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Sealing Ship

The sealing industry in Newfoundland came about mostly as a result of overcrowding in the fishing grounds in the southern parts of the island. Fishermen began to retreat to the northern areas of the province and southern Labrador for the summer months. This migration of the fishermen resulted in the discovery of an abundant seal population in the winter months of the year and in turn, an alternate means of income for those who were used to the seasonal fishery.

By the mid 1800's the sealing industry was booming and sealers began to realize that the most ideal time to hunt for seals was in March when the females went to the arctic ice flows to have their young. This meant a large number of white coats and heavy females, which were the most profitable, could be found in the one area. This discovery meant that the sealing trips required sturdy reliable ships that could withstand the cold and ice. Some companies began to take advantage of the March downtime of their passenger liners and would use one boat as a sealing vessel in March and a passenger vessel during the other times of the year.

In 1909, the Bowring Company did this with its new vessel, the Florizel. The transformation was done by laying wooden planks on the main walkways and decks during sealing trips. This meant that by simply removing the planks and washing the floors, the ships would be ready for passengers in the summer months. The Florizel quickly became one of the most profitable sealing vessels to participate in the hunt. By 1910, its second year in the hunt, 49,000 seals were caught by the men of the ship and in doing so they broke the record for both number and weight. In fact, over the eight years the Florizel took part in the hunt it accounted for over 200,000 seals. The consistently high numbers of seals the men of the Florizel returned, not only created quite a name for the ship, but also it earned the men quite a lot of money. In 1916 Captain Abram Kean earned the largest bill ever paid to a sealing captain, $5433.94 for a 20-day trip, where an average trip would earn a Captain a little less than $2000.

While such high returns tended to mark the Florizel more as a sealing vessel then a passenger liner, no event had more of a memorable impact on this than the tragedy of the SS Newfoundland in 1914. During this trip Abram Kean and two of his sons all went out as captains, Abram on the Stephano, his son Joseph on the Florizel and his other son Westbury on the Newfoundland. All three had secretly made a pact to notify the others when they came upon a large group of seals. This was done despite the fact that the radio room had been removed from the Newfoundland as a cost saving measure. The removal of the radio turned out to be one of the main factors in the loss of 77 men who remained trapped on the ice for over 50 hours.

The ice during the trip was almost impenetrable at times and the men of the Newfoundland decided that to avoid the down time this caused, they would leave the ship for a while and see if conditions were better near the Stephano. The weather conditions began to deteriorate and the two ships were not as close as they had appeared and it was not long at all before Abram Kean turned them back, falling for the same illusion, thinking that the Newfoundland was rather close to his own ship. Conditions worsened and soon the men of the Newfoundland were lost on the ice flows.

As the Newfoundland had no radio, Wes Kean had no way of knowing where his men were, he could only assume they were still with his father. Abram, having no way to know for sure, was under the assumption that the men were safely back on their ship. It took two full days before six of the stranded men were found and Wes Kean could speak to his father to find out the truth. When this was discovered an all out hunt for the rest of the men, was underway. Through the thick ice and stormy weather, the Stephano, the Florizel, the Newfoundland and the Bellaventure under Captain Robert Randell, began combing the ice for the men. Unfortunately, for many of the men, this was too late.

Statistical Records of Florizel Sealing Trips from 1909 – 1916*

Date Master Tons Men Seals Net Val.   $
April 10th, 1909 Abram Kean, Sr. 1,980 203 30,488 54,060. 38
April 1st, 1910 Abram Kean, Sr. 1,980 203 49,069 90,800. 19
April 12th, 1911 Abram Kean, Sr. 1,980 270 28,129 40,818. 97
April 2nd, 1912 Joseph Kean 1,980 270 4,582 8,501. 11
April 13th, 1913 Joseph Kean 1,980 270 21,878 35,672. 98
April 7th, 1914 Joseph Kean 1,980 270 17,643 37,132. 78
April 17th, 1915 Abram Kean, Sr. 1,980 269 2,592 5,932. 75
April 2nd, 1916 Abram Kean 1,980 270 46,481 135,848. 66

*Information found in Chafe’s Sealing Book: A Statistical Record of the Newfoundland Steamer Seal Fishery, 1863-1941. A publication of the Cater Andrews Project (Shannon Ryan, editor).

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