Gasboat #10 Makes Memorable Voyage
By Ken Kristjanson

The harbour at Gimli that May in 1941 was something to behold. The whitefish fishing fleet was getting ready to be towed or to make their own way to the fishing grounds at the north end of Lake Winnipeg. The ice had left the big lake some weeks ago and now the lake was ready to be harvested of its treasure.

The men were busily loading anchors, buoys, nets, fish boxes, spare parts and groceries at Armstrong Gimli Fisheries and Independent Fish Company. My father and his brother Hannes had contracted to Booth Fisheries and they had brought their boat down the Red River from Selkirk the day before. While it was the custom of Armstrong and other fish companies to tow their boats north, Booth did not.

The boat that the Kristjanson brothers rented that summer was built in Selkirk by Purves Boat Works. It was based on a two-masted sailboat built at Manitoulin Island on the Great Lakes and was called the "Mackinac design". In Manitoba, the masts were eliminated and a small marine engine added. Hence the whitefish boats were called "gas boats".

A small house was added to the gasboats to give the men some protection from the cold and wind. The boat was steered by a long pole attached to the rudder and the men would take turns steering on long journeys as they had to stand the whole time. With one hand on a make shift rail attached to the house and the other hand steadily gripping the tiller, they would guide the ships looking over the house and into the elements.

Booth did not give names to its fishing fleet of gasboats. That was reserved for the lake freighters with memorable names like the Goldfield, Lady of the Lake and Red Diamond. The 35-foot boat that the Kristjanson brothers used that summer was named a not so memorable, "Number 10".

Number 10 was built of yellow cedar attached to oak ribs and she rode the waves like a duck. That is, once the cedar planks soaked up enough moisture and expanded. Until then, no amount of oakum could keep the water out and so a hand pump was attached to the side of the boat to keep it from filling with lake water.

As the men undertook their preparations for the journey aboard Number 10, we kids would jump from the dock to the boats and back again. Occasionally, when ordered, we would try our hand at the water pump. Although we were in the way, no one minded. The men were in a good mood because the world was at war everywhere in 1941 and the demand for foodstuffs to feed the Armed Forces and others, was soaring. Most of the men had vivid recollections of the lean years that the Dirty Thirties had presented to their families. Now the prospect of good fishing and better prices was all the talk. My father, who had a magnificent tenor voice, was even humming the war tune, "I donít want to set the world on fire", as he worked.

The plan, once loaded, was to make their own way north to the Booth station at Black River. At a top speed of 8 knots, they would cover the 200 hundred miles in time for them to arrive at Black River the next afternoon. The crew of Number 10 consisted primarily of Icelanders: Hannes and Ted Kristjanson, two hired men, my uncle, Big Eddy Jonnasson, who was a seasoned fisher, and an aboriginal green horn by the name of John.

John had come well recommended but this was his first time white fishing the big lake. A considerable amount of good-natured teasing was directed at the greenhorn. They told him stories of giant waves gobbling up fishing boats like theirs. They told him he had better man the pump regularly so nothing would happen to their little vessel.

The first part of the trip was uneventful and the men took turns steering and resting and admonishing John to keep the boat dry with the pump. A steady breeze was picking up as they passed McBeth Point. As they continued north, it picked up speed. By the time they reached Berens Island it was a full-blown, much-dreaded, NoríEaster.

The three experienced fishermen were decked out in oil skins and took turns holding onto the tiller. It was exhausting work. The storm continued to pick up momentum as they travelled into the wider north basin. The huge waves were crashing over the bow and the bilge was filling up and threatening to drown out their faithful Gray Marine engine. The men were looking for a safe haven but there wasnít one. Their only hope was to make for Georges Islandís all weather harbour. Over the roar of the raging storm, they yelled at John to pump.

They finally spotted the lighthouse beacon on Georges ... still a good three hours away. The rain was coming horizontal at Booth Boat #10 when it turned to sleet. With one eye on the bilge and the other on the blinker light on Georges Island, they hung on. They tried to spell John from his post but he steadfastly refused to yield. He pumped like a man possessed. Finally, after what must have felt like an eternity, they lined up the range lights of Georges harbour and glided in darkness to safety.

The storm eventually blew itself out, after raising havoc up and down the great lake. Luckily there was no loss of life. John performed his many tasks that fishing season in an exemplary fashion. Quiet and hard working, he went on to be a successful fisherman in his own right. Until the day he died I never knew his last name; from that trip onward he was to all who met him: "John Pump".

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