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Caribou disaster: A grandson remembers

Paul Taverner never met his famous grandfather but still knows him well

PORT AUX BASQUES, NL – It can be argued that Paul Taverner owes his very existence to seasickness.
It was precisely because of that unconquerable seasickness that Paul’s father, Colin Bruce Taverner, went into mechanics instead of following his father to work at sea.

Paul’s grandfather, Captain Benjamin Taverner, from Port Rexton, Trinity Bay, was very much a seafaring man.

The captain served on the SS Kyle on the Labrador run before taking command of the SS Caribou, where he would eventually perish with two of his other sons, Stanley and Harold, when the passenger ferry was torpedoed by a German U-boat in October of 1942.

Paul never met his grandfather, though he’s heard plenty growing up and has read even more. He has a few favorite stories to remember the grandfather he never got the chance to meet.

One story that intrigues him is that Captain Ben was a good friend of Sir Wilfred Grenfell, and Paul can easily imagine how the two might have met.

“He was stopping in all the small ports,” says Paul about the captain’s tenure along the Labrador coastline. “Probably Grenfell was on the boat sometimes, because he was a doctor.”

One of the family’s tales maintains the captain knew all about the subs before the SS Caribou ever went down and didn’t want to sail that fateful night.

“When he was crossing the gulf, he knew the subs were there. He’d seen them before on different trips and he wanted to do the day crossings instead of the night, because he would have a better, clearer vision,” says Paul.
“With the torpedo you’d have a better chance of seeing it in the daytime than you would in the night.”

But there was little the captain could do. Canada and Newfoundland were at war, and the military was calling the shots. Paul says his grandfather made the request to change the schedule, and it was subsequently denied.

“That submarine probably wouldn’t have come up in the middle of the day,” speculates Paul, who believes the disaster was avoidable. He also doesn’t understand the military’s policy of the day to have the minesweeper escort follow the SS Caribou instead of leading the way.
“I’d really like to know the answers. Why?”

Shortly before sailing that night, Paul claims his grandfather foretold the tragedy to a crewmember. The captain’s penchant for premonitions was well known to his family and friends.

“This is the night we are going to get it,” quotes Paul from his pile of personal notes.

The captain’s dire prediction was unfortunately correct. The SS Caribou was torpedoed that very night, and Benjamin and two of his sons went down with her. The timing was tragic in more ways than one.

“That same year he (Benjamin) was supposed to retire and my uncle Stan was to take over as captain of the ship,” said Paul.

Another story told to Paul by his father involved seals and some unhappy passengers. The ice was thick and plenty of seals were resting on the floes, so the captain ordered a pair brought on board to be killed and eaten. Because this took place on a Sunday it upset the passengers, but as it turns out, Captain Ben was really a softie at heart.

They brought them on board alive and, in deference to the day being Sunday, planned to wait until the next day to have their feed of seal.

“Captain Ben had changed his mind and kept them for pets,” recounts Paul with a laugh. “He didn’t have the heart to kill them.”

The captain didn’t have the seals for very long. He brought them home at first but, even though the seals were still adolescents, they proved too big for the tub and he soon released them back into the ocean.

Then there’s the story about the time Captain Ben went looking for Old Glory. The single-engine airplane and her three crewmen went down near Cape Race back in 1927 as they attempted to make the first ever 4,000-km non-stop flight to Rome, Italy from Old Orchard Beach, Maine.

“There was dozens and dozens of ships out looking around. They offered a reward of $25,000 to the skipper and the crew that found the Old Glory.”
Declared Paul, “He found it, but he never did get the reward.”

Paul regrets he didn’t ask questions when he was a child, and now it’s too late as family members who would know more about his grandfather’s adventures and his uncles have passed on. But in addition to the stories came memories of a tragic, unbearable loss.

“My grandmother lived until 1953 I think,” says Paul of his grandmother, Amelia. “After that happened she was never the same. She was really broken hearted.”

Like his father, Paul eschewed life at sea in favour of dry land, working as a welder with the railway to repair train cars. He worked in Port aux Basques, then Moncton for 17 years before retiring back home.

As for his two uncles, Paul admits he doesn’t have a lot of information about them, but he does have a theory about their actions that fateful night as well. He believes the two men deliberately chose to stand by their father to the very end.

“They were absolutely perfect swimmers,” said Paul. “And there were people that night who got rescued who didn’t know how to swim.”

Of the SS Caribou’s 46-man crew, only 15 survived the sinking.

Twitter: @tygerlylly

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