In The Call of the Ocean, Jim Wellman profiles some of the most fascinating men and women ever to answer the call of the North Atlantic. These modern-day heroes of the sea include: Richard Gillett from Twillingate, captain of the Midnight Shadow and star of Discovery Channel’s hit television show Cold Water Cowboys Marilyn Clark from Magdalene Islands, a rising star in the Atlantic Canadian fishing industry Dave Quinton, long-time host of CBC Television’s Land and Sea and a household name in Newfoundland and Labrador Norma Richardson from Harrigan Cove, a tireless advocate for Nova Scotian fishermen and fisherwomen Tommy O’Brien of Cape Broyle, the youngest-ever appointed captain with the Canadian Coast Guard Ches Barbour of Newtown, founder of the world-renowned franchise Ches’s Famous Fish and Chips Boat builders Jerome Canning, Alex Howse, Val Cull, and Jonathan Collett . . . and many more!
The Bearded Skipper
“The cure for anything is salt water: sweat, tears, or the sea.”
— Isak Dinesen
Norman Peters is well-known for many fine attributes, but none as distinguishable as his white whiskers.
The seventy-eight-year-old fisherman from North Rustico, Prince Edward Island, was also crafty enough to turn his meticulously groomed facial hair into a business. For years he owned a fisheries charter company called Bearded Skipper’s Deep Sea Fishing & Tuna Charters.
Norm gave up the business a few years ago, but he still hands out his business card that now reads simply “The Bearded Skipper.” The reason is simple: Norm has what everyone perceives to be the perfect sea-captain image.
Adorning his blue captain’s cap, Norm has become the face of PEI fisheries, a mascot of sorts, although, with a tinge of irony, many people think he is the model for Captain High Liner, the image of a bearded old salt seen on many of the High Liner Foods company’s fish packaging. High Liner Foods is based in Lunenburg, Nova Scotia.
“A lot of people ask me that, but I’ve never talked to anyone from High Liner, except once in a casual chance meeting with someone who worked with them, and it was mentioned in passing, but that’s all,” Norm says.
The Bearded Skipper’s high profile earned him a couple of interesting work gigs in recent years. He was asked to attend a fisheries trade show in China in November 2012, where he was a huge hit.
“I would stand in the booth with a couple of lobsters in my hands, and people by the dozens would stop by, and I would explain that PEI lobster is the best in the world and that they should buy it. “
The Chinese were drawn to Norm’s physical appearance, especially the white beard, but he also has another appealing attribute. He is an outgoing, friendly man with a genuine big smile that makes people want to have a picture taken with him. Norm laughs when he says that Canada’s Fisheries Minister Keith Ashfield, stopped by the PEI booth at the International Boston Seafood Show in 2013 and wanted a picture taken with the Bearded Skipper.
“People were coming by and asking who that fella was with the Bearded Skipper,” Norm chuckles, adding that folks in the New Brunswick booth directly across from PEI’s stand at the Boston show were saying that they also needed to find a bearded skipper to attract attention to their booth.
Norm is not much for international travel. He was born, raised, and still lives in North Rustico and will be there even after he’s among the dearly departed. His lack of enthusiasm to stray far from home is probably a by-product of an experience when he was a young man in 1962.
A couple of his buddies were planning to drive to British Columbia to find work, and they convinced Norm he should join them. He was hesitant but eventually agreed, but his first venture away from home didn’t turn out the way he expected.
“I was just a young fella, didn’t know nothin’—had never been outside Rustico in my life. We drove up there through the States, and when we got there we went to Stanley Park and this funny feeling hit me—I thought I was having a heart attack or something, but whatever it was, I knew I just had to get back home. I had five dollars in my pocket, I gave the boys two, so with three dollars in my hand I started to try and find my way back to Rustico.”
It was a long journey, starting with a visit to a Salvation Army Centre in downtown Vancouver, where Norm told his story, stating emphatically that he had to get home. Norm recalls his conversation with the person at the counter.
“They asked where I was from and I said North Rustico and I think I’m dying, I have to get home. ‘Where is Rustico?’ they asked. I said I think it’s that way, pointing out the window. ‘Okay,’ they said, ‘settle down, we’re gonna give you a bus ticket.’ I said, ‘Oh, that’s great,’ thinking it was a bus ticket to Charlottetown. Nine miles later the driver called out ‘New Westminster!’ He looked at me as if to say get off the bus, and I said this is not my stop, I’m going to Rustico. ‘This is New Westminster, and this is our final stop,’ the driver said.”
Being flat broke and almost 4,000 miles from home was terrifying for the young man from North Rustico, especially when it dawned on him that the only way he could get back was to hitchhike.
“I met some wonderful people on my journey—I wish I had kept a diary. Some of the people who’d pick me up had a couple of dollars to spare or would buy me a coffee and a bite to eat, and off I’d go again,” he says with a smile.
In one town he was tired, cold, and in need of rest. He found a laundry business that wasn’t locked and made himself at home but was awakened by a police offer.
“I told the Mountie my story, and so I guess because I had no record of any kind, he let me go.”
Eleven days after leaving New Westminster, someone dropped him off in North Rustico. Norm still gets a kick out of his mother’s reaction when he walked in. As mother of eight boys and two girls, Mrs. Peters didn’t have time for small stuff like the comings and goings of ten children.
“I walked in, and Mom was busy baking another twenty loaves of bread or something, and I said, ‘Hi Mom,’ and went straight upstairs to bed to get some sleep—I was dead tired. When someone asked Mom who it was that came in a few minutes ago, she said, ‘I don’t know, but it sounded like Norman.’”
Norm started his fishing career in the early 1960s as a so-called third man with his uncle. In 1966, his uncle developed health issues and was ordered by his doctor to stay ashore, so Norm took over the business.
Lobster was his main fishery, and because the lobster resource was seemingly infinite, there was no limit on the number of traps fishermen could use.
“Most of us had about a thousand, but some fished as many as eighteen hundred,” he laughs, pointing out that today he is only allowed 300 traps. He also fished hake, cod, and mackerel. “I remember the cod were so big in those days you’d think you had hooked into the bottom, they were so heavy—but that’s all gone now,” he laments.
Norm Peters is a wonderful ambassador for not just the PEI fishing industry, but for PEI overall. He’s a natural-born storyteller who can entertain for hours spinning yarns, and although he still fishes lobster in the spring, he has also managed to find a way to utilize his spare time doing what he loves best.
Rustico is home to a delightful museum that Norm is largely responsible for setting up. He’s very proud of the little museum owned by the Harbour Authority. Right next door there is a small restaurant called the Skipper’s Café, and Norm made a deal with the café’s owner that he would set up a small area on the premises and repair lobster traps and chat with the tourists and other clientele.
He spins a few yarns, and as people are leaving, he will always suggest they might like to drop by the museum next door, reminding them that there is no charge for admission, but if they would like to drop a loonie or something in a container, the proceeds would go toward the Harbour Authority, which is run by volunteers, including Norm.
Speaking of volunteering, Norm has a long list of other organizations to which he has given generously of his time, especially the Prince Edward Island Fishermen’s Association. He was president of his area’s branch of PEIFA for many years. He has also served with several other community groups, as well as his church.
If you’re ever in North Rustico and would like to meet Norm, just ask anyone at all about the Bearded Skipper and they will know exactly where to point you.
The Call of the Ocean is a laudable tribute to the men and women, modern-day heroes if you will, who have spent or given their lives working on the exacting North Atlantic.-- The Miramichi Reader --
The characters in Wellman’s book are as varied as fish in the sea. Yet they have one thing in common: they all have led fascinating lives, and their stories are heartfelt. Expect a good dose of solid reporting, laced with liberal amounts of insights.-- Atlantic Books Today --