Lewis, Len

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                                                       LEN LEWIS
                                                    By John McGuire


After 63 years plying the waters of the Miramichi and Eastern Canada, Len Lewis has a lot to remember. So much to remember that he claims he occasionally reverses the order of things that happened to him. But the 79-year-old recalls all the events of his seafaring life, just the same.

“I was sailing in 1916 for Loggies, but that wasn’t the first time I was on the water,” he begins. In 1913, I was fishing lobsters at the age of 13.”

Mr. Lewis was working on shore for the W.S. Loggie Company before he went to sea, working in the packing shed, the warehouse, and the firm’s blueberry plant. “I knew old W.S. well,” he recalls. “One day I was shovelling salt into a bag and these two men were holding the bag. Well, he came along and took the shovel from me and shovelled some salt himself, then he gave me the bag and said, ‘Don’t you dare shovel salt again!’ That’s because I was very young then, and he didn’t want to see these men holding the bag for me to shovel.”

In 1916 he went on the Warren P. for Loggies, travelling as far as the Gaspe and Sydney with the ship as it delivered salt, coal, and provisions for the lobster plants and frozen salmon to Kouchibouguac.

The following year he switched to another Loggie’s ship, the William Davidson. “I started as a cook, and then became the mate,” he remarks. “The ship was registered for 60 tons, but she hauled 100-som tons. There’d be four men on the boat. She hauled everything there was to eat, plus salt.” Mr. Lewis stayed with the ship until 1928.

                                                       On Three-masters

After 1928 he went to work on three-masted sailing vessels taking lumber and coal to the eastern United States. “I shipped one here, and we’d go to New York, Boston or New Jersey. There’d be seven or eight men on a ship; a four-masted ship, now, would have 10 men.

“In 1932,” he goes on, “I got a seven-foot boat of my own, and I was around Chatham quite a bit with that. I did some salmon fishing, and I hauled from the Island to here. Then in 1939 I started thinking about joining the service. They told me I could be a leading seaman and work my way up, not just a common seaman, if I’d get my papers. “So in the spring of 1940,” he goes on, “I sold my boat and I went to Saint John to sign up. It took me eight days then to get my papers, from Loggie’s, Anderson’s in Burnt Church and from the States. But I got them. And then,” he smiles, “I failed my medical. And I didn’t have my boat anymore.”

“Now on the way back home on the bus,” he continues, “I stopped in Richibucto and I hired on to help load ships with pit props. They couldn’t get the big ships in the harbour, so we’d put them on barges and two them out to the ships off Bouctouche.

                                                  Arithmetic by Correspondence

“Now in 1941 I went to work for the government, with Jack Groat for the Fisheries,” he continues. “There were two of us on the boat. The next year they made me a captain, and I got my master’s papers. That was a big thing, because I never went to school. I took correspondence courses in arithmetic to get my papers. I had the Gulf Raider, a patrol boat, for four years, but they gave it to a Kent County man.”

“Then in 1946, I went with the Fisheries Research Board because they were doing a herring investigation and they needed a master that could speak French and English. I had to learn hydrographics to do that, too. The ship was the Gulf Explorer, and we covered the four eastern provinces plus Newfoundland. The herring had failed in Newfoundland, and we were measuring water and tides to find out why.”

After four years doing this, he resigned. “I thought I’d quit the water altogether, and I wanted to stay home. But I found I couldn’t do it; I had to go back. “So,” Mr. Lewis goes on, “I went to Saint John and they said wait a month for a job, and a man from Loggieville said try Irving.”

                                                     K.C. for Reference

“When I went there,” he laughs, “they didn’t seem too helpful. They wanted to know what I’d done before. But when they asked for reference, I said K.C. Irving. ‘That does fine,’ the man said, ‘be here in the morning.’

“So I was there three months,” he adds, “and the government wanted me again. They offered me a big boat to do search and rescue and research. They wanted to know if it was cheaper to fish with a bigger one. I was stationed generally at Shelburne, Nova Scotia. Some of the boats were lost, some we found. I was on the J.J. Cowey that first fall, and after that on the Arangus. That measured 90 to 100 feet.”

By 1957, though, a promise of a bigger boat seemed far away. “I said I’d be past 65 before it was ready, but they said it wouldn’t. But I resigned anyway and the next year I went back to Irving. I put in 10 years on tug boats for Irving altogether. In 1966 they got their new fisheries boat for Nanaimo, British Columbia, and I was past 65. I stayed with Irving until 1970, and that was my last.

“My friends call me skipper,” says Len Lewis. Mr. Lewis, 79, still operates his own schooner, a two-masted 11-year-old craft.

One of the amazing things about this veteran of the sea is that, though he has eye trouble, he can navigate the Miramichi almost by memory. “On bright days, I don’t sail much, but after dark I’m at my best, because then I can see the flashing lights,” he says.

Having navigated the river since he was 13, Mr. Lewis has noticed many changes over the years in the Miramichi. “It used to be,” he remarks, “that every time you came to the river you’d see these square rigged foreign ships in here. Then there were the wind-jammers, smaller craft with lower sails powered by wind.

“But the water is dirty and slimy now, and you can tell the difference,” he adds. “I don’t believe lumber hurts the water, but it’s this other stuff: the oil, the acid from plants.

“They needn’t dredge the river,” he goes on, “because it won’t make any difference. That sand at the mouth is going to shift all the time and they’ll just have to do it all over again. What they should do to attract ships is to fix the wharves. They’re in terrible condition.”

                                                          1600 Pounds a Boat

Born in Burnt Church, Len (or Leonard) was taken along by his parents as they moved to Neguac while he was still an infant.

“I remember when I was very young, before I ever went fishing, that my father once took me to a lobster plant. Then there was no end to them. The plant would have them stacked up five six, maybe seven thousand pounds ahead. The smallest boat would come in with 1,600 pounds of them.” Catches of 200 pounds a boat are now considered good. “After the season ended,” he relates, “you could go swimming and look down and see the lobsters swimming along the bottom. There were that many of them.”

Mr. Lewis married twice. His first wife was the late Linda Robichaud, formerly of Shippegan. A son by marriage now lives in Detroit. His second wife was the former Beatrice Daley of Chatham, who died two years ago. A daughter by that marriage now lives with her husband at CFB Summerside in Prince Edward Island. Len, obviously fond of his daughter, mentions that she has written an account of his travels.

Last year he went to the island three times in a boat he sold last fall. “I bought that 20-foot boat in 1975. It had a 5-horsepower engine. It was only a little bigger than a rowboat, and you couldn’t even sit down in there. There was just a bunk and a stove.”

“This year I bought this one,” he says gesturing at this 11-year-old schooner. “It’s more comfortable,” he adds, as it measures 28 feet in length and weighs six tons. There is space for four bunks and a larger living area. The only problem he has with it is the motor, a 1974 Viva car engine. It’s hard to find parts,” he remarks.

                                                          Off to the Sun

Mr. Lewis plans to have an operation to correct his eye cataracts. “The doctor promised me my sight would be as good as new,” he gleams, “and then I’m going to go to Florida.” He plans to begin this trip next fall, “but I’ve got to start early and get away from the storms. It’s okay, though, there’s good harbours all along. I can always get into them.”

This year Mr. Lewis’s longest trip was to bring his new boat home from Shediac. He cruised back and forth to Neguac from Chatham several times this summer as well. But it will soon be time to take the boat up for the winter, he figures.

Despite his eye problems, “As long as I can see the land I’m all right. Harbours and buoys are the worst, but I’m so used to the river I don’t have that many problems.”

“I was the first man in Canada to do stern trawling for herring and mackerel,” he says, “at St. Andrew’s. You have to have the right power to do it properly, because most people will trawl off the side. This was when I was on the Gulf Explorer, and since then the government and the companies has perfected how to do it well.

“But I worked hard, and I did hydrographic work, and I worked on cruise ships,” he concludes. “I’m just like a bird; I fly north and south.”


Source: Miramichi Leader – September 15, 1979


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