The schooner Russell Lake was lost 94 years ago, but traces of it can still be found in Burgeo

George T. Day is pictured in Fortune with three of his grandchildren.  (Day Family Photo) (Day Family - Photo Credit)

George T. Day is pictured in Fortune with three of his grandchildren. (Day Family Photo) (Day Family – Photo Credit)

day family

day family

There were six in the crew, but only one man survived when the tern schooner Russell Lake was blown to bits in a blinding snowstorm as it entered Burgeo Harbor on March 17, 1929 – almost 94 years ago.

A few days later, George T. Day—the bosun’s boatswain, or ship’s officer in charge of the crew—sat down with TL Banfield, the radio operator at Burgeo, and told him of his horrifying experience of being detained, along with the cook for seven hours long at a piece of the shipwreck and watched as his captain and four shipmates were washed to their deaths.

The first-hand account of the 41-year-old sailor’s survival made the front page of a daily newspaper, the Liberal Press, on March 30, 1929.

Commanded by Captain Frank Stoodley (my father’s half brother – they had the same father) the Russell left Lake Fortune to load the fish at Burgeo bound for Porto, Portugal, stopping first at St Pierre for resupply fetch. The ship left the French island on March 16 and shortly thereafter the weather deteriorated, with winds increasing to hurricane force and snow gusts obscuring visibility.

Stodley's family photo

Stodley’s family photo

“We passed New Harbor just as the candle was being lit, and I wondered if the captain would dock there; but as the wind was good and then blew strong, he decided to continue to Burgeo. It was thick with snow as we approached Burgeo – the first land we saw was Red Island Head and got a glimpse of Boar Island Light,” Day explained in the interview. (Red Island Head is about three miles from the anchorage in Burgeo Harbour.)

“Then it closed in glitter and the captain took down the mainsail – the only sail we had at the time – and told us to get the anchors ready so that we could hoist the bow – it was around midnight at the time,” continued George away.

As soon as the ship struck, he said, the captain rushed to the cabin and returned with a gun, which he fired to warn people on shore.

“It was a beautiful sea and the ship immediately turned on her side, carried away the spars and took the captain and three men overboard. I don’t know if they were hit by any of the wrecks because it was in the dark it was hard to tell how they went,” George said.

Jack Keeping Photo Collection

Jack Keeping Photo Collection

“The cook and I held onto part of the stern as the ship shattered into pieces. Luckily that particular part didn’t give way until dawn – when it started to break I suggested to the cook that we crawl forward through the ship’s wreckage to a spot I felt was better suited for holding on to.”

The interviewer asked him if they were in danger of being washed away by the sea. Day replied: “Yes, sometimes; but the spars fell strangely on the off side, and broke the sea very badly… We reached the part I was looking at and stuck our legs through a hole in the bulkhead [mariners call these floodgates] and there we stayed with the cold spray pouring over us, till some fishermen saw us and set off in a little boat.

It was about three in the morning – no electricity, just lanterns and rowboats. Former Burgeo mayor Allister Hann told me his father, James Hann, who lived on nearby Collier’s Island, heard the cries for help. He fetched Hartley Kendall and then rowed to Small’s Island for an older, more experienced sailor: Captain Jimmy Buckland. Kendall’s son, Doug, recently told me Buckland would “count the waves” and when his gut waters settled, he would shout the command to the other two rescuers, “Oar, oar, oar.”

Day continued, “I could see we were on the back side of Small’s Island in Burgeo. The lifeboat could not approach us because of the sea, and the debris, consisting of spars, topmasts, oars, ropes and wires twisted into all shapes, separated us from the boat.”

Photo collection Walter Simms

Photo collection Walter Simms

A leash had been thrown at them, he continued.

“I first tied the leash around the cook and tried to help him over the rubble, but he was exhausted and I didn’t have the strength to help him. He collapsed and as he fell among the rubble I untied the leash from him, tied it around me and started coming through the rubble.

“Through the water up to my neck and pulling myself up, I managed to reach one of the spars from which I jumped into the water. A great sea was running then, but the men in the boat pulled me in despite the danger of being swamped.”

The men who risked their lives to save George Day were Captain James Buckland, James Hann and Hartley Kendall, all from Burgeo.

Melbourne's family photo

Melbourne’s family photo

As word spread and the sea went down, men and other boats were soon there to try to recover the bodies of the five sailors.

The Russell Lake had no auxiliary power – just the wind in her sails, with anchors to slow her. Part of the reason the ship broke up so quickly was the fact that it was not carrying wet fish, only dry fish, resulting in its timbers being very dry.

All bodies were recovered, four on Sunday and the captain’s body on Monday morning. They were taken to the Orange Hall, where the coffins were nicely decorated, to await the arrival of the coastal boat SS Daisy, which carried them to Fortune and Grand Bank.

The sailors who died were Captain Frank Stoodley of Grand Bank, married and father of one child; Pal Ronald Martin of Fortune, married, no children; Chef William Spencer of Fortune, married, no children; Seaman George Witherall of Fortune, married, no children; Sailor Leo Foote of Lamaline, single. Sailor George T. Day of Fortune, the sole survivor, was the father of seven children.

Alan Stoodley

Alan Stoodley

The Russell Lake, built at Fortune in 1917 and registered at St. John’s in 1919, was a three-masted wooden ship of 149.87 gross tonnage and 96.6 feet long. Built for European trade, she transported large and sun-dried saltfish to Portugal and Spain.

After the shipwreck, George T. Day bought his own dory and stage and went shore fishing from Fortune. His wife was Beatrice Thornhill of Fortune; They had nine children, but two died in infancy, and Day died in 1959 at the age of 70.

George T. Day’s daughter, Sarah, completed teacher training in 1944, went to Otter’s Point to teach and then moved to Burgeo, where she married Gilbert Melbourne in 1950. They were parents to five boys, two of whom still lived in Burgeo: Gus, 70, and Gilbert, 66.

A few years ago, Gilbert took over ownership of a shed that happened to contain two blocks—parts of pulleys—that had been salvaged from the Russell Lake wreck. He gave them to his two sons as “lucky charms” – a reminder for them of the ordeal their great-grandfather endured.

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