Cold cod sandwiches on the 4th of July

Published 3:35 pm Tuesday, July 4, 2023

By John Nelson

As far as July 4th holidays go, Independence Day in1973 was not bad. There were no parades or fireworks, but it was fun hanging out with some Labradorian fishermen up in Canada’s northeast province where summer days were bright and mild and the nights still cool.

Earlier that year, I became chief engineer on the USNS Potomac, a tanker that supplied various fuels to US and NATO bases, and the ship had departed Texas City in late June with a full load of jet fuel for the joint Canadian/American air base at Goose Bay, Labrador.

Email newsletter signup

By July 1, we had passed through Belle Isle Straights between Labrador and Newfoundland, and after some maneuvering at the mouth of the straits to dodge icebergs borne south on the Labrador Current, we entered Hamilton Inlet the next day and dropped anchor off the lovely little village of Rigolet. There we took aboard a pilot to guide the ship through the remaining 75 miles of inland waterway to Goose Bay.

The inland passage along a beautiful shoreline was uneventful until we had to stop and drop anchor some miles short of our destination upon reaching an unmarked channel through a narrow inlet.

The buoys marking the channel had been removed the previous winter to prevent ice damage and until then had not been necessary since only small fishing boats and coastal freighters had transited the channel. As the first large ship of the season, we had to anchor for four days awaiting a Canadian Coast Guard vessel to reposition the buoys.

With time on their hands, some crew members with fishing gear were soon pulling in a lot of codfish and some salmon and turning them over to our steward department. We had a second cook who was a master at preparing fresh fish, and his creations livened up the menu.

On the morning of July 3rd, I had most of my men in the engine room taking advantage of the cool weather to make various repairs when a fishing boat came alongside seeking assistance.

When I boarded the boat, the captain showed me that the bolts securing the engine to the bedplate had cracked and that there was too much engine movement for him to safely return to the dock.

I went back on board the ship and got the necessary hardware from my stores, and we soon had the engine firmly mounted. The captain and his two crew members were delighted not to lose a day’s fishing and asked me if I would like to come with them.

I couldn’t leave the ship with my repairs in progress but told them that the next day would be a holiday for us as we observed our Independence Day, and that with no work planned, I would be free to go out with them.

The boat returned the next morning to pick me up, and not long after I boarded, the captain showed me a large cooler filled with Red Horse ale and declared that they were ready to help me celebrate America’s independence.

Until the construction of the base at Goose Bay during the early days of WWII, Labrador had been an isolated society made up mostly of fishermen, lumberjacks, trappers, miners, and indigenous populations. Some of that rugged individualism was still evident in those colorful characters who told great stories about their lives as fishermen.

A big topic of that day were the events taking place in what was called “The 2nd Cod War” – one episode in the long-running confrontation between Iceland and the UK over fishing rights and territorial limits. With the health of their own fishing industry to consider, Icelanders didn’t like seeing British fishing fleets right off their shores.

My three companions sided with Iceland, and I agreed since it’s poor form to disagree with one’s hosts – particularly when they were supplying ice cold Red Horse. And eventually the UN agreed also, for in 1982, a nation’s exclusive economic zone was extended to 200 nautical miles offshore.

Instead of hamburgers or hot dogs, I had cold cod sandwiches that 4th of July, but they were good, and the companionship was even better – so much so that I hated to part company with them after a long day on the water.

I had missed dinner by the time I got back on board, and the steward met me to say that he had saved me a plate of fresh cod. I thanked him but bypassed the galley and went straight back to my quarters. I had had enough fish and possibly too much Red Horse.

Write to John Nelson at