Domino tells a compelling tale that was almost lost: the true story of a deadly hurricane that devastated Labrador's Eskimo Coast in the fall of 1885. Fishermen and their families on their way home from a hard summer's work were caught in the fierce winds and waves. Sixty-six ships were wrecked and over seventy people died, many of them women and children. And the after-effects of the completely unexpected storm were more far-reaching than anyone could imagine.
Domino: The Eskimo Coast Disaster
by Maura Hanrahan
“What about our families, sir? What should they do?” Matthew Kelloway asks, his face alabaster.
It is nearly seven o’clock on Monday morning and, after a hellish night, the Release is in serious danger of being dashed on the rocks. The wind howls like a wolf. The waves have the determination of migrating caribou. Aware that every second counts now, Captain Hayden spits out his words.
“We’ll get them up on deck. It’s their only chance of escape at this point. Take care of it for me, Kelloway.”
There is not even time for Matthew to agree. The gale is full force now and her power turns fifty-ton schooners into children’s toys in a wash basin. As the crew members cut the Release’s spars away, cold sweat running down their backs, Kelloway rips the hatch open. Then he dives into the hold and looks across the bundles of blankets and bodies, searching for his family and shipped girl. More than eighty people are crammed in here, like fish in a punt. When his feet hit the bottom, they are plunged into bone-chilling water. The Release is leaking badly as the anchor chains and hawser strain.
“Water! It’s coming through the floorboards!” a soul cries.
“Sweet Jesus, help us!”
Matthew hears a baby bawling and a woman, or maybe two or three, uttering pitiful moans. A small army of panicked people rush past him when they see light let in by the open hatch. The stench of vomit and human excrement assaults Matthew’s nostrils. His heart thumps to a thunder roar. He strains to see Martha, Georgia, and little Nicholas as he walks through the hold, trying not to stumble as the ship tosses about. Finally he makes out Martha’s drawn face, flat against the coiled twine she lies on. He shakes her, forgetting himself.
“Get Nicholas and young Georgia up top,” he shouts.
“What?” Martha said, her eyelids swollen with darkness and retching.
As her husband repeats his words, Martha sees how his eyes dart about and she sits up in her makeshift bed. The rolling has not stopped. The Release is now being pushed down on her starboard side, then just as violently to port. Martha presses one hand into Nicholas’s right arm and another into Georgia’s left. “Get up!” she shrieks. “Georgia, get up!”
Then she turns to her husband.
“Where are Thomas and Simon? Dear God, are they safe?”
“As can be,” Matthew answers, his voice low. “They’re chopping frozen spray off the rigging. All the men are.”
Martha shrinks at the sound of the word “men.” By now, there is stirring among the lumps that are sickly, almost comatose beings.
“Be quiet!” someone calls.
Kelloway’s voice cuts through the dark silence, reaching deep baritone levels.
“The Release is in danger!” he yells. “We’re in the middle of a gale. Get up on deck at once!”
He pulls Martha, Nicholas, and Georgia along. They are attached to each other like train carriages and they move through the slowly rising crowd as quick as they can. They push themselves through the hatch.
“Where’s Georgia?” Martha asks when they are all on deck, snow falling on their wan faces.
“Here!” the girl pipes up, coming out from behind Nicholas. Her face is ghostly and she trembles as she speaks.
“Hang onto us, girl!” Martha calls, nearly reeling from the force of the winds.
Women, children, and old men clamour over barrels full of fish. They tumble out of the hatch, like capelin tossing themselves on a beach. A toddler sucks his thumb as his father holds him. A woman clutches a baby to her nightshirt-covered vest, her face ashen. Suddenly, a teenage boy is slammed against the companionway and blood gushes from his torn arm. Men rush by, their eyes shady and fixed.
“If we get thrown into the sea, make for that land over there,” Matthew says firmly. Martha howls in response.
“How can we do that, Mommy?” Nicholas asks, “I can’t swim.”
“I’ll get the Cramms to help us,” his father interjects.
Georgia bites her lip and clings to Matthew, trying not to get tossed overboard. She tightens her grip on his arm.
“Mr. Kelloway,” she says, determination blanketing her face, her rosary beads tangled up in her fingers. “My mother and father are not here. If you can save your own life, will you save mine, too?”
The fisherman stops and stands over her. Even in the inky black of the night, he can see the robin’s-egg blue of her eyes. There is a welling stone in his throat.
“Yes, child, I will save you,” he promises, if I can save myself. He pauses, then gently removes his shipped girl’s bony hands from his arm, and pushes his way to the captain who is aft now, surrounded by crew members.
Georgia manages to smile a little, a mixture of rain, snow, and sea water streaming down her ivory face. She moves closer to Martha and says, “Can we pray, Mrs. Kelloway?”
“Yes, child,” Martha says, clutching the girl. As the winds grow even more fierce, they raise their voices to the indigo sky. “Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with thee . . .” Others join them as they wait, with both fear and longing, for the moment when the chains will part and send the Release toward the hard grey rocks onshore.
* * *
Georgia wills herself to think of Hannah, as she pledged to do a lifetime ago in Domino. She saw her friend’s tawny skin all summer as she sewed buttons onto men’s shirts and sliced potatoes for the pot. She remembers how she and Hannah held hands as they walked toward the Release when it was time for Georgia to go. Visions of her mother flash before Georgia’s eyes, but she shoves them away. She will think of Hannah, her fellow adventuress. Perhaps she will see Hannah every year on this coast. One day she will have a husband and children and they can meet her Labrador friend. She pulls her jacket tight, feeling its inadequacy against winds that have the strength of polar bears.
* * *
“She’s going!” young Thomas Kelloway calls. He is still a teenager, but his hands are already as rough as sandpaper. He tries to see the shoreline; his father has told him to swim there when the time came. He remembers swimming in the salmon pool in the Main River on a hazy blue August day. With pretty Georgia laughing onshore, he and Simon dog-paddled from one riverbank to the other. It was one of the few times they had ever tried swimming, so rarely was their spare time during the slavish days of summer. Simon teased him about Georgia, splashing warm, foamy summer water in his face. In spite of the crisis he is in, his cheeks redden with the memory. He glances down the deck but cannot see his father’s shipped girl . . .
Maura Hanrahan's account blends fictional characters and real-life figures (including a youthful Bob Bartlett of later Arctic sailing fame) who paint a vivid picture of their involvement in a fishery beset with many dangers at the best of times.-- Canadian Book Review Annual --
Hanrahan's presentation of attenuated lives on a bleak and stone-grey shoreline are incredibly evocative and form the clothesline from which flap well-ordered and well-researched historic details.-- The Northern Mariner --
Domino: The Eskimo Coast Disaster is a gripping tale about one of the most horrendous tragedies in Newfoundland and Labrador history.-- The Navigator --
Hanrahan's new book well worth the read.-- Labrador Life --
Maura Hanrahan tells the story well . . .-- Messing Around in Boats --