By Tina Comeau
Gilles LeBlanc lived next to his friend in Wedgeport for years.
“He was a great guy, always there for me, he always said, ‘Gilles I'm always here for you. I’ll take your back anytime.’”
They and other friends went smelt fishing together on evenings. Drove to school together in the mornings.
"He'd make our great buddy Brody (Pothier) pull over and take the air filter out right before pulling up in the school to make the car sound better," recalls LeBlanc.
"He always use to look me in the eyes and say. 'Gilles je t'aime and blow me a kiss," he says about some of the silly things the friends would do.
They went hunting and talked about lobster fishing. His friend, he said, always had a smile on his face and was just a lot of fun to be around.
But then came Saturday, Jan. 12, when what was supposed to be an uneventful, normal day of fishing on the water ended in tragedy and heartbreak.
“We were 20 minutes from the wharf when I heard the mayday and I looked at my buddy right in the eyes and said, ‘It’s Mike’ and started to cry,” LeBlanc says.
Mike is 20-year-old Michael Jeffrey Doucette of Wedgeport, who fell overboard from the fishing vessel Row Row. Despite an intensive search from the air and on the water that went on for nearly 14 hours in ideal search conditions, the lost fisherman was not found.
LeBlanc says he is so appreciative for all of the fishermen that went out in their vessels to look for his friend.
According to the Joint Rescue Coordination Centre (JRCC) in Halifax, around 20 fishing vessels took part in the search, including the lobster boat that Doucette had been fishing on.
Sadly an hour had passed onboard the boat before the crew noticed that Doucette was missing. They had presumed he was on the vessel, likely in his bunk. One can only imagine the panic and fear that must have set in when they realized the fisherman was not onboard the boat.
And since no one saw when or where the fisherman went overboard, it complicated the search from the outset. Plus Doucette was not wearing any floatation device.
On Tuesday, Jan. 14, the Transportation Safety Board of Canada (TSB) deployed a team of investigators to Wedgeport to gather information about the incident and to assess what took place. The TSB is an independent agency that investigates marine, pipeline, railway and aviation transportation occurrences. It is not the function of the board to assign fault or determine civil or criminal liability. Its sole aim is the advancement of transportation safety.
Investigators spoke with the crew of the Row Row and they examined the vessel. They will now take the information that was gathered to see if there are any recommendations that can shared to prevent this type of occurrence from happening again.
According to LCmd. Bruno Tremblay of the JRCC, they were notified around 6:47 p.m. on Saturday evening that Doucette was missing. Aside from the lobster boats and two Coast Guard vessels that aided in the search on the water, a Cormorant and a Hercules scoured the water from the air. The Hercules used more than 100 flares to keep the search scene illuminated.
As word spread about the search, people on social media, such as Facebook, were issuing prayers that the fisherman would be found and offering words of comfort to his family. Candles with a flickering flame became people’s profile pictures.
As their hearts ached, people held out hope.
But by the next morning with the passage of time and the unlikelihood of survival, Tremblay says a sad and difficult decision had to be made. That decision was to call off the search. The matter was then passed on to the RCMP to investigate as a missing person investigation.
“All of our thoughts are with the family of the missing fisherman and his friends during this troubling time,” Tremblay said when the decision was made to end the search at 9 a.m. on Sunday, Jan. 13.
Some fishing boats kept looking for the fisherman even after the active search ended. But to no avail.
It’s not just Doucette’s family and friends who have been left heartbroken by what happened, so too has the community of Wedgeport, which over the years and decades has seen its share of tragedies on the sea.
The sadness is also shared by the entire fishing industry.
“It affects every single one of us,” says Argyle lobster fisherman Ashton Spinney, a past chair of the LFA 34 Management Board. “The last thing you ever want to hear about is this type of tragic accident.
“It’s really heart wrenching. I know it’s got to be devastating to those really close to the scene,” he says.
Whether you knew the person or not – whether it’s close to home or another province away – Spinney says when these situations happen fishermen grieve for those lost at sea.
Spinney says the number of fishermen and boats that went out on the water to help with the search for Doucette doesn’t surprise him.
“We compete when we’re fishing but we’re there for each other. I’ve seen that over a lot of years. You compete fiercely, but if there is anybody that needs help, they’re going to be there just as fast as they can and that becomes priority,” he says. “When fishermen are in trouble, the other ones will do everything they can in their ability to help in that situation.”
It’s the same sort of thing that Doucette himself would have done, says Darryl LeBlanc, Gilles’ father, and a fisherman himself.
“I know one thing about Mike, he put family and friends first before himself. His mom was his pride and joy,” he says. And yes, he says, Doucette was a little rambunctious at times, but what 20-year-old isn’t, he says with affection. He says Doucette had the biggest of hearts and loved life and lived it the best that he could.
“It’s so sad to loose such an outgoing young man,” he says.
As for Gilles LeBlanc, he’ll always have fond memories of his friend.
“He was a good hard worker, good at everything he did and lived for fishing and hunting,” he says. “He has always been a great friend to me.”