One of the most important rules when it comes to being on the water is that if someone else is in trouble, and you can help, you do it. It doesn’t matter if you and the skipper on the other boat don’t get along, or if you’re competing for the same catch. If someone is in trouble, you help. This is even more evident with this week’s story. The crew of a fishing boat got into trouble off the coast of Cape Breton, and radioed for help. Ships nearby responded, including a Canadian National Railway (CNR) railcar ferry that was tied up in North Sydney. Through a series of truly unfortunate events, however, this act of kindness and duty would result in some of the crew of the rescue vessel paying the ultimate price. This week, we look at the story of the F/V Enterprise and the M/V Patrick Morris.
Length: 32 metres
Weight: 106 tonnes
Length: 142 metres
Beam: 21.6 metres
Draught: 5.2 metres
Speed: 16.5 knots
The M/V Patrick Morris was built in the Montreal, Quebec shipyards of Canadian Vickers Ltd. in 1951. Originally constructed for the West India Fruit and Steamship Company, she spent the first few years of her life as the SS New Grand Haven, sailing from Palm Beach, Florida to Havana, Cuba.
Following Fidel Castro’s rise to power in the late 50s, the companies business dropped significantly, resulting in the sale of all six of their railcar ferries in 1961. The Canadian National Railway, seeing an opportunity, purchased the New Grand Haven to add to their fleet. She was renamed the M/V Patrick Morris in honour of a Newfoundland politician, and assigned to the ferry route between North Sydney, NS and Port-aux-Basques, NL with the William Carson.
On April 17, 1970 the seiner F/V Enterprise left her moorings in Isle aux Morts to go herring fishing. Her regular captain, Captain Wood, was on shore leave so the ship was under command of Bruno Cervi, first mate and Olaf Oldgaard, engineer. After two days successful fishing, her four crew members had filled the holds with fish and began steaming for home. A nearby boat, the F/V Gulf Gerd, reported that she was sitting low in the water as she headed in.
Slowly, the weather began to turn. The crew of the Enterprise issued a mayday call to all the local ships in the area, saying that they were taking on water quickly. The Gulf Gerd was close and immediately turned to head to the stricken vessel. Unfortunately, the seas smashing against their bow tossed the ship around, causing one of the crew to be thrown against the wall and break three ribs. Still, the crew pushed on, but they couldn’t make it in time and watched, helplessly as the last lights disappeared below the horizon.
Meanwhile in North Sydney, the Patrick Morris and William Carson were tied up and taking on their loads of freight when the radio crackled to life. The Rescue Co-ordination Centre in Halifax had put out a call to any Canadian National ships that were nearby to come and assist in the search for survivors from the Enterprise. The William Carson captain replied that he could, but it would be more than an hour before they could leave because he had passengers and vehicles on board, and the vehicles would have to be lashed down before they could sail in the storm. The Patrick Morris, on the other hand, could leave within the hour and only had half a load of freight on board, and no passengers.
The choice was simple. Captain Penney and the crew of the Patrick Morris got ready to leave, steaming out at 11:45pm on April 19th.
The ship battled high winds and heavy seas to make it to the location of the accident. The Gulf Gerd was still on site when she arrived, and the ships both reported seeing some debris but no survivors. The Gulf Gerd stuck around for a while with the Patrick Morris and the two ships continued to look for anything that remained of the Enterprise.
Then, shortly after 7:00am, after the Gulf Gerd had begun to move off to return to port, the lookout of the Patrick Morris reported spotting a body in the water. Floating face down and wearing both a life ring and a life jacket, the body drifted closer to the ship. Captain Penney ordered all crew to assist in the recovery, and tried to pull up alongside the body. Crew struggled with hooks and ropes to grab the body, but the waves tossed it closer, further, and under the ship, making it more and more difficult for the crew.
Suddenly, alarms started going off in the bridge. Two crew members were sent to investigate, and returned with grave news – the rear loading cargo doors were gone, and the ship was very quickly filling with water.
Captain Penney didn’t waste any time. He ordered the watertight doors closed and called for the purser and wireless operator, Garland Windsor, to begin sending out the mayday. The engineers below decks were having trouble keeping the power on, and the wireless set with its emergency battery power was the only guaranteed way to get the message out. Windsor reported immediately to his post and began frantically sending out an SOS as the ship continued to list further and further to port. The lifeboats were readied and all crew began to pile in. After grabbing his lifejacket, Windsor sent out one last message and then made a dash for the nearest boat. He was the last survivor to leave the ship.
The crew in the boats struggled to pull away from the ship, but the high waves pushed them up onto the deck twice before they were able to get away. The Gulf Gerd, having been so close when the ship issued its mayday, returned with another fishing vessel, the F/V Rhine Ore. The Rhine Ore took all the survivors on board and then, alongside the Gulf Gerd, set about trying to locate any survivors.
Only one body was recovered – that of Captain Penney, in his life jacket. Of a crew of 51, 47 souls survived from the Patrick Morris. All hands were lost and no bodies recovered from the Enterprise.
As I mentioned at the start of this article, there is a understanding that those at sea will always help fellow mariners in trouble. This is made even more apparent in the case of the Patrick Morris, where a crew left safe harbour hours before they were intending to sail with the sole intent of assisting those in need. I found this quote in a newspaper article written about the wreck, and I think it summarises this perfectly:
"The men who operate our Newfoundland ships are highly skilled sailors and it is in keeping with their traditions that this loss should have happened when they were going to the assistance of some others who's lives were endangered by the hazards of the sea."