First Spring on the Grand Banks

About this book

When Meg and John Bains are stranded in Nova Scotia they have no money. Their friend Canso proposes that they take his father’s schooner and fish for cod on the Grand Banks. But the merchant, Mr. Hunter, claims he owns the schooner for past debts. To take the vessel without permission would mean theft, but Canso is determined to do it.

The First Spring on the Grand Banks is an exciting tale set in the Newfoundland fisheries of the nineteenth century. It describes the dangers and hardships of the fishermen and their families. John and Meg must use all of their strength and ingenuity to survive the elements and the bitter struggle between the merchants and the fishermen.

First Spring on the Grand Banks is an adventure story in the acclaimed Bains series for young readers 10 to 14, written by Bill Freeman. The book is illustrated with 19th century photos of the Newfoundland fishery. The Bains series has won the prestigious Vicky Metcalf Award for a body of work.

ISBN: 0-88862-220-1 Cloth; 0-88862-221-X Paper

First Spring on the Grand Banks is available from Chapters Indigo online for $13.56

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Bill Freeman recorded reading, with illustrationsavailable from National Film Board: Telephone: 1-800-267-7710.

ID No. 153C9182182 (includes Trouble at Lachine Mill).

An excerpt from Chapter 2 of the First Spring on the Grand Banks.

“Meg, take the helm!” Canso shouted above the wind. “John – Peggy – we’ve got to set the mainsail.”

The three of them grasped the rope and with great effort the big white canvas sail ran up the mast, snapping as it unfurled. Suddenly the wind filled it, the boom swung to the lee side with a crack and the clipper schooner began to gather speed.

“John – quick! The jib and jumbo!” The two sailors hurried forward and within moments the vessel had her four winter sails set to the wind.

Then the crew gathered at the stern near the helm to watch the village as they pulled away from the shore. No longer could they see Hunter rushing to ready his tern schooner but all of them could imagine him calling to his crew, checking the sails, putting on winter gear and preparing to cast off. For John it was the worst possible turn of events. They were being chased by one of the most determined men he had ever met. Hunter’s harsh, sharp features had stayed in his mind, and it did not seem likely he would give up on anything he set his mind to. They faced prison – he was sure of it. What could they do? How could they ever get away?

“We’ve got to outrun him,” Canso said with a stubborn look on his face. “There’s no going back.”

The big sailor had been going to sea most of his life and now his skill would be put to the test. He stood with his hands on the spokes of the wheel, watching the sails, feeling the wind and the motion of the waves on the hull. Overhead the dark sky threatened to produce snow at any moment, but the wind was steady out of the west. The gray-green sea rose and fell in long swells, pitching the schooner up onto the crest and down into the trough with a steady rhythmical motion.

Canso was assessing the conditions, carefully selecting his alternative before acting decisively. “We don’t want Hunter to know where we’re heading,” he said to the others. “Newfoundland lies northeast of here so we’ll head due east out to sea, with the wind at our backs, until we lose him. Peggy, go below and set the fo’c’s’le fire. We’ll need some way to get warm from the winter wind. John and Meg, you’ll be the crew. Look lively and let’s hope this old schooner still has some speed in her.”

Next came a series of complicated orders as Canso trimmed the sails to get every last bit of speed out of the vessel. “John – Meg – jig up the foresail! She’s slack along the luff.” The two young crew members ran to the foremast, loosened the downhaul halyard and pulled with every ounce of strength until they heard their skipper should. “She’s good, lads! Now tie her off and come aft!” They rushed to complete the task. Every moment counted in this race.

“We’re going to set the mainsail broad off!” Canso shouted when they had gathered around the helm. “She’ll sail before the wind like she’s got a bone in her teeth.”

“Isn’t that dangerous?” asked John. “She could capsize with the least squall.” The boy had never sailed a schooner before but hours of talk with seamen made him aware of every problem of the fore and aft rig.

“We’ve got to take chances. Hunter’s tern schooner is a fast craft, and if we’re to lose him we have to fly before the wind.”

Canso was the best sailor John had ever known, and the boy accepted his judgement without question. Slowly they eased out the rope holding the boom until the big mainsail was almost ninety degrees to the course of the vessel. The wind billowed out the stiff canvas until there was not a ripple in the huge white sail. Faster and faster the schooner went, sending showers high into the air with her sharp clipper bow, until she seemed to be leaping through the waves. When they were finished Meg glanced back towards shore and shouted. “Look! It’s Hunter!” They were over two miles from shore but they could clearly see the white sails of the three-masted tern schooner as it left the protected harbour and entered the open sea.

A smile came over Canso’s face. “Now we’ll see how fast we really are.” The sailor seemed impatient for the race.

Meg was calm, content to place her trust in their skipper, but John was not feeling so secure. Over and over again the question went through his mind: what if they did not get away? What they were doing was theft – it was piracy. Not so long before pirates were hung from the yardarms for crimes such as this. What would become of them if Hunter overtook them? This was more than a contest – it was a race for their freedom, maybe a race for their very lives.

The boy glanced at Canso standing at the wheel, studying the schooner as if his only concern was to get more speed out of the vessel. John felt he should urge him to turn around. If they had to appear in court for the crime they could explain that they had not intended to break the law. They had to go back before the voyage turned into a disaster, but from the set determination on Canso’s face it was obvious that there was no turning back now.

A moment later Canso was barking out orders to his crew again. “The snow on the deck needs to be pushed into the sea. The extra weight will slow us down.” He told them where to find brooms the fishermen used to wash down the deck and soon they were hard a work. Halfway through the job they had to go below to put on waterproof gear because the spray from the waves pounding against the bow was drenching the deck. When they had finished the chore they huddled out of the wind near the helm, waiting for Canso to give them more orders.

Meg stared at the tern schooner a long way behind them for more than a minute and announced. “I think we’re winning the race.” There was a smile on her face. “They’re falling behind.”

“We’re putting them behind us, alright,” Canso replied. “But once they get away from the land and pick up the ocean wind they’ll build up speed. The race isn’t over yet.”

“Then what do we do?”

“We sail as hard as we can and hope that luck is with us.”

The land was quickly receding behind them and the wind lumped up the sea so that the water occasionally broke into a foam on the crests. The fishing schooner ran before the wind at a good eleven or twelve knots, but she heeled sharply to starboard, and as she crested the waves the water was boiling in her lee scuppers. The sharp bow was plunging deeply into the waves as they dived into the troughs, and the spray was whipped by the wind onto the foredeck. It was cold and soon a thin layer of ice covered the forward part of the schooner. Overhead black clouds threatened a storm and occasionally gusts of wind would dip the schooner dangerously over to one side or the other.

“We’ve got to haul in the main boom!” John shouted.

“No, we need every bit of speed the canvas will give us. We’ve got to outrun them!”

“But Canso, we’ll capsize.” The howl of the wind through the riggings made it almost impossible to be heard.

“We’ve got to get away!” Canso was annoyed that the boy was questioning his judgement. “It’s a chance we’ve got to take.”

Less than a minute later the schooner rode over a big swell and the main boom, far out over the starboard side, suddenly hit the crest. The boom rode up with the wave and then as they fell into the tough, it came out of the water and dropped with such a loud crack that the shudder could be felt clear back to the helm. John and Meg rushed forward to see if any damage had been done – if the boom was smashed they would be crippled.

“How does she look?” Canso asked anxiously.

“I think its alright,” replied John, and Meg was nodding.

“Haul her in a little,” Canso ordered, but they had brought it in only four feet when he told them to tie it off again.

“The next time it drags in a wave she could smash to splinters,” John argued.

“We need the speed. We have to take the chance or we may never get away.” The big seaman was sailing dangerously, even recklessly; all his efforts were concentrated on winning the race, but when Meg and John went back to the helm they noticed that Hunter’s tern schooner was closing the gap.

At first Canso would not believe them. “They can’t be gaining. We’re going to beat them.” But he had to admit that slowly but surely the three-masted schooner was catching up with them. “We’ve got to do something!” Canso’s voice showed that he felt more desperate than ever before. He searched for answers but minute by minute the tern schooner drew closer and closer.

John and Meg huddled near the stern, trying to keep out of the wind. “What are we going to do?” Meg asked her brother. “We can’t let them take us.”

“I don’t know,” John whispered back. “I don’t like the looks of that Mr. Hunter. I think he could do something very nasty.”

“Like what, John?”

“I don’t know, Meg. All I know is that he seems like the kind of man who could be really bad.”

His sister was upset now. “Oh why didn’t we listen to you? Why did we have to take the schooner?”

But even though John and Meg felt that they were close to defeat, the sight of the approaching tern schooner only made Canso more determined and resourceful. He pulled in the canvas to sail closer to the wind in the hopes they would pick up speed and turned the helm over to John while he went up to the bow to knock off the ice that had collected on the sails and rigging, but none of it did any good. Steadily Hunter’s tern schooner closed the gap. Now they were no more than half a mile apart and Meg and John could see five or six men on the deck moving about making preparations to board.

The weather was getting worse. Overhead the dark storm clouds had massed together and the wind was howling through the rigging and straining the sails. Every swell was cresting into a white foam and the schooner pounded into the waves with a jarring effect. Soon it began to snow lightly.

This made Canso even more alert. “Come on!” he suddenly shouted at the sky. “Come on and snow! I want snow!”

John and Meg were startled. Their captain was smiling as if this were something he had been waiting for.

The snow came down harder and he was shouting again. “Come on, give me a blizzard. I want snow. Lots of it!”

For a moment they thought he had gone crazy. The heavier it snowed the more excited he became. “Open up with thunder, snow and sleet! The more the better!” He was laughing and shaking his fist at the heavens, as if some kind of madness had taken possession of him.

Peggy was back on deck now with the others and Canso turned to the three of them, “As soon as the tern schooner disappears from view shout to me.” Finally they understood his plan.

They waited tensely. The snow was falling more heavily. The white sails of the tern schooner became more indistinct until even its outline was hard to make out. Then Meg was shouting. “Now, Canso! It’s gone!” The three-masted schooner had disappeared from view in the snowstorm.

“Hold on!” the big seaman shouted. Crouching over the helm he gave the wheel a hard turn, and the schooner responded instantly by veering to larboard. Blocks jangled and crashed in their shackles. The canvas thrashed dangerously as the wind spilled out of it. The rail dipped under the wave and it appeared for a moment as if the heavily canvassed vessel would capsize, but she righted herself. Canso set a new course due north and shouted a series of orders at the two young crew members to reset the sails.

For several minutes the tension mounted. Then the snow squall lightened and the four of them searched off the stern and starboard for any sign of the tern schooner, but they saw nothing except snow and wind and sea. Thirty minutes later the squall had completely lifted. They scanned the horizon and found themselves alone on the vast expanse of water.

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