Terra Nova, The
DESCRIPTION: "One Monday morning March the tenth, it opened fine and clear." "Slob ice" was to be seen, but Captain Kean still takes the Terra Nova sealing. Blocked by a pan, three men die before they escape. The song describes the three dead men
EARLIEST DATE: 1967 (collected from Norman Payne by Halpert & Fiander)
KEYWORDS: hunting ship death
1924 - The deaths of the three sailors
FOUND IN: Canada(Newf)
REFERENCES (2 citations):
Ryan/Small, p. 98, "The Terra Nova" (1 text)
ADDITIONAL: Michael C. Tarver, _The S. S. Terra Nova (1884-1943)_, Pendragon Maritime Publications, 2006, pp. 166-167, "The Terra Nova" (1 text)
NOTES [1650 words]: "Terra Nova" was one of the old names for Newfoundland, so little wonder to find a Newfoundland ship by that name!
I don't know how many sealers were given the name Terra Nova over the centuries; at least one small one sailed from Conception Bay in 1833 (Ryan, p. 475), one was lost in the ice in 1862 (Galgay/McCarthy, p. 102), and there was a later motor vessel MV Terra Nova (Ryan/Drake, p. 82), plus a former ferry named Maneco was renamed Terra Nova and set to the ice in 1963-1964 (Candow, p. 112), but none of these left much of a mark in the historical record. There is no doubt about which Terra Nova was the most famous; spending almost sixty years in various tasks mostly around Newfoundland. Feltham, p. 132, declares her "undoubtedly the most famous of all the wooden steamers that were built to prosecute the Newfoundland seal fishery." It shows in the number of books about her, of which the most complete is probably Tarver's -- although that is mostly about her polar exploration trips; those interested in her time as a sealer will surely find it somewhat limited. The full title is The S. S. Terra Nova (1884-1943): From the Arctic to the Antarctic, Whaler, Sealer and Polar Exploration Ship, 2006. There is also Edward Adrian Wilson's Diary of the Terra Nova Expedition to the Antarctic, which of course ends with Wilson's death in 1912, and England's book, which describes several weeks he spent aboard her in the 1920s. Sadly, most of her logbooks seem to have been lost; they were likely destroyed when the Liverpool offices of her owner Bowring's were bombed in World War II (Tarver, p. 188).
Built in 1884 (Paine, p. 509) in Dundee (Ryan/Drake, p. 29), at a cost of 16,000 pounds (Archibald, p. 66), she was the very last whaler built in Dundee (Archibald, p. 105). She began her career as a Newfoundland-based sealer in 1885 (O'Neill. p. 964). At 450 tons, she was one of the largest sealers of the time (Ryan, p. 150; Tarver, p. 26, gives her as 744 gross tons, but that's a different measure. He cites a newspaper which claimed she could carry 40,000 seal pelts). In 1903, her ability as an icebreaker had caused her to be sent to rescue Robert Scott's Discovery expedition; at the time, she was called "the roughest and toughest icebreaker to be had" (O'Neill, p. 964). Certainly her 140 horsepower engine (Feltham, p. 132) exceeded that of most other sealers of her age.
Archibald, p. 197, says, "Known familiarly as 'Novey', Terra Nova was the last Dundee built whaling ship and arguably the best. She was built to replace the successful whaling ship Thetis, which had been sold to the United States Government. All the skill and experience of the previous two decades of whaling ship construction created what was undoubtedly a superb example of an Arctic-worthy hunting vessel.... Terra Nova was a fast ship, with a record passage of 11 days on her maiden voyage from Dundee to St. John's in February 1885."
From 1885 to 1898, she worked for her builders; in the latter year, she was sold to Bowring Brothers, the leading Newfoundland sealing firm, then was purchased by the British Admiralty in 1903 to rescue the Discovery in Antarctica, then went on an arctic rescue trip; she went back to sealing in 1906 (Ryan/Drake, p. 29; Tarver, pp. 58-59).
Her work in Antarctica so impressed Robert Scott that he bought her in 1909 (Feltham, p. 132) so that, in 1910, he could take her to Antarctica on his last expedition (Paine, p. 510; O'Neill, pp. 964-965; Tarver, p. 65, says that she was the "obvious next choice" once it was clear that Scott's old ship the Discovery was not available). After the end of that expedition, Bowring's, the company that had sold her to the British government, took her back (it had been agreed when she was sold that Bowring's would have the option to do so; Keir, p. 203) and returned her to the sealing fleet; she took part in the attempt to rescue the survivors of the Florizel in 1917 (see the notes on "The Wreck of the Steamship Florizel"; also O'Neill, p. 962, or Brown, pp. 184-185, 192, 205-207).
She underwent a rebuild in 1938, mostly to repair all the damage she had taken over the years (although her woodwork was found to be in surprisingly good shape for a ship that was half a century old), but her bridge was moved forward of her funnel (Tarver, pp. 187-188), which surely made her a better ship.
She lasted until World War II. Her last year as a sealer was 1941; after that, because so few ships were available for dealing with the ice, she was chartered into service carrying freight to Greenland (Feltham, p. 139; Tarver, p. 189). On May 28, 1943 (so O'Neill, p. 965) or May 29 (so Tarver, pp. 189-190), she left St. John's with a cargo intended for American bases in Greenland. (The discrepancy in dates may have arisen because her captain Llewellyn Lush seems to have later mis-stated when she sailed; see Tarver, p. 193.) She was damaged in the ice, and although she made it to Greenland, there was no suitable dock there (Tarver, p. 193). Although she was partly repaired, she began to leak badly on her way home in September -- with water interfering with power to the pumps, so she couldn't be kept dry. She sank on September 13, 1943 (Feltham, p. 139 says September 12; O'Neill, p. 966, says it was September 14, but Tarver, p. 189, has a September 13 report describing her loss, and p. 225 prints the Atak's September 13 log entry of her sinking). The crew was rescued by the USCGS Atak, which then shelled her to hasten her end (Tarver, pp. 189-191); witnesses disagree on whether she was on fire when she went down. There is a map of her final voyages on p. 190 of Tarver.
Tarver, pp. 242-244, has portions of Bowring's balance sheet for 1943; it lists the Terra Nova as a total loss (naturally) and lists her value as $12,500. The only other sealer still on their books, Eagle, was listed at $8000, but that was a depreciated value -- they had listed her at $11,500 at the start of 1943. Presumably the Terra Nova was also being depreciated; she was insured for $60,000. Terra Nova was rented for $4,899.76 in 1943, so she was earning money faster than she was being depreciated, at least.
The wreck of the ship was found off Greenland in 2012. I do not know if there has been any follow-up.
Because of her long and distinguished service, it's easy to find photos of her; Tarver is of course full of them, and on p. 66 has a plan of her layout as she was modified for the Scott expedition (a substantial refit -- e.g. all her blubber tanks were taken out, and much work was done to clean out the stinks that pervaded all wooden sealers; Tarver, pp. 68-69). Tarver, pp. 210-223, also has a description of the rebuild, although he notes enough historical inaccuracies that I'm not sure it should be cited. Keir, facing p. 204, O'Neill, p. 942, Paine, p. 510, and Ryan/Drake, p. 29, all show images of her in the Antarctic. Feltham, p. 180, has two pictures of her, one in port, one in the ice. Ryan, p. 149, also has a picture of her in the ice. Chafe, facing p. 60, shows her frozen in at St. John's; Ryan/Drake, p. 52, shows her crew in 1934 preparing to blast her out. England, facing p. 180, has what is surely the first-ever aerial photo of her. Kean, facing page 1, also has a photo.
Other items in the Index which mention the Terra Nova include "The Sealer's Song (II)," "A Sealer's Love Letter," "Arctic Ice and Flippers," and "The Old Polina"; in the latter, she races the Polina to St. John's -- interesting in light of the comment that the Terra Nova was an unusually fast whaler. Ryan/Small treat a mention of "Terra Nova" in "Au Revoir To Our Hardy Sealers" as a reference to her as well, but it appears to me to be a reference to Newfoundland. "A Noble Fleet of Sealers" also refers to a ship Terra Nova, but this appears to be the MV Terra Nova rather than the SS Terra Nova.
There were several Captains Kean, patriarch Abram and his sons (for Abram Keen, see "Captain Abram Kean"), two of whom at one time or another commanded the Terra Nova; according to Feltham, p. 134, A[bram] Kean was her skipper in 1906-1908, 1917-1926, and 1932-1933; and W[estbury] Kean, 1927 -- but the fact that the song sees no need to distinguish which one is meant strongly implies that Abram is meant.
Abram Kean wrote of what appears to be this particular incident in his biography (p. 58, and again on p. 92 in a discussion of raftering ice), although I would take his version with enough salt to supply his entire crew -- he calls it the "only accident" of his sealing career, which flatly ignores the Newfoundland Disaster. Tarver, pp. 165-166, summarizes and amplifies his account by saying that, in 1924, the sealing fleet, including Kean in the Terra Nova, set out from St. John's and almost immediately found themselves in ice. Men often went out on the ice to haul or cut a path as ships pushed through the pack (Ryan/Drake, p. 50, has a photo of sealers pulling the Southern Cross out of St. John's in just this way), and as this was happening, three men fell through a "deceitful pan" and drowned. It took the Terra Nova two days to get through the ice outside St. John's to start their trip to where the seals were.
It will perhaps tell you something about Kean that he spent as about much space boasting about the seals he took soon after the incident as he did describing the death of three men (Tarver, p. 168, has the text, which is mostly from the account Kean gave on p. 92, not p. 58).
Kean, p. 43, has what appears to be another allusion to the incident, in which he describes politicians saying that it wasn't his fault. (And certainly things like this happened a lot in sealing expeditions). But Kean, p. 48, says that, without telling him, his parliamentary allies removed his name from the parliamentary ballot for that year. - RBW
Last updated in version 4.3
- Archibald: Malcolm Archibald, The Dundee Whaling Fleet: Ships, Masters and Men, DUndee University Press, 2013
- Brown: Cassie Brown, A Winter's Tale, Doubleday Canada Ltd., 1992
- Candow: James E. Candow, Of Men and Seals: A History of the Newfoundland Seal Hunt, Canadian Parks Service, Environment Canada, 1989
- Chafe: Levi George Chafe, Chafe's Sealing Book: A History of the Newfoundland Sealfishery from the Earliest Available Records Down To and Including the Voyage of 1923, third edition, Trade Printers and Publishers, Ltd., 1923 (PDF scan available from Memorial University of Newfoundland)
- England: George Allan England, Vikings of the Ice: Being the Log of a Tenderfoot on the Great Newfoundland Seal Hunt (also published as The Greatest Hunt in the World), Doubleday, 1924
- Feltham: John Feltham, Sealing Steamers, Harry Cuff Publications, 1995
- Galgay/McCarthy: Frank Galgay and Michael McCarthy, Shipwrecks of Newfoundland and Labrador, Volume II, Creative Publishers, 1990
- Kean: Abram Kean, with a foreword by Sir Wilfred Grenfell, Old and Young Ahead, 1935; I use the 2000 Flanker Press edition edited and with a new Introduction (and new photographs) by Shannon Ryan
- Keir: David Keir, The Bowring Story, The Bodley Head, 1962
- O'Neill: Paul O'Neill, A Seaport Legacy: The Story of St. John's, Newfoundland, Press Procepic, 1976
- Paine: Lincoln P. Paine, Ships of the World: An Historical Encylopedia, Houghton Mifflin, 1997
- Ryan: Shannon Ryan, The Ice Hunters: A History of Newfoundland Sealing to 1914, Breakwater Books, 1994
- Ryan/Drake: Shannon Ryan, assisted by Martha Drake, Seals and Sealers: A Pictorial History of the Newfoundland Seal Fishery, Breakwater Books, 1987
- Tarver: Michael C. Tarver, The S. S. Terra Nova (1884-1943), Pendragon Maritime Publications, 2006
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