HARBOUR GRACE, N.L.
Sitting in his living room, surrounded by photos hanging on the walls that tell the story of his life, Heber McGurk reminisces about his life aboard the SS Kyle.
Currently, the vessel sits in the harbour of Harbour Grace, where it’s been stuck for 51 years, having ran aground in 1967. Despite efforts to move the vessel, the 220-foot steamship has remained in its current position ever since, and has become a staple of Harbour Grace tourism.
While the ship was active, it served as a means of transporting goods and people between Carbonear and Labrador, while also acting as an icebreaker during the winter. The vessel also proved to be useful during the Second World War to transport soldiers between Newfoundland and Canada.
Now, life aboard such ships is a thing of the past, and as the generations go by, memories of the SS Kyle’s life at sea are fading.
However, McGurk – who served as a quartermaster and master watch aboard the SS Kyle for four years – still holds those memories dear to his heart.
“I signed on as quartermaster in 1962. We used to go back and forth, carrying freight to Halifax and back again to Newfoundland. After January, we’d get ready for the ice, and the seal fishery, and we’d be out there until around the last of April,” McGurk said of his life aboard the SS Kyle. “I had it pretty good, as quartermaster. I was also master watch, so I looked after things like first aid and medical supplies.
“I had my own room, up by the smokeroom. It was a rough lifestyle, of course, being out on the water for so long, but most of us loved it anyway.”
Having lived a life at sea for decades, the now 87-year-old McGurk has taken to a humbler lifestyle in his Carbonear home. However, that does not mean he’s left his old life behind. Instead, McGurk spends his time with arts and crafts projects, with many of these centred around the SS Kyle. Paintings of the ship can be found throughout his home, as well as small models of the now over 100-year-old ship.
McGurk says this is not only a means of keeping himself busy, but also a way for him to keep his fond memories of the ship alive and well.
“I’ve got more stories from that ship than anyone has time for,” McGurk told The Compass, followed by a bout of laughter, which was again followed by the recounting of several stories, including times of amusement and peril.
Most notably, McGurk was tasked with repairing damaged rivets the ship suffered after spending three days at sea, stuck against a grounded iceberg that stood approximately 10-storeys high.
The encounter left the SS Kyle with 21 popped rivets, which McGurk set out to fix by being lowered down the port side of the ship while still at sea on the boatswain’s chair, alongside a mechanic. After some time being exposed to the harsh elements, McGurk had completed his task, and the excessive damage the ship had suffered was remedied.
“I had to change my clothes three different times, I was that soaking wet,” he said of the experience. “But you do what you have to do. That’s the way it was out there.”
As for the current state of the ship, McGurk says that although he feels as though some effort should be put into maintaining it and keeping it in good condition, he acknowledged how difficult such an endeavour could be.
“It’s a shame, you know, seeing her out there the way she is. There’s a lot of history in the Kyle,” he said. “There was talks years ago of turning her into a museum. I know that’s been done in other places with ships before, but it never worked out that way for (the SS Kyle).
“I’d love to see her maintained, but you’re talking about a lot of money there, so I can’t see it ever happening. Still, I know she’s got a good many years left to sit there. I won’t see her go in my lifetime, and it might be another hundred years before anything does happen, but it will happen eventually.”
McGurk takes great pride in his life at sea, particularly when it comes to the years he spent aboard the SS Kyle. Having lost no men from his crews, which often spanned into the hundreds, he says there’s a strong sense of satisfaction in the things he and his fellow crew members accomplished, and knows that even when the ship no longer sits in the waters of Harbour Grace, her story will continue to live on.
“It’s important to me, these memories. Lots of good times, lots of bad times, but I’ll never forget them no matter what.”