The dim light of a sultry, grey dawn promised no hope of relief for
the two half-frozen fishermen. Heavy snow-filled clouds hung low,
blotting the horizon. The schooner was nowhere to be seen. There was no
sign of land, and nothing to offer a clue as to where it lay. Temperature
seemed to be falling still. The wind continued to rage. It churned and
whipped the mounting, snow-capped waves ever higher, washing them over
the sides of the dory, threatening each time to engulf the small boat and
all that it contained.
Howard cast a despairing glance at his dory-mate, feeling a
responsibility. He could see that Tom was bailing for his life with
deliberate, almost mechanical motions. Frost and icicles glistened from
his eyebrows and half-grown beard. He staggered and slipped on the ice
that was building thicker each time a smothering wave subsided. Howard
wondered vaguely about the young manís family. It was not a thought on
which he cared to dwell. So, he turned once more to his own task with
fiercely focused attention, refusing to allow his mind the chance to
With the wind still rising, and waves lashing their helpless dory, the
danger of overturning became ever more real.
"We need to head her into the wind! Letís see if we can lay her to a
drag!" Howard shouted to his mate.
Tom, numb and speechless, gestured and nodded his reply. So, Howard
went about smashing in the head of one of the trawl buoys. He added an
iron winch for weight. With dory-head facing into the wind and sea, he
reasoned, they might be able to bail without so much danger of being
swamped and pulled under.
He prepared to cast his drag over the side, removing his thick, warm
mittens and dropping them under his seat. But, almost at once, they were
swept away in water splashed over the side to where Tom was in charge of
With his bare hands, Howard knotted the line, then bent to cast the
keg overboard. But, leaning over the side nearly filled the small boat
with another swirling torrent of ice, snow and water.
He glanced at Tom, frantically bailing to stabilize the new danger.
This time he was using a small, shovel-like scoop.
The strain on Howardís nerves had reached its breaking point. "Youíre
making about as much headway with that as you would bailing Gloucester
Harbor with a tin dipper!" he shouted impatiently. The next moment his
impatience turned to desperation. "Now, look what youíve gone and done!
Youíve gone and tossed my mittens out with your ridiculous wooden scoop!"
Whether Tom was in fit condition to reply, or whether he simply did
not hear or understand did not matter. The mittens, designed to protect a
sailorís hands from the ever-present danger of frostbite, were going ,
going . . . Gone!
Howard watched helplessly as they spun and bobbed, appearing and
disappearing in waves churning with froth and foam. He watched them twirl
over and under . . . under and over, farther and farther out of his reach. He
watched until they had disappeared and failed to re-appear. Then he
realized they were gone for good.
Understanding the danger of panic or rage, Howard surveyed the
situation as calmly as he could. But a heavy feeling of inescapable doom
gripped his insides. The storm showed no signs of letting up. The
schoonerís location was still a mystery. . .. and even if he and Tom did
manage to ward off danger from the storm, how long could they do without
food or fresh water?
Now, he was suddenly faced with an even more immediate danger. He
glanced down at his bare hands. He could see they were already beginning
to turn an unnatural white. He was familiar enough with frostbite to know
they were freezing . . . freezing fast . . . stiff and useless. His mind raced on
ahead. He pictured himself sitting idly by while Tom struggled on alone.
It would be too much for one pair of hands in sole charge of the rowing,
together with whatever new emergencies might arise.
Howard straightened his shoulders with new resolve. He would never allow
himself to become a burden on anyone. If his hands were bound to freeze,
then he must see to it they froze in such a way that they would not be
He reached for the two oars. He locked his stiffening fingers around
the oar handles and squeezed them to a tight grip. He waited until the
feeling was gone and he was unable to move any of the fingers. Then,
satisfied that they were frozen stiff, he slipped his rigid fists with
their curled fingers off the oar handles. There . . . now! he thought, Iíll
be ready to do a dory mateís full share whenever the need arises.
He took his usual turn with Tom in bailing the boat. He chipped off
ice collected on the inside with a gob-stick used for killing large
"Let me do it!" Tom urged more than once.
But Howard refused. "Iíll do my share of the work as long as I can,"
He tried removing one rubber boot and a sock, slipping the woolen sock
over one of his hands to replace the lost mitten. But the hand was
swollen to such a size that it would go no farther than the heel. Ice
formed a ball in the sockís foot and the weight kept pulling it off his
He was aware that the bare foot inside his boot was becoming very
painful. He knew what that meant. But, since there was nothing he could
do, he said nothing about it. Why should he worry Tom more than he
The sock was lost overboard in an attempt to break its ball of ice.
There was no use going after it. If the dory were to be moved from
head-to-wind-and-sea, it would surely fill and capsize.
Throughout that night and all the next day, the storm raged on. Sharp,
bitter winds and angry seas kept the dory and its two half-frozen mates
in a constant state of crisis. Not a moment could they spare to relax for
regaining a little of their strength. All forces of nature seemed joined
in a single effort to destroy them. Hunger gnawed at their insides. Even
with water all about and everywhere, they suffered torturous pangs of
craving for want of a drink.
Howardís hands were becoming ever more bruised and swollen. Yet, each
time as needed, he slipped his frozen grip over the oarsí handles and did
what was needed. He took his full share of the bailing and ice chipping.
Without a word of complaint, he endured while his frozen flesh tore and
chipped away from the bone, sending forth a faint trickle of blood that
It was not until close to the next evening that Howard tried to snatch
a moment of rest. He prepared to stretch out his long, numbed and aching
legs in the bow beside Tom. But it was not to be. The dory, dipping into
the path of an oncoming wave, failed to rise in time. Once again the men
were doused with a smothering, icy spray.
"Come on, Tom, itís your turn to bail!" Howard cried, lunging
awkwardly about in the freezing wash.
Curiously enough, Tom did not move . . . nor did he answer.
"This wonít do, Tom!" Howard said again, his voice rising in
annoyance. "You know as well as I that if we donít keep up with the
bailing, we havenít a chance!"
Tomís reply seemed strangely detached. "I canít see," was all he said.
"Come, Tom," Howard said again. "This wonít do. You must do your part.
Your hands are not frozen or beaten to pieces as mine are." He held out
his right hand to show that one of its fingers was dangling, barely
"Howard, whatís the use?" was Tomís desperate response. "We canít last
Ďtil morning. We might as well go first as last."
Howard made his way to the stern and sat down, his back to the wind. It
was clear that the sole responsibility for keeping himself and his mate
alive rested squarely on his own shoulders. Carrying on was not a choice
to be made. Taking on a task, to Howard Blackburn, meant seeing it
through to the end.
But first things first. He took quick stock of their desperate
situation. He was hungry, wet, coated with ice and chilled to the very
bone. His hands were swollen, his arms, feet and legs throbbing with a
fearful pain. Even the simplest task was becoming nearly impossible. He
was totally exhausted and aching for want of sleep. Yet, he knew that
allowing himself to drift off even for a moment could mean that all would
Nightfall was fast approaching once again. Mere resolve to remain awake,
however strong, he knew could never be trusted. So, he settled himself in
the bottom of the dory with his back to the wind. He rocked himself back,
forth and sideways throughout the long hours of darkness, to keep himself
He could hear Tom moaning, begging for water.
"Tom," Howard replied each time, "We have no water."
"Then give me a piece of ice."
Howard brought him a chunk, then returned to his position. He could
hear Tom chewing off bits of it.
From time to time, he was aware of a faint mumbling. Howard thought it
might be a prayer, with no reply from him intended. He heard his name
called twice. When he responded, there was no reply. Once he thought he
heard, "Stay with me, Howard." But an exchange of words against the
thunderous roar of wind and wave was next to impossible. So he continued
to tend those things which he felt to be of most importance.
Then, after a long stretch of hearing no further sound from his mate,
Howard became uneasy. He made his way forward to investigate, fearing
that Tom might have fallen asleep.
He grasped the collar of Tomís oilskins awkwardly and shook him
roughly. "Come, Tom," he said, speaking directly into his ear. "If we
give in to sleep, then surely that will be the end of us. Wake up now,
and get on with the job!"
There was no reply Ė no movement Ė no response.
The realization dawned slowly . . . slowly, against the resistance of fear
and horror. Howard drew a long, agonized breath. His huge, chilled and
aching body shuddered. "My God! The poor manís dead!" he said . . . but only
the wind and waves were there to bear witness to his words.
He lifted the cold, stiff body in the best way he could. For a moment he
forgot the awkwardness and pain of his swollen arms. Somehow, he carried
his load, laying it gently in the doryís stern, apart from the main force
of the battering waves.
"Poor Tom!" Howard said. "You wonít miss your mittens now." He took
the mittens and tried slipping one of them on his right hand, the one
that was swollen and bruised the most. But the hand was too puffed and
swollen to fit.
He stood for a moment, his eyes on the frozen corpse. He watched
helplessly as a sheet of fine spray washed over the lifeless form. It
froze as it fell, covering the body with a thin coat of ice in minutes.
Howard turned away, resumed his former position and continued on with
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