Troubled Seas

Excerpt: Chapter One

Lurching and clattering through the yards of Montreal’s Canadian Pacific Railway terminal, the train gradually gained speed as Robert, gazing from his compartment window watched the city slowly recede. He entertained thoughts of the grand adventure that lay ahead, entirely unaware of the twists and turns that it would entail. As speed increased, city merged into suburbs and soon into fields and farmland. He mused how similar everything actually looked like his native England, aside perhaps, from the fact that road traffic was moving on the opposite side of the street. He had been in Canada before, but that was many years ago when he was a teenager. Looking around the small compartment he was reassured that the right decision about accommodation had been made as it would be a long three day journey to Vancouver on the west coast.

Taking down a travelling case from the overhead rack, Robert found his collection of maps and brochures about Canada and began to explore the terrain that he would be passing through on this cross-country odyssey. Amongst his literature was a brief history of the building of the Canadian Pacific Railway in the mid 1800s and completed less than fifty years ago. It occurred to him that this country was so very new compared to the long and varied history of Britain. He found it intriguing to contemplate how complex and problematic the building of such a long trans-continental railway must have been. How did they actually cope with the marshy and wet areas of northern Ontario and even more so with the extreme heights and jagged features of the Rocky Mountains? His practical approach to such things continually led him to explore and enquire about the world around him.

A conductor passed by at about 10:30, poked his head into Robert’s compartment, and checked his ticket. He informed Robert about lavatory placement and where the dining car was located. He then related information about the two sittings for lunch and dinner, and went on his way. Robert quite liked train travel and was pleased that his company had insisted that he have a compartment to make for a pleasant trip. Before he knew it, a porter passed by in the corridor announcing that the dining car was now open and the first sitting was beginning.

Robert placed his travel brochures and reading material back in their folders and prepared to find his way to the dining car for lunch. He closed his compartment door and headed toward the rear of the train. The next coach was another first class compartment car and then he entered the dining car. It looked as though it was just beginning to fill up with only a few people already seated. A waiter indicated that he could take a seat wherever he wished. He chose to sit at a table, which was empty and sat near the window facing the front of the train so that he could see ahead. The table had linen tablecloths and nicely polished silver, which was comforting. He glanced over the menu to see what was being offered and found that there was a chicken and a fish dish for mains with a choice of cauliflower soup or tomato salad for starters. The waiter soon came, offered liquid refreshments, and asked what he would like to order. Robert asked him if they served beer and the waiter listed two or three different varieties. He chose a Canadian lager and added that he would have the soup and the chicken cacciatore. It was not long before the beer arrived and he had a moment to relax and enjoy the view. The train had probably reached its customary speed by now and it was comforting to have a drink and wait for his lunch.

Before long an attractive woman with two gentlemen approached and asked if the other three seats at the table would be occupied. Robert responded that they were free and invited them to join him.

The lady took the seat across from Robert and the three seated themselves.

“I’m Susanne,” the woman said with a broad smile, “and these are my brothers James and Frank. We’re travelling to Winnipeg for a family reunion.”

Extending his hand to them, Robert introduced himself and told them he was on his way to Vancouver, adding that he was looking forward to seeing the prairies and the Rocky Mountains.

The waiter appeared with Robert’s soup, introduced himself to the other three, and outlined the menu again. They placed their orders after a little consideration and the waiter wrote their preferences on his pad and was gone.

Noting Robert’s English accent, Susanne asked, “Are you holidaying in Canada then?” Robert smiled, “No, I’m actually on my way to join a ship in Vancouver.”

“Oh, you mean to continue your holiday?”

“No, this is not really a holiday, except for this time on the train. I’m joining a ship’s company.”

“Oh,” she replied, “then it must be a naval ship.”

“No, it’s a merchant ship bound for the Far East.”

James, who was sitting next to Robert added, “That’s very interesting. Then you are a seafaring man.”

Robert smiled and added, “Yes, I’m taking a position on the British tramp steamer Galileo.”

James added, “And what sort of position is it you are taking, if you don’t mind me asking?”

Robert responded, “No, I don’t mind at all. I’m taking the position of Chief Mate. I’m not quite sure what became of the man I’m replacing. But it does sound like an interesting situation.”

Susanne interjected, “Yes indeed. Have you been involved in the world-wide scene before?”

“No, I’ve been mostly on ships in the North Sea, Scandinavia and the Mediterranean. This will actually be my first time in the Pacific.”

“How interesting,” rejoined Frank.

Robert continued, “And do you all live in Montreal?”

“I do,” said Susanne, “but we are spread all over the country now. James lives in Drummondville, in the Québec Townships and Frank in Halifax. So we are all eager to share this family reunion in Winnipeg where we originated.”

“Well,” said Robert, “I hope you have a very pleasant time with your family and friends.”

The waiter arrived at that moment with the first course and the chatter stopped momentarily as they adjusted napkins and began their meal. Over the course of the lunch they discussed the countryside and the weather, which was very pleasant for the time of year. After their meal the waiter brought desserts and coffee and Robert thought how very enjoyable the conversation had been. After lunch they made their way back to their accommodations and remarked that they would probably be seeing each other again before the train reached Winnipeg.

Robert occupied himself during this rail trip with reading about the building of the CP Railway and looking over brochures about the Rocky Mountains. He was also fascinated with the wide expanse of the prairies—something that was a curiosity to a Briton. He thought to himself that everything was larger than life and yet populated so very lightly. He had always been interested in geography and the natural world. It amazed him how from the Canadian Shield in Ontario they would be climbing gradually to the 3,600-foot elevation of the Rocky Mountains and then descending back to sea level as they traversed British Columbia.

Meal times were extremely pleasant and he found that they broke the three-day journey from Montreal. Robert found that the food was excellent in spite of the fact that the world was in the midst of the Great Depression. As it happened he never had occasion to talk again with the family from Winnipeg although he saw them from a distance in the dining car and nodded a silent hello. There were other interesting people and conversations during meals however, which provided a pleasant diversion on this long ride. He found that most people were usually eager to hear about his work and had many questions about life at sea. Robert was delighted to speak about it and to occasionally spin out a yarn or two.

As it was the middle of summer the endless fields of wheat on the prairies were at the height of their cycle. He marvelled at the enormity of the farms and likened, in his mind’s eye that the yellow wheat blown by the wind looked quite like the sea under certain conditions.

When the train reached the highest point in Kicking Horse Pass it was afternoon. The grandeur of the Rockies lit by the late afternoon sun under azure skies was a wonder to behold. The higher peaks and crevasses were encrusted with perpetual snow and glacial ice. Now the descent toward the sea began. Robert was amazed at the number and length of some of the tunnels that enabled the railway to traverse the mountains. In the Selkirk Mountains the train darkened for some time and lights were put on as they passed through the Connaught Tunnel, which is five miles long. Thoughts dashed through his mind speculating on the complexity and labour that were needed to complete such a feat. His literature indicated that this was the longest tunnel in North America.

Dusk came at about 9:30 that evening and the train would arrive in Vancouver the following morning. The porter came by shortly after and prepared Robert’s bunk. Before retiring he read a chapter or two of his history of Vancouver. He found the references to Captain George Vancouver’s journey and charting of the British Columbia coast most fascinating. That exercise in 1792 had apparently provided nautical charts, which are almost identical to charts still in use. About midnight he became sleepy and turned off the overhead light, settling in for a relaxing night’s sleep. His thoughts before falling to sleep were upon his arrival in Vancouver and joining the Galileo. He thought how fortunate he was to be employed and was grateful to the head office of the White Funnel Line for this opportunity. He had joined the Line at the age of 16 as a cadet and had been with them for all these years. He would be celebrating his 45th birthday not long after they put to sea. He thought that, even though he had been captain of several smaller freighters in the North Sea and the Mediterranean, he was nevertheless happy to take on the position of Chief Mate on the Galileo. His dress uniform jacket had been altered by a White Funnel tailor removing one of the four gilt bands from the sleeves, and it would not be long before he would present himself to the Master of the Galileo. Sleep came easily that night as the train jostled languidly, snaking its way through the British Columbia mountains.