By Bill Amaru
Going to sea for 50 years you get to experience some remarkable events. Of equal importance are the stories you hear of others. I was just starting commercial fishing in 1972 and listened a great deal to what was said around the dock. There were many middle aged and older fishermen who had come up in the 1940s and '50s. Some of the best were from Nova Scotia, Canada, and had come to the Cape for a better life from the “out-ports” along the eastern shore of that Province. I heard this story more than once and it always intrigued me. All the players but one were still around and I saw them just about every day. It is true to the best of my memory.
Johnny Stello and Vince Leblanc were coming in one day from a trip to the mussels, a fishing ground about 20 miles southeast of Chatham. Johnny was the owner and captain of the long-liner Jeannie S. It was in the early 1950s, February, a tough time of year to make a living as a longliner out of Chatham. Vince was a “blue nose” Nova Scotian, and he and Johnny had been together for years, were very close friends as well as mates aboard the Jeannie S. A winter storm had come up, a sea was running and an east wind was blowing. Snow had started about the time they came across the crab ledge, several miles east of Chatham bar.
It had been a fair day of fishing, about 1,500 of haddock and cod were iced in the fish box and they were very happy to be approaching the Chatham inlet. There were several other boats waiting for the right time to cross the bar, in between sets of breakers, when it was a little safer. It was John’s turn to cross and he thought it looked good. He had the outside buoy in sight when he looked behind him and saw a breaking sea fast coming on, just astern of him. It was a monster, a rogue wave had made up (formed) and was overtaking him. Too late to turn, he just put the throttle up full and held her ahead as best he could, hoping to ride down the face of the now breaking wave. He yelled at Vince to hold on. The sea overtook the eight knots he was making and turned Jeannie S. on her beam ends.
The boat broached, always the dread of any captain crossing the bar. The sea washed over the deck, up and over the wheel house. Vince, who was standing on the port side of the pilot house doing gear work, held on to a stanchion while sea water flooded through the boat, washing Johnnie out the starboard side of the cabin with the hauling door. He was now floating free as the boat slid down and away from him. The ice cold sea water flushed nearly everything not tied down out of the boat, including the fish box and the 1,500 pounds of fish with it. As the boat lurched, Vince was thrown against the engine exhaust pipe and very badly burned; he would be many months healing. By some miracle, the vessel didn’t turn over but the engine was flooded with sea water and stalled. Vince, now alone, found himself on the face of another wave. He finally made safe water where he tried, unsuccessfully, to restart the stalled engine. He sat helpless in the driving wind and snow, knowing Johnny was out there in the freezing water, waiting for the Jeannie S. to circle back and pick him up. The next boat over the bar saw the Jeannie S. and came alongside, placed a tow line aboard and started toward the fish pier, minus Captain Stello. Vince protested that he wanted to keep looking for his lost Captain and friend, but the crew thought it was too late for Johnny. Nobody could survive being washed over on the bar in February with a big sea running. Besides, the burns at this point looked pretty bad. The ride in was a nightmare for Vince. He could not believe he was alive and his best friend was still out there.
Word was passed to the other boats that Johnnie Stello was somewhere in the water around the bar. At that time of year, a human being can stay alive and somewhat mobile in the water for only about 15 minutes. John was conscious and knew he had to find some way to stay afloat. He remembered what a friend, Babe Miller, had once told him: “If you ever go overboard, for god’s sake, get on something flat, don’t grab a float that’s round, you can’t get a purchase and it will just roll over in the water. Climb on something flat like a hatch cover, better yet, a fish box.”
Those words came back to him. There was plenty of debris in the water from all the gear that washed out of the Jeannie S. Ironically, there was the fish box, minus the fish, floating nearby. John had his first good luck of the day. He climbed on top as his limbs went numb and waited and prayed.
It’s hard to say for sure, but by all accounts, Johnny Stello lasted longer in 40-degree water than anyone has a right to, about 45 minutes to an hour. He was finally spotted, just before dark, by another Novi fisherman named Ed Boudreau. It took several passes of Ed’s boat to get hold of him and John couldn’t believe he had come so close to making it only to fail to get aboard the rescue boat. Third pass and they had him aboard. By now John was nearly incoherent but still alive. The crew wrapped him up in wool blankets from the foc’sle, put him below and made for the pier. What saved John Stello was his determination to live for the love of his wife and his growing family, as well as the advice of Babe Miller.
When they got him home, John was still blue. His wife, Jeannie, who had been informed, mistakenly, that John was lost on the bar, almost fainted when she saw her now blue husband helped through the front doorway. He was definitely suffering from hypothermia, a word that at that time had no meaning in Chatham. What had meaning was that he was very much alive. Jeannie had never lost hope he would be found. She, as usual, was right.
Vince was starting to feel severe pain from his burns but felt he had to go to John’s house and tell his wife the unspeakably tragic news, that John wasn’t coming home. He parked in front of the house on Seaview Street, where, for how many years they had had their cribbage games every Friday night. The snow was still falling but the wind had died and it was deathly quiet. He sat for a bit, trying to pull himself together, to figure out how to speak the unspeakable. He got out of the '49 Ford pick-up and walked to the front steps. A slow knock on the front door. The door opened and Jeannie stood in front of him, a strange but unmistakable smile on her face. Someone was behind her. It was John, still somewhat blue, wrapped in a World War II-era wool blanket. He too was smiling.
Vince was in shock. His first thought was that he was dreaming, then hallucinating. Finally, with a hug from his best friend, he realized John was really standing in front of him. No one had told Vince of the rescue because word had not gotten around to him that John had been picked up by Ed Boudreau in the Blue Nose.
Soon afterwards, Vince was taken to the hospital in Hyannis for treatment of his burns. He recovered as did John. Sadly, Babe Miller, who had given Johnny Stello such good advice, would himself die at sea shortly afterwards on a trip off the mid-Atlantic coast. Despite his many years at sea and his innate knowledge of survival techniques, he would be found, dead of exposure, adrift in the bottom of a dory lifeboat after the vessel he was aboard foundered and disappeared.
And thus, fate and skill both have a part to play in a fisherman’s livelihood. It’s sometimes difficult to say which is more important or profound. Belonging to a fleet of dedicated and hard working brothers who watch out for each other is as important as either. That was true in the 1950s and it’s true today. A man or woman who goes to sea to earn a living takes many chances, but it’s a good way, an honest way, to earn a living. It’s also good to remember that no one walks home from a mishap at sea. Be careful when you cross the bar.