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Making an oceanic home for sailors

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Rescuers plucked four seamen from the stormy Atlantic after their 250-foot cargo ship [Lloyd Bermuda] sank, but one died and seven others were missing today, including a crewman who slipped through his life jacket, authorities said.’ Los Angeles Times, December 29, 1988Ocean Queen II, so reported after the event.

Bermuda, from any other piece of land, is one of the most isolated places on Earth, a fact recognised soon after its discovery, which likely took place in the late autumn of 1505 by Juan Bermudez, a pilot in the Spanish service. Westward over the horizon and the Gulf Stream the mightiest river in the world lies Cape Hatteras, at some 630-odd miles, the nearest landfall then and now for any intrepid mariners from our shores. To the south lie the outer islands of the Caribbean Sea, while to the north are the reaches of the Canadian Maritimes, both at a longer distance than that to North Carolina. To the east are but the wastes of the Atlantic Ocean, until one alights in the volcanic outcrops that form the Azores, from whence, since 1849, have journeyed the ancestors of a number of Bermudian families.

Until 1937 and the advent of air travel to the island on the “clippers” of Imperial Airways and Pan American Airlines, the only way in and out of the archipelago was by sea transport, including for a period the famous and fastest vessel on the oceans, the Bermuda Sloop. Designed by all hands on the island, for no single inventor can be determined, the sloop was powered by the “Bermuda Rig” (here also community-invented), a fore-and-after configuration of sails that would revolutionise “the search for speed under sail” and remains to this day the standard rig for most sailing yachts.

Needless to say, like the Polynesians of a former era, Bermudians had no choice but to take to the seas, like ducks to water, from the earliest settlement of the island, almost 400 years ago. Thus sailing, and sailors, are very much part of the warp and weft that makes up the cloth that is Bermuda. Sailors came, and went, and often they came not back, as the ocean claimed many a local man’s life through storms, leaky ships, heavy seas and unexplained circumstances. One such instance was the loss of the men from the pilot gig,

“On the morning of Thursday 27th January 1927, the crew of the brand new pilot gig

Ocean Queen II put Pilot Henry Tucker aboard the incoming Royal Mail Steam Packet

Avon, and disappeared into stormy, foggy weather off Kitchen Shoals. The capsized gig, with her sails still up, was discovered the following morning by the Dockyard tug

St. Abbs some five miles south of Gibbs Hill. The six men aboardGoulrich Richardson, Ernest Tucker, Edgar (Chippy) Smith, Irving Pascoe, Robert Newton (Boisey) Gibbons and George Brangman were never seen again.”

A more recent loss was the sinking of the container ship,

Lloyd Bermuda, in late December 1988 on one of its weekly runs to the United States from the island. Only three of the crew of 13 survived the icy waters of the North Atlantic. On other occasions, deceased mariners have been brought to Bermuda for burial and so here remain.

It was on one such time that a 15-year old Bermudian, Leonard Nigel Tucker of St George’s, always known in later years as “Dickie”, agreed to care for the local grave of an Australian sailor, a promise that turned into a lifetime of dedication to visiting sailors and the establishment in the 1920s of a “Sailors’ Home”, now the Mariners’ Club on Richmond Road in Pembroke. Dickie also founded the Guild of the Holy Compassion, which took care of sailors’ graves in Bermuda. After the sinking of the

Lloyd Bermuda (in the same month that Dickie died, aged 86), the Guild established an annual ceremony of laying wreaths at sea in honour of victims there lost, the event coinciding with the departure of a cargo ship for the United States or another destination. Members of the Guild, local Pilots and the Rector of St Peter’s Church are among the participants at the ceremony. Several years ago, a monument to Bermudians lost at sea was erected at Great Head Park under the watchful eye of the two massive 9.2-inch guns of early 1900s vintage.

Dickie Tucker founded his original Sailors’ Home in St George’s, but by the outbreak of war in 1939, its headquarters had moved to Front Street in Hamilton, where it remained for some years, with extra dormitories being created at the Bermudiana Hotel, in concert with the Ladies Hospitality Organisation, during the conflict to house torpedoed mariners who awaited new shipping orders.

Thus, almost single-handed, a young Bermudian established not only a home away from home at Bermuda for a multitude of visiting mariners, but a compassionate association to care for the graves of sailers who had lost their lives at sea or while on the island. Upon his retirement from active service with the Sailors’ Home/Mariners’ Club, LN (Dickie) Tucker spent much time in overseas travels visiting with sailor friends acquired in Bermuda or the families of those for whose relatives’ graves he cared for. For such services to Scandinavian countries, he was made a Member of the Order of Olaf in Norway and a Knight of Vasa in Sweden.

“Mr. Tucker is remembered not only for his unselfish life but for his salty wit and unassuming manner.” Perhaps one should expect nothing less from a man born on St. David’s and raised in St. George’s or from some such individuals at least. In that he followed somewhat in the footsteps of his father, the redoubtable Canon Arthur Tucker of St Peter’s Church and the author of the Early History of Bermuda for Children, published by the Department of Education in 1937, although the father tended more to the spiritual needs of visiting mariners, while the son may have appreciated more that one cannot live by God alone and a few good drinks in a home away from home covers something of the other bases.

Edward Cecil Harris, MBE, JP, PHD, FSA is Executive Director of the National Museum at Dockyard. Comments may be made to director[AT]bmm.bm or 704-5480.

In remembrance: Pilots and members of the Guild of Holy Compassion during a recent wreath-laying ceremony at sea.
Haven: The Sailors? Home on Front Street, City of Hamilton, inset Leonard Nigel (Dickie) Tucker MBE.
Volunteers with magazines to distribute to visiting seaman at the Sailors? Home during the Second World War.
Never seen again: The memorial to the six men lost in January, 1927 on the Bermuda pilot gig, Ocean Queen II.
R&R: Via the St. David?s ferry, Daisy, crew from the Norwegian ship Gvas visit Nonsuch Island on a Sailors? Home outing.

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Published September 10, 2011 at 8:52 am (Updated September 10, 2011 at 8:51 am)

Making an oceanic home for sailors

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