Born on 6 April 1901, Hedley Snook was the son of George and Priscilla Snook. He married Sabina Blagdon and they raised a family of seven daughters and two sons. He was a seaman, who showed great courage when shipwrecked in 1923, performing an almost impossible task that saved several lives, but had a lifelong effect on his own life. A deeply religious man, Snook was caretaker of the Salvation Army School for many years, in the days of wood stoves and outdoor toilets. He passed away on 13 November 1985, at the age of 80, just 15 days before his 60th Wedding Anniversary. In addition to his wife and nine children, he was mourned by 31 grandchildren, 39 great-grandchildren and 1 great-great-grandchild. Although never publicly recognized, his act of bravery was as great as any.
The Courage of Hedley Snook
A small, wiry 22-year-old in 1923, Snook sailed as cook on the 'Vera B.', a 60-ton schooner from Fortune. The skipper and owner of the vessel was Hezekiah Gillard of North Sydney, Nova Scotia. Also on board were mate Saul Mosher of Fortune and seaman John Warren of St. Barbe. On 28 October the vessel sailed from North Sydney, bound for the Magdalen Islands with a cargo of coal.
It was the season of the year for heavy winds and before evening a furious gale was blowing. By nightfall the weather was what the men termed a 'living' storm. It was not possible to make their destination in the face of such a gale and Gillard decided that the best, and safest, course was to run before the gale and try to reach Cheticamp, in Inverness County, Cape Breton. Failing that, they might reach some other haven on the Canadian coast between Prince Edward Island and Nova Scotia. They cut the sail down to 'small canvas' - a single reefed foresail and riding sail - and ran the ship wild through the turbulent night.
In the darkness they saw a light which they thought was Cheticamp and steered towards it. On driving in closer they soon discovered, to their great sorrow, that it was a light on the back of Cheticamp. There was nothing left to do but let go the anchor and ride out the storm all night. They thought daybreak would reveal their exact position. When the morning of the 29th dawned, the wind, which had apparently been north or northwest, veered suddenly to the southwest and blew 'great guns.'
This change of direction of the gale now put the 'Vera B.' on a lee shore with a vengeance. There was little hope, if any, that she would survive in this position. Gillard studied the situation and concluded that there was only one way to save their lives. They would slip the vessel's chains and let her drift ashore, hoping that she would go in far enough to let them get safely to land.
With her chains slipped, the ship did indeed drift towards shore, but she grounded while still quite far off. There was a tremendously heavy sea running. When the vessel struck the shoal all hands took to the rigging, fearing they might be swept away. The storm did not let up and the four men clung to their desperate perch above the tossing sea and crashing wreck for six dreadfully long hours. There was a life-saving station on the shore but there was little hope for help because the sea was too violent to launch a boat.
Finally, in sheer desperation, the Captain said; 'I don't see any chance of saving our lives unless we loose the spars and try to get ashore on the wreckage.'
Snook had another idea. 'Captain,' he said, 'if you lash me to a lifebuoy, I'll try to get to land.'
'My son,' Gillard replied, 'you wouldn't ever reach the shore in this storm.'
'It's just as well to take the risk as to stay here and perish in the rigging,' was Snook's reply. He wasn't about to give up without a fight.
Realizing the cook's determination, the Captain took the jib and jumbo down-hauls, and the staysail halfyards. He then lashed Snook to the lifebelt and held the end of the halfyards on board in case he reached the shore alive. Gillard was doubtful about his chances but for success though. Snook then stood on deck and waited for three seas to pass.
'Goodbye, Captain,' he said.
'Goodbye, cook,' the Captain replied.
No further words were necessary for both men fully understood the gravity of the situation. Snook then jumped over the side of the broken vessel and into the crashing, churning breakers.
Snook was driven to the bottom by the first wave that broke over him. He was rolled and tossed, buffeted and battered, and finally he washed up onto the shore, beaten into insensibility. It took him a while to recover consciousness but, when he did, he was surrounded by French-Canadians. He was in bed in the home of a Madame Ludley. For a time he did not fully comprehend his situation, until all at once he remembered the wreck and the men still clinging to the rigging. By an almost superhuman effort, aided by a strong drink of moonshine to help him get rid of the salt water he had swallowed, he staggered back to the beach. Snook was soon involved in an effort to make the French-Canadians understand that there were still men on the wrecked vessel. He tried to convey to them that he wanted them to launch their dories and try to reach the men.
Eventually, they realized what he wanted them to do. The rope he had brought ashore must be tied to the bow of one dory, and another rope tied to the stern. This would enable the men in the 'Vera B.' to pull the dory out to the wreck and get into the dory. The people onshore could then pull the dory back to land by means of the rope attached to its stern.
When they had grasped his idea, and fastened the ropes in place, Snook then secured the lifebelt in the middle of the dory. He left some lose ends of rope hanging free so that the men could have something to hold on to for safety, or perhaps tie themselves on with. The men on the doomed 'Vera B.' dragged the dory out to the vessel through the raging, foaming sea.
Seaman Warren was the first to come ashore and then the dory was pulled back to the wreck, a much harder task for only two men. Next to come ashore was Mosher, and then the dory had to return for the last time. As each man left the wreck, the task of dragging the dory out again became increasingly more difficult. What had been a tough job for three men became a fatiguing effort for two. When it came time for Gillard to pull the dory out to the vessel alone, the task was almost impossible. Somehow, calling on some previously unknown reserve of strength, he managed to do it. He then scrambled aboard and was pulled through the boisterous surf to safety, the last to leave his ship, in the true tradition of the sea.
The actual task of dragging the dory ashore through the heavy seas took a seemingly endless amount of time, and a terrific amount of labour. Many times, on each trip, the small, light craft was rolled over and over in the breakers. Thanks to the lifebuoy, and the ropes which each man was securely fastened to, no one was swept away by the angry ocean. Battered and half drowned, they were seized at last by many helping hands and taken out of reach of the sea. Men had again triumphed over the ocean.
Shortly after the rescue, the 'Vera B.' split in two from the effect of the pounding waves, and sank some time after. The men were taken to the life-saving station nearby where they remained for eight days. From there they were taken to North Sydney in a boat called the Bras D'Or, where all but Hedley Snook were sent home. Saul Mosher went on to serve as a Seaman in the Merchant Navy in World War II. He died at Fortune on 08 October 1980, at the age of 80 years.
None of the men had received half the battering that Snook had taken in getting the lifeline ashore in the first place, an act to which they all owed their lives. From North Sydney Snook was sent to Halifax for hospitalization where he remained throughout the winter of 1923-24. While in hospital, sand and tiny pieces of kelp were pumped from his stomach. This was the result of his long immersion in the sea and the rough time he had while being carried ashore by the rollers in the lifebelt.
In April 1924 Snook was discharged and sent home to Fortune where the resident doctor treated him for a time. He was then sent to the General Hospital at St. John's where he spent another couple of months. Discharged again from that institution, he was sent home to the Grand Bank Cottage Hospital where he spent a further three months. In all, Hedley Snook spent almost a year in hospital as a result of his gallant and successful efforts to save the lives of himself and his comrades. Although he received no awards for his bravery, he is no less a hero than the man who is publicly rewarded, and should be remembered as such. To the people who knew him, and knew of him, Hedley Snook is indeed a hero worthy of the name.
Story © Fay Herridge 1990