Icebreaker captain, husband, father, favourite uncle, funnyman. Born Jan. 2, 1935, in Georgetown, British Guiana. Died July 31, 2011, in Dartmouth, N.S., of non-Hodgkin lymphoma, aged 76.
Stephen Gomes was an icebreaker in more ways than one. He could read sea ice with skill, honed during 38 years as a captain with the Canadian Coast Guard. He could also regale an assembled crowd with sea stories and anecdotes that would leave them falling down with laughter.
Life around Steve was just plain fun, whether he was with his nine brothers and sisters, his devoted wife, Carol, and five children, his 10 grandchildren or the dozens of us who called him uncle.
Considering that he was a man who knew ice, it was noteworthy that Steve grew up in the tropics, in Georgetown, British Guiana. The fun-loving teenager was sent off to sea by his businessman father, a Portuguese immigrant with a strong work ethic. Years later, Steve insisted that his mother had actually wanted to send another brother to sea, but the “old man” filled out his name instead. “I never knew why he did that,” Steve would say with a grin. “It was a mistake!”
But there was no mistake about his great love for the northern seas. Steve served a four-year apprenticeship at Saguenay Steamships, then enrolled in navigation college in Halifax. While at college, he was smitten by his landlady’s niece, a farm girl with a love of life to match his own. Carol also had the grit to raise their children – Philip, Stephanie, Jackie, Lisa and Gina – while Steve spent up to four months at a time away at sea.
Steve developed a reputation as a firm but fair commander with an uncanny ability to read the “leads” – the paths of least resistance – in the ice. By 1972, he had skippered his first Coast Guard ship, the CCGS Montmorency. He took command of his first heavy icebreaker, the storied Labrador, in the late 1970s.
Steve was the first captain of the Henry Larsen, steering it on the first of his five transits through the Northwest Passage. His last command was aboard the Louis St. Laurent, the largest icebreaker in the fleet. He retired in 1998, after 32 voyages to the Canadian Arctic, logging 800,000 kilometres. In 1992, he proudly accepted the Canadian Coast Guard Exemplary Service Medal.
A diagnosis of non-Hodgkin lymphoma five years ago barely dimmed Steve’s great sense of humour. Until the disease renewed its assault this summer, he took annual winter trips to Barbados with Carol. Last summer, they celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary, surrounded by loving family, truly the centre of Steve’s devotion.
He kept his children close and was always in touch with his siblings; he could be counted on whenever he was needed. Even in retirement, he was an active member of the Master Mariners of Canada, no doubt regaling fellow sailors with a lifetime's worth of adventures at sea.
By Donna Nebenzahl, Stephen’s niece.