The unforgiving sea

Storyteller column by Laurent d'Entremont

Published on March 16, 2013
The Cape Mary. – Courtesy of the Acadian Museum

The mighty sea has always been unforgiving, and this was sadly brought home recently, when five young men from the Woods Harbour and Cape Island area of Shelburne County did not return from a fishing trip.

The Miss Ally, a lobster boat-type, was fishing for halibut far from shore and got caught in a February hurricane-force windstorm. They were on their way home when the tragic news reached shore of the boat capsizing in the turbulent seas.

The search that followed consisted of a CC-130 Hercules Aircraft, a Royal Canadian Air Force CH-149 Cormorant helicopter and a CP-140 Aurora aircraft. The Canadian Coast Guard ships Earl Grey and Sir William Alexander, plus planes and merchant vessels, were also taking part in the search operation.

The loss of these young men, skipper Katlin Nickerson, Joel Hopkins, Steven Cole Nickerson, Billy Jack Hatfield and Tyson Townsend, left families and communities devastated.

There’s an old saying that ships are safe in a harbour, but that’s not what ships are for. As a small child, I remember my parents and grandparents talking about the sinking of the fishing vessel L.G.P. (named for Laura, Grace and Peter). The L.G.P. was owned by our neighbour, Lester d’Entremont, a main player in organizing D’Entremont Fisheries Ltd. Fortunately, when the L.G.P. sank, there were no injuries or loss of life.

It was on May 29, 1947, a calm and foggy day, that the scallop fishing vessel was run down by the 350-foot long freighter, Rockwood Park, bound for St. John, N.B. with a load of unrefined sugar. The captain and crew were rescued by the giant freighter. Lester and d’Entremont Fisheries Ltd. never returned to the scallop fishery.

Just a few short years later, in 1950, tragedy struck again. This time it was in Woods Harbour, the same community that the Miss Ally was from. The lobster boat Sir Echo was equipped for swordfishing, like so many others from our area. This type of fishing on our outer coast was considered quite profitable. That is, until an unexpected screecher with gale-force winds, hit the fishing ground in September, forcing the fishing fleet to head for homeport.

Some boats limped into port days late. But one was missing, the Sir Echo, with Captain Sheldon Goreham, his two young sons Aubrey and Crowell, and crew Robert Symonds and Earl Nickerson. About a week later, the battered, wooden hull of the Sir Echo was found floating bottom up in St. Mary’s Bay. The bodies of the captain and one son were still inside.

Even today, the old salts, my age and older, still talk about the Breeze of the Sir Echo. These unfortunate incidents are never forgotten.

In 1956, the Edward L., with a West Pubnico captain and crew, sank on Browns Bank in calm weather, after taking in water. Fortunately, there was no loss of life or injuries. They were soon rescued by the fishing boat Whiteway, and shortly afterwards, the 12-year-old Edward L. slipped under the waves, never to be seen again.

There are many sea disasters. One that comes to mind is of an August night in 1967, when the herring seiner Silver King was struck by a tugboat returning to its home port of St. John, N.B. The six-man crew of Wedgeport fishermen tragically lost their lives; one visiting passenger on the boat was saved.

Ordeals at sea are far too numerous to be recounted in a short feature like this. In April 1974, the Colville Bay left Woods Harbour, with Captain Victor Brennan and a crew of six men, for a fishing trip to German Banks. They did not return home as expected and were soon listed as missing. A search was organized, both on the sea and in the air. Debris was found and it appeared as if a fire or explosion had sealed the fate of the Colville Bay and its crew. One more blow to the sadden community of Woods Harbour.  

Time goes on and the vicious sea still takes its toll. In 1993, the scallop dragger Cape Aspy, out of Lunenburg, iced up and sank on its way to the fishing ground. Some of the crew had time to get into their survival suits and survived the ordeal; sadly, some did not. The Cape Aspy was a lot bigger than the halibut fishing boat from Woods Harbour, yet it went down to its icy grave.

Talking with old and seasoned sea captains, I came to the conclusion that the boat capable of winning a battle against a ferocious and unforgiving sea has yet to be built. And, sometimes, huge ships go down even in calm waters…if you doubt this, just ask the captain of the Titanic.