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Fielding Swan: pilot first class

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George Fielding Swan (Photograph courtesy of Melanie Bean)

In 1990, I volunteered to do a series of oral histories for the National Museum of Bermuda on Bermudians involved in our maritime history. With their permission, I have selected George Fielding Swan, whose story I have rewritten and updated to include his life outside of piloting.

When I interviewed Mr Swan, he was an enthusiastic, knowledgable 94-year-old with an astonishing memory.

Although his first name was George, he was always called by his second name, Fielding. He was the eldest child born on July 2, 1896 to George and Elizabeth Swan. His youngest brother was St George’s MP Lancelot Swan. His sister, Ianthe, married George “Buster” Tucker, of whom I wrote in my last article.

Fielding was born in the year of Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee and the year the Bermuda Militia Artillery was formed. His father was one of its first members and his third great-grandfather, John T. Virgin, was a pilot.

As a young boy, he sculled around St George’s and St David’s in his ten-foot punt. He attended school in St David’s then Cripple Gate School in Bailey’s Bay before completing his local education under the tutelage of Mr Percival in Flatts.

His first job was at the Princess Hotel as an elevator boy and later as a bellman; however, he was always interested in further education. He went to live in America, worked at the Aspinwall Hotel, attended night school and completed several correspondence courses before returning to Bermuda.

The Charybdis (Photograph courtesy of the National Museum of Bermuda)

In 1917, towards the end of the First World War, he accepted his first job on a boat. At that time, there were no passenger ships coming to the island and Bermuda was in a desperate situation. People were starving. N.H.P. Vesey, Mr Misick and Sir Stanley Spurling met with the admiralty requesting an old cruiser or some type of boat that would enable them to go to America for supplies. Permission was granted and they acquired a boat named the Charybdis, a former Royal Navy cruiser, which was converted for passenger and freight service in March 1918 by the Government of Bermuda. Mr Swan signed on as a fireman. He knew a bit about fires from knowledge gained while working on the docks and from his father who was an engineer.

In 1921, he married Arlene Douglas, from Pomander Gate, and lived overlooking Mullet Bay, St George’s, where they brought up six children. At the time of her death in 1984, they had been married for 63 years.

Mr Swan worked on various tugs including the Powerful, a 100-foot-long tug belonging to John S. Darrell, and tugs belonging to W.E. Meyer that would go out to “dialect” boats. I queried the spelling and pronunciation of this word, but he assured me that this was the correct spelling. A dialect, he explained, is a ship abandoned by its crew and left drifting helplessly in the ocean.

Mr Swan also worked on the Baldrock, a 150-foot oceangoing tug stationed in Bermuda around 1919 to the mid-1920s. It was leased by the US Shipping Board to the Bermuda Bunkering Company owned by W.B. Smith.

John S. Darrell and Robert H. James were shipping agents who represented the owners of ships in port. They had two boats, the Medway and the Medina, which had shallow draughts but carried big guns compared to their size. Every ship used coal, and there were mountains of it stored on the docks near Penno’s Wharf. Coal was loaded on to these ships and towed out to sea at Murray’s Anchorage. Two lighters were kept afloat and loaded at all times. They were the Norrköping and the Emily A. Davis.

A lighter is a shallow draught boat or barge — usually flat-bottomed — used in unloading or loading ships offshore.

When the Second World War occurred between 1939 and 1945, many hotels closed. Mr Swan began to seek other means of employment to support his family. Pilot Walter Darrell encouraged him to apply for a vacant pilot position. Most pilots were men of colour and most were from St. David’s.

William Darrell, his son, Walter, Charles Griffith and Robert Kennedy were branch pilots who were capable of piloting any ship.

Training at that time was “on the job”. Mr Swan had one month of intensive training under the direction of a senior pilot on every type of boat available. Sometimes this training could take as long as five months. There was a written and oral examination. For the oral examination, he remembered sitting to a round table with four examiners: the chairman of the Board of Trade, the commander of the navy, a captain and a senior pilot.

Many questions were asked including:

• You have been asked to bring a ship with a draught of 38 feet into Murray’s Anchorage. What would you do?

• What is a fathom of water?

• Describe a circle

• In what year was the Battle of Britain fought?

Many questions were related to geometry, a subject Mr Swan enjoyed and excelled in. He passed with a mark of 98 per cent.

George Fielding Swan in service (Photograph courtesy of Melanie Bean)

When he was in his thirties, he became a temporary pilot and was allowed to take ships only from Five Fathom Hole to Murray’s Anchorage. By 1942, he became a first-class pilot.

During the convoy days, 40 to 50 ships would gather at Murray’s Anchorage including the 30,000-tonne Liberty ships loaded with ammunition and cargo. They came into Bermuda for refuelling and repairs before being escorted by armed ships to France. Mr Swan described them as the ships that actually won the war.

William Darrell was one of he most experienced pilots during this time, gaining much of his experience from piloting Pearman Watlington passenger boats.

During the interview, Mr Swan described “mud pilots”. He explained that these were very good pilots who went around the island piloting boats such as the Corona. They navigated by visually observing changes in the colour of the water as its depth increases or decreases.

All ships entering Bermuda’s waters are required to take on a local pilot. The most difficult ships that Pilot Swan navigated into Bermuda were the aircraft carriers. They were steered from the back and the side. He remembered the USS Guadalcanal. They were moored at Grassy Bay and many times he saw men decapitated when they were sucked into the path of planes landing on the ship. “Pilots”, he said, “never discuss anything they see on board any ship they pilot.”

The pilot station was located in St David’s while the signal station was at Fort George Hill in St George’s. Pilot boats were armed during the war. They always carried a gunner, an engine man, about four crew and an examination officer. The examination officer always boarded the ship before the pilot to examine the ship’s papers. The pilot was then free to board. The examination officer always carried a gun on each hip. They usually met the ship at Five Fathom Hole. Commander Bowie, Thomas Godet and Reginald Derisley Trimingham were examination officers.

Sometimes as many as ten pilots were summoned by wireless at 4am to the naval depot at King’s Point in Somerset. This was usually because there were many ships around the island and there was something loose and unidentified floating in the Atlantic.

Pilot Swan recalled taking out a submarine which was being pursued by four enemy submarines. They quickly submerged, making it impossible for him to disembark. They remained underwater for several days. When he began to feel extremely cold, he asked the captain of their location. They were 13,000 feet above where the Titanic went down and in the Bay of Fundy off the coast of Halifax. Whenever a pilot had to remain on a ship, he was treated as a third officer and returned to Bermuda a few days later.

On another occasion during a total blackout of the island, Pilot Swan and other pilots answered an SOS to rescue a convoy of 42 ships that had been attacked by an enemy submarine. This required returning them to the island under the cover of darkness. Every skill they had acquired over the years was called into play. They were able to navigate the convoy through the reefs and back to Bermuda without lights. One ship was carrying 10,000 tonnes of TNT. One error and there would have been disaster. Each ship followed the other at a distance of 1,800 feet — three cables in nautical terms. After this remarkable feat, the pilots received letters of commendation from the Governor.

In 1956 for his piloting skills, he received a letter of appreciation from the captain of the US warship Tactonic which was here for the historic meeting between US president Dwight D. Eisenhower and British prime minister Harold Macmillan.

When I asked Mr Swan if he was ever nervous, he said he was not. He had prepared himself by building his self-confidence. He joined the St George’s Literary Society, which was formed to improve members morally, socially and intellectually for life experiences.

The Very Worshipful Brother George Fielding Swan, Master of Hannibal Lodge in 1926 (Photograph courtesy of St Clair "Brinky" Tucker)

In 1922, he joined the Hannibal Lodge under the Grand Lodge of Ireland, where he was a grandmaster. He was a highly respected mason and in 1993 was the oldest Irish mason in Bermuda, still participating in lodge functions.

Mr Swan was not only a pilot but a multitalented, community-spirited man.

He joined St George’s Cricket Club at the age of 16 and played his first Cup March in 1918 at age 22. He was selected as the opening bat and a spin bowler for the game against Somerset at the Royal Naval Field, where Somerset was victorious. He played in ten Cup Match games and was captain in 1919, 1936 and 1940. He was president from 1953 to 1957.

In 1921, the first game was played at Wellington Oval. Before this, Cup Match in St George’s was at the Garrison Field.

Mr Swan served on several club committees and was one of the men who worked towards the club owning its own grounds and club. So committed was he that he mortgaged his home to assist with the funding.

Although he loved cricket, he enjoyed running. He ran four to five miles a day and performed callisthenics four to five times a week. At one point, the club had its own gym. He ran nine times in the Bermuda Half-Marathon Derby and, although he never won, always placed in the top three.

Upon his retirement in the 1960s, he returned to the hospitality industry, working at the St George’s Hotel as head bellman. He later joined his sons’ business as the assistant general manager of Swan Brothers, the renowned steel erectors of such buildings as the Fairmont Southampton Princess hotel, the Bacardi building and the First Church of God on North Shore.

He was a member of Pembroke Hamilton Club, treasurer of the Bermuda Cricket Board of Control, a member of the Bermuda Boxing Association and a member of Richard Allen AME Church, where he sang in the choir.

In 1990, Mr Swan was still in possession of his first-class pilot’s uniform and cap, which he always wore to the funeral of pilots. “Pilots,” he said, “are always buried in uniform.”

In 1993, Bermuda said farewell to George Fielding Swan, an extraordinary man who devoted his life to making this island a better place.

Cecille C. Snaith-Simmons is a retired nurse, writer and historian

Cecille C. Snaith-Simmons is a retired nurse, writer and historian

With thanks to:

Jane Downing (Registrar, National Museum of Bermuda)

Malikah Sheeheed (Department of Libraries and Archives)

Melanie Bean and Van Swan (grandchildren of George Fielding Swan)

Retired pilot Harold Millett and so many others, who assisted with this article


The Bermuda Recorder (July 25, 1970)

Bermuda Cricket Reminiscences — 1944 (Arthur C.G. Simons)

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Published October 24, 2022 at 7:24 am (Updated October 24, 2022 at 7:24 am)

Fielding Swan: pilot first class

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