Caption from an undated newspaper clipping, likely the Yarmouth Vangaurd in 1956: FIRST ON BLUENOSE First motorcyclists from here to make a trip on the MV. Bluenose are these two machines of the Yarmouth Motorcycle Club. Pictured above talking with Chief Officer W. H. Crocker at the entrance to the car ramp are, left, Seth Campbell, son of Mr. and Mrs. S.R. Campbell; and at right, Fraser Macdonald, son of Dr. and Mrs. D.F. Macdonald. The boys are currently on a tour of the New England states. Campbell is president of the local cycle club which has about 25 members. (Photo by Bob Brooks).
That's my grandfather, Captain William Crocker in the photograph. There he is, perfectly framed by young supposed scallywags on motorcycles (the one on the right became a doctor). His authority is so bad-ass he's blocking the bikers with his mere arms. The photo was taken for the Yarmouth paper by photographer Bob Brooks, with the headline: FIRST TWO WHEELERS ABOARD. It's 1956 and Canadian National's (CN) Marine's M.V. Bluenose, is making her inaugural sailing from Yarmouth, Nova Scotia to Bar Harbor, Maine. Gramps is not yet captain as the two stripes on his cuffs reveal.
Gramps started with the M.V. Bluenose (yes, named for the historic schooner) by first helping to oversee its construction in Quebec. In 1955, he brought his family with him to live in a cabin in Lévis Quebec, on the banks of the Saint Lawrence River, across from Quebec City. The Bluenose was built in the shipyards of the Davie Shipbuilding Company in Lauzon, Quebec. My dad, Bill, was 13, his sister Melda was 14 and their brother Len 11.
Three decades later, in a rented Lincoln Town Car, my dad drove me, my mother and my brothers to Quebec to see where they had lived that year. I remember him gesturing across the Saint Lawrence at where the ship had been built. I also remember him mispronouncing 'sans plomb' at every gas station we stopped at in Quebec.
When the Bluenose was ready, the family all moved permanently from their home in Canso Nova Scotia to Yarmouth. An undated newspaper clipping, with the newspaper name also cut off, provides a tidy synopsis of Gramp's career around the time the was made captain, which was about 1964:
Capt. William H. Crocker has been relieving master of the Canadian National’s Bay of Fundy ferry, Bluenose since 1956, has been appointed master of the vessel. Capt. Crocker first went to sea in Newfoundland in fishing vessels before joining the Nova Scotia Shipping Company as a seaman in 1930. He served as second and first mate and later as master on vessels operating out of East coast Canadian and U.S. ports until the Second World War, when he joined the Royal Canadian Navy serving in command of navy minesweepers. After the war he was master of vessels sailing to ports along the Atlantic seaboard and to the Great Lakes before joining Canadian National as master of the ferry Scotia I at Mulgrave, N. S. in 1952. In 1955 he transferred to the Northumberland Strait ferry service at Borden, P.E. I. The same year he became second officer aboard the Bluenose. He was promoted chief officer and later relieving master in 1956.
Gramps was from Trout River, Newfoundland but had met and married my grandmother, Dorothy Nickerson in Canso, Nova Scotia. Canso is about an hour and a half drive from where the Canso Causeway now joins mainland Nova Scotia with the island of Cape Breton. Before the Causeway, there was a CN ferry, the Scotia, that connected the two. Gramps worked on that ferry before being appointed to work on the new M.V. Bluenose.
In Yarmouth, the opening of the Bluenose ferry run was a big deal. My mom remembers getting the day off school. The run itself between Yarmouth and Bar Harbor was six hours long. The ship had plenty of amenities including a casino, bar observation lounge, sun deck, duty-free shop, cafeteria and cabins.
After retiring from the Bluenose, Gramps was interviewed by author Harry Bruce for Lifeline: The Story of the Atlantic Ferries and Coastal Boats. When asked about the sometimes rough Bluenose crossings on the Yarmouth to Bar Harbor route, Captain Crocker said:
'I guess it's as rough as you'll get anywhere in the world.' When weather reports say 'patches of fog in the Bay of Fundy,' Crocker said, 'they mean 'the whole Bay is one big, fog patch. The fog sets in in June and stays till August ... But from November to February you really get your hard weather. It's the tides that make it so bad. During a northeaster or a southwester, it's really bad. You get the tide going in the Bay, and the storm going out. Or you may get the storm going in, and the tide coming out. You get a confused sea, and this is what makes it rough. One element is fighting the other and the ship's in the middle. Also you get a lot of snow to destroy visibility.'
In the rough weather, Crocker would take the Bluenose well up the bay to Grand Manan Island so that her course was an inverted V between he two ports. He called this 'the scenic route'. It took him fifty miles out of the way, but it enabled the Bluenoses to meet the forces of wind and tide on her bows and quarters rather than on her beam. It was easier on passengers, and prevented automobiles and trucks from rolling loose.
'I remember one morning, it was blowing eighteen from the northwest when we left Bar Harbor,' he said. 'Up the shore of Maine a way, it was blowing thirty. At Grand Manan, it was blowing sixty and, when we got to Yarmouth, it was blowing seventy. When we docked, we did some damage to a plate near the bow.'
Gramps lived his life the way he guided the Bluenose through the Atlantic, with confidence, skill and determination. It was a clear sightedness that I imagine was born from the poverty of his childhood in the outport of Trout River, Newfoundland. He was determined to survive and make a better life for himself.
When Gramps died in 1979, his wife and children carried his ashes back to Trout River as he had requested. He hadn’t lived there in more than 50 years. but Newfoundland was still home. As the joke goes,
How can you tell a Newfoundlander in heaven?
They’re the ones that want to go home.
Gramp's childhood home in Trout River is now a historic site and open as a tourist attraction. His family home has been preserved as a good example of a fisherman’s saltbox home. It’s called the Jacob A. Crocker House and was built by Gramp’s father Jacob.
I've only been lucky enough to visit Trout River twice, but when I have, I can easily feel how the isolation and extreme beauty of that place shaped my grandfather's life and career as a master mariner, and never left him.