A Typical Labrador Fishing Schooner, Marilla Was ‘The Best Of Her Kind’
A century ago when the Labrador cod fishery still thrived, hundreds of small schooners from the outports of northeastern Newfoundland would spend summers harvesting along the Labrador coast. The Marilla was a typical Labrador “floater,” a schooner whose crew would work not from a shore base (as “stationers” did) but entirely from their ship.
In the winter of 1901 Joseph Kearley of Herring Neck in Notre Dame Bay, commissioned master builder Simon Taylor of nearby Moreton’s Harbour to build Marilla on the shore of Hatchet Harbour in the Kearleys’ “room” or family fishing property. While Joseph supervised, his sons Alfred, Arthur and John helped the builder over a period of two winters. The first year saw the framing completed along her white spruce keel, and the timbers were greased with cod oil to prevent them from splitting in the summer sun. While the preservative wasn’t easy on the nose (cod oil was extracted by rotting discarded fish parts in the sun), it was said to have made a good sunblock for the wood, and Newfoundland builders of the day used methods and materials they had to hand rather than paying for expensive imports.
That summer at Dog Bay in Hamilton Sound the men cut juniper (larch) for her planking and beams, making the most use of natural crooks chosen to match the required angles and dimensions. The logs were pit-sawed into the ship’s planking which, during the following winter, was fastened with black iron (as opposed to galvanized) nails and trunnels (wooden pegs driven through bored holes and held in place with wedges, or keys, driven in the tops). One juniper log was found to make a perfect single-piece rudder case with a hole bored through its centre, rather than the usual case made from staves.
Marilla was about 50 tons and measured approximately 70 feet (21.3 metres) in length. She was painted dark green offset with a narrow yellow stripe just below her top rail. She had a clipper bow, cut away like the famous full rigged ships of the open ocean, and her stern also was cut away below the counter (transom) with the rudder post rising, through the overhang, to the deck where chains and pulleys connected it with the steering wheel. The schooner’s mainmast measured 61 feet (18.6 metres) and the foremast 58 feet (17.6 metres). Both had topmasts about which her owner’s grandson, the late Frank Kearley, said, “The first topmast was in her was in her when she was sold (34 years later). He was one a’ those twistin’ spruce you know. Never rot.”
As well as the mainsail and foresail, Marilla’s canvas included a gaff topsail, topmast staysail, three jibs — jumbo, middle and flying jib — and a sail called a balloon which would be set between the two topmasts. There were no winches to raise sail; all were hoisted by hand, “just a business of catchin’ holt the ropes and pullin’ till you got ’em up.”
On April 2, 1902, William Coaker, later founder of the revolutionary Fishermen’s Union and its Trading Company and who was eventually knighted, christened the schooner Marilla, saying the name meant she was “the best of her kind.”
The total cost of building the schooner a century ago was only $1,200, thanks to the family cutting her timbers and doing most of the work themselves. Like many of her type, Marilla‘s accommodations were spartan. The cabin was aft with its entrance directly in front of the wheel, and contained three berths and a stateroom for a woman cook. In the forecastle were four berths, a stove and table. All living space was as small as possible to allow the most room for the ship’s main purpose, catching and carrying fish. After 24 years of going to the Labrador fishery, in 1926 Marilla‘s main deck beam in the forcastle split and had to be replaced at the shipyard in Port Union. The cost? The same as her original pricetag, about $1,200, recalled Frank Kearley.
On a typical Labrador trip, Marilla carried a crew of seven men and a woman cook, most of whom were recruited from her home area. Once the crew was rounded up, or “in collar,” in the spring they would heave the schooner onto her sides at the wharf and clean off her bottom. Next they would stock her with three months’ supplies, and sometime in June would set sail down to Labrador with three or four motorized skiffs in tow.
A few years after his schooner was launched Joseph Kearley died and ownership was held jointly by his sons. Eventually, Frank’s father John became the sole owner. The Kearleys’ favourite fishing grounds were in northern Labrador outside of Nain. Depending on wind and ice conditions, it generally took them about four days to sail there from Herring Neck. The only navigational tools Marilla carried were a compass, a log (recording distance travelled) and a chart. On most trips she made the distance safely but on her last one, in fog and with a slight compass error, she was nearly wrecked. In a strong wind and thick fog she was running under only her for’sail past Saddle Island. “Father thought ’twas better to haul out a point, and we hauled out and we end up ‘longside a’ dis rock,” Frank said. “If we hadn’ hauled out we would a’ hit it.”
It was a hard life aboard the Labrador schooners with crews working nearly around the clock at least six days a week. But the men of Marilla did enjoy themselves whenever they had free time. They might take a boat and go ashore to hunt for wild game or visit with the Inuit who lived along the Labrador coast, some of whom became well known to the Kearleys and crew over the 34 years they took their schooner to that fishery. In that time, Marilla had only one bad summer’s fishing.
When she returned home at the end of the season all the salted fish — perhaps as much as 1,000 quintals (112 pounds each) — would be unloaded and the ship thoroughly cleaned out. As the crew were all sharemen, the catch was divided among them. If the crew numbered eight, there were 16 parts, half for the Marilla‘s expenses and half for the men. The cook earned a salary of usually $25 for the summer.
By the mid-1930s the schooner was showing her age and the Depression put a damper on prices, making the Labrador trips unprofitable. The Marilla was still in reasonably good condition, however, so John Kearley sold her to John Goodyear of Carmanville who used her to carry limestone from Cobb’s Arm to Botwood. One year she was run ashore to have her bottom cleaned, instead of being careened as the Kearleys had done, and her rudder post was broken off. She then broke loose and demolished a nearby wharf. Goodyear gave her to the owner to help repair the wharf and, as Frank Kearley put it, “that was the end a’ the Marilla.”
Considering the hazards Labrador schooners faced in their perilous quest for the cod, Marilla‘s unblemished record for more than three decades proved that she lived up to her motto: “the best of her kind.”
Eastwaters is indebted to Louise Kearley of St. John’s for the foregoing information which she collected in a 1977 interview with Frank Kearley as part of a Memorial University of Newfoundland project.