Log on line lake tales for winter reading
We who sail and then tell of our adventures afloat follow a literary tradition that probably predates Odysseus by ten thousand years. Here on Lake Ontario we have our own written literature of lake faring adventure going back nearly 400 years.
Probably no one has told a better Lake Ontario story than Ch. H. J. Snider of Schooner Days. Snider was a yachtsman, daily newspaper editor, historian, reporter and working schooner crew. He lived and wrote during the last days of commercial sail on the lake. During his long life (He died in 1971 at age 92) he experienced and actively participated in the final stand of the family owned working schooner and what some of us would argue was the golden age of yachting when designs by Alden, Atkin, and Herreshoff dominated the waterfront pleasure boat scene before plastic.
Snider was an active yachtsman who owned a number of boats and who sailed on all the Great Lakes and on salt water. He also as a youngster crewed aboard a number of working schooners making his first passage at age thirteen. He knew many other prominent Canadian yachters and his newspaper experience as reporter, editor, and archive sleuth gave him a unique perspective on his subject.
Snider wrote over 1300 columns in the Evening Telegram of Toronto during a 25 year period and he authored at least a half dozen books on Great Lakes ships and sailors. His books are now all out of print but you can still find them occasionally in bookshops on the Canadian shore of the lake or on www.abebooks.com/ABEbooks.com And thanks to another Canadian yachter and historian Robert B. Townsend, a number of the Schooner Days columns have been compiled and reprinted and are available in book form. We who love reading a good sea faring yarn own Townsend a great debt.
Snider interviewed many old sailors whose memories stretched back to well before the twilight of commercial sail. Townsend collected a series of these and published them as Tales From The Great Lakes in 1995. Townsend also compiled a second series of columns on the life of Captain John Williams, who sailed Lake Ontario and the upper lakes from 1866 to 1927. Williams never lost a ship or a crew member while in command and successfully made the transition from sail to steam, something akin to those early bird aviators who learned on Steerman trainers in the 1920's managing to transition to jet aircraft. You had to be pretty darned competent and technically sharp to make the shift and Williams did so eventually commanding a large bulk carrier before he retired ashore. His career spanned a fascinating era in Great Lakes navigation.
As an experienced newspaper man, Snider had a good ear for the language of the men telling him their stories and he sometimes invokes it in Schooner Days with great charm. While many histories of great Lakes shipping seem to dwell excessively on shipwreck calamity tragedy and disaster, Snider caught us up in the day to day activity of a way of life long since vanished. An account plucked at random from the pages of Schooner Days is fairly typical, it depicts an incident in the life of a humble little stone carrier the Maud S ( known to the old salt telling Snider the story as the Maw-dess) who worked her whole life around Toronto.
The Maud S had been laid up for the winter in Port Credit with her anchor chain made fast to a telephone pole on shore. That year "the ice in Credit River went out extra early… the Maw-dess was all right at night and in the morning she was gone. Half her anchor chain was still made fast to the telephone pole. It had parted and the rest of her moorings had carried away and she had someway managed to squirm out through a fleet of other hookers and around the mud banks and out of Credit Harbor into the lake…" The Maud S's owner eyed the wind direction, figured out the drift and took a guess as to where she was and boarded a train to the other side to intercept his vessel finding her unharmed. It was, Snider noted, the only time the old stone hooker ever got across the lake to the other shore.
Few people who have written about Lake Ontario's maritime history have been better qualified than Snider. Townsend calls him Canada's most noted maritime historian and I'd rank him up with contemporary historian George Cuthbertson author of Fresh Water for factual information ( and he's far more readable). Like Cuthbertson, Snider was also a very competent artist and Townsend has reprinted some of his sketches and portraits of the schooners he sailed on.
He also wrote several books, one on the 1812 war that should be of interest to anyone who recently saw the movie Master and Commander based on Patrick O'Brien's work. In The Wake of The Eighteen Twelvers was published one hundred years after the war and is described as a "novel" on ABE books. Snider uses an imaginary "old salt" who sailed aboard the vessels to tell the tales, but the actual accounts of battles and incidents on the lakes are accurate (and some of them were as bloody and action filled as any salt water battle). With the war clouds gathering in Europe in 1913, there was no glamorization here either.
Robert Townsend has reprinted a number of Snider works including The Story of H MS Speedy, Who Was Canada's Greatest yachtsman and The Story of H.M.S. St. Lawrence the Boat That Won The War Of 1812. Contact Odyssey Publishing 3320 Rednersville Rd RR#1 Carrying Place Ontario K0K1L0 to order John Williams or other works.
Robert Townsend also sends along this note from The Bay of Quinte Bullfrogs concerning Snider and a regular correspondent of his. In an upcoming article we will be reviewing The Carrying Place. Stay tuned. Ps Angus Mowat is the father of Farley Mowat, author of The Boat Who Wouldn't Float and Never Cry Wolf, widely read in US.
From C.H.J. Snider's Schooner Days Column November 4
1944 about the rig on Scotch Bonnet and Snider's comment on Angus
Mowat's book Carrying Place. Angus Mowat frequently wrote letters to
Snider for publication, from "the Bay of Quinte Bullfrogs
A LETTER IN C.H.J. SNIDER’S SCHOONER DAYS COLUMN #665 DATED NOVEMBER 4 1944.
HOARSE BOOM of a Bay of Quinte bullfrog rises up in indignation against the suggestion of gafftopsails for Major Angus Mowat’s ketch Scotch Bonnet, as follows:
Addressed to Mr. C. H. J. Schoonerdays.
From The acciotates of Bay of Quint Bullfrogs, Hungry Bay, Ontaraway.
I am writting on Ins’ns of commitee to say we think you is nets. Gaffn topsls is mighty romiant’c and I guess the little feller’d like ‘em fine but you gotta be modern and alittle feller with only one arm and a big chunk of a boat would do a lot better withj a taller rig all in one piece and a winch agin the mainmast.
What we wrote to you about is to say that this here bit of a bald hedded kitch cant get no new rig onless this little feller makes enough money out of writting a book for it on account he don’t get payed for his work enough for it. So on behalf of the bay of Quinte bullfrogs assoc’n we want to thank you for what you said about his book, which makes him 5 hundrd dollars he’ll change his rig. But no gannf topsls mind you hes got enough to do without pulley haulin any more ropes than there is.
“ABEL (the sailor) BROWN
secy Bay of Quinte bullfrogs ass’n.”
None of which shakes our belief that “Carrying Place” the second novel by Angus Mowat recently published by S./J. Reginald Saunders and Co., uses the Bay of Quinte background and foreground in masterly fashion. Major Mowat’s close-to-the-water descriptions of small-boat behavior are a delight to all who sail, and his close-to-the-clay descriptions of human behavior are a delight to the many more who don’t.
In “Carrying Place” he holds the mirror up to life in this world of our time, bounded by two world wars. His scene is mainly the northeast end of Lake Ontario; his geography is as clean and clear as lake water and limestone, and scorns camouflage, and so is his philosophy. But he never allows either to run away with his interest in human beings who think and act in English.
Bullfrog’s amendment favoring marconi rig in preference to setting gafftopsails is accepted in the spirit in which it is offered. That speerit isn’t Scotch, though. You can’t marconi very high on five hundred bucks.