I’ve always known a water witch to be a supernatural character. Most cultures have them. Some have the power to raise or calm powerful, shipwrecking storms.Some are frightening characters who steal children that wander out to the shore unattended, either to eat them or steal their youthful energy.
In other traditions, like Appalachian folk magic, a water witch is a dowser, following the pull of a special staff or rod to find an underground water source deep enough for a well.
Another Maritime tradition was revealed to me recently: Water Witch has long been a popular name for ships. From US Navy vessels to merchant ships, even an opium clipper, there have been countless Water Witches, though its popularity has waned over the years.
Some were retired after years of work, but not all met such a merciful fate. On November 29th, 1875, a ship with a crew of 25 aboard, a ship called the Water Witch, hit the rocks of Horrid Gulch, near Pouch Cove.
A Newfoundland ship built in Trinity Bay in 1869, she had left St. John’s that night on her way back to her homeport of Cupids, but had encountered a fierce snowstorm.
The people of Pouch Cove responded heroically to get those on the rocks below up to safety, with Eli Langmead and Alfred Moores among those given special mention for their part in the rescue.
“Every man was hauled up fast to about 100 fathoms line, as the wreck could not be approached. We could hear their cries all night below us. It was frightful. The people here behaved nobly.” wrote Anglican Minister Reginald M. Johnson in a letter to the editor of The Newfoundlander, published on December 3rd, 1875. 13 men lived.
Of the 12 people who died, 6 were from the same family, the Spracklins of Cupids. It is said Skipper Samuel Spracklin, 50, scaled the cliff to the top of Horrid Gulch with 2 others to get help. While tradition says the captain must stay with the ship, it is believed had he not ascended the cliffs the loss of life would have been greater.
A song of unknown authorage written about the disaster mentions women being saved, but the 4 women on board were all among those lost. The song also changes the date of the shipwreck to Christmas Eve. Regardless, the heroism of the Pouch Cove citizens remains unchanged in this telling of the tale.
There are a lot of ways to commemorate something. Monuments are nice, everyone loves a good wall-mounted plaque in a town hall, but nothing speaks of our gratefulness for the people who brave the sea more than a good feed of the pinnacle of its gifts to us: fish and chips.
The Water Witch in Pouch Cove does a really nice job of this with lightly battered fresh fish and soft, golden fries packed for take out in vented bags to prevent soggage. With a lot of scenic views nearby , the lack of an eat-in option is really not a big deal.
Theres also chicken, which I didn’t try. The cheeseburgers I wouldn’t recommend, but the onion rings as burger topping was fun, and the rings were great. Fishnetting as curtains and some cool local art postcards, plus a radio bingo poster on the door, add a genuine charm. With a few fake lilies thrown in for good measure, the room achieves a classic, “nan would approve” décor.
Songworthy tales of tragedy and bravery and a fine feed of the greasy love we call fi and chi. Little culinary road trips like this are a way to engage with Newfoundland history and culture that is accessible and fun. Try it!