Survival Song by Valerie Howes
Electricity only came to Fogo island in the 1970s, so for generations, people made their own entertainment, singing and playing accordion, mouth organ, spoons, or even the ugly stick—a percussion instrument fashioned from an old broom handle.
At Fogo Island Inn, locals play by the fire, sharing traditional Newfoundland and Irish music as well as songs they wrote themselves or that were passed down across generations. Many describe the hardscrabble life of fishers and sealers.
Retired schoolteacher Aaron Cobb sings a remarkable song that his father, Christopher, began composing in his mind, to keep from losing it while stranded for 36 hours alone on a 10-sq-ft ice pan adrift 40 km out to sea.
The song tells of a calm April morning in 1947. Christopher, a father of nine, was out sealing with his eldest son, Frank, when the wind whipped up and created a whirlpool effect on the frigid Atlantic. Aaron’s panic-stricken brother and father drifted apart on their own ice pans, chilly expanses of water now separating them from one another and from the land.
“My brother jumped and ran and ran and crawled and jumped just to get from one pan of ice to try and make Fogo Point,” says Aaron. Frank scrambled in this way against the wind in a circular direction for 7km to reach land, his fingernails torn off; his body limp from exhaustion as two brothers from Tilting finally pulled him ashore.
Meanwhile, Aaron’s father was drifting wherever the wind took him. A search and recue plane was dispatched from Gander, but it returned at nightfall without the missing man. Christopher’s wife and children believed they’d never see him again.
At the time a schooner called The Francis P. Duke was docked in Seldom. The message was relayed that a sealer had gone adrift, so she joined the search.
The next day, after several hours, the air rescue team spotted Christopher Cobb “like a fly on the ice” and swooped down to drop packages of food, matches, water, warm clothing and a rubber dinghy. “After reviving somewhat, he thought maybe he could survive another night,” says Aaron. “By this point he had been drifting for 26 hours.”
The aircraft crew stuffed the stranded man’s bearings on a slip of paper into a bottle, then dropped the bottle onto the deck of the Francis P. Duke. The schooner captain immediately re-routed in the sealer’s direction.
When the boat arrived, gently bumping the pan, Aaron’s father was disoriented and blue with cold. He walked away from instead of toward his rescuers. The seamen coaxed him on board, where he was treated to dry clothing and warm food. He was finally brought to safety in the community of Seldom on Good Friday morning.
Once safely back home, Christopher lost no time in fine-tuning the lyrics and melody to his newest song, about the ordeal. He would perform it henceforth, as part of his repertoire at Christmas—Mummering season—and at family gatherings.
After Christopher’s death, 21 years later, Aaron picked up the tradition. He keeps his father’s story alive through song to this day.