ending. Repaired in Scotland, she returned to Newtown in April, powered by a newly-installed engine.
Newfoundland has known many great seamen, men of courage and skill, but none has ever surpassed the achievements of Job Barbour, the man whose vessel was blown across the Atlantic in 48 days.
Edward Roberts has had a lifelong interest in the history of Newfoundland and Labrador. He was an MHA for 23 years, and served as the province's lieutenant-governor from 2002 to 2008. He can be reached by email at the following: firstname.lastname@example.org