Survivors speak of seven hours adrifit
The Codroy Valley man who died in a boating accident last week is being remembered by many as a big man with an even bigger heart.
© Brodie Thomas photo
Mary Williams and William Beggs outside their home in O’Regan’s, Codroy Valley. Last Tuesday the couple survived seven hours in the Gulf of St. Lawrence after their friend’s boat was swamped. Johnny MacDonald, 65, drowned in the accident.
Johnny MacDonald, 65, drowned when his boat was swamped in the waters off Codroy, in the Gulf of St. Lawrence.
However Mr. MacDonald’s two passengers that day want people to know that Mr. MacDonald didn’t die alone, and that his greatest concern at the end was for his passengers’ safety.
On Friday, William Beggs, 48, and his partner Mary Williams, 49, were still feeling the physical and emotional toll from their near-death experience three days earlier.
Ms. Williams was black and blue with bruises all over her body, and her back was badly sunburned.
Mr. Beggs was in slightly better shape. He was the only person wearing a lifejacket on the morning of Aug. 7. He wasn’t even going to go fishing for cod that day, but Ms. Williams talked him into going.
Mr. Beggs cannot swim and even has a bit of a fear of the water after nearly drowning as a child while at a cabin on the St. Lawrence River.
“The first time I played hookey in school was for swimming class,” said Mr. Beggs.
That morning Mr. MacDonald showed up bright and early to pick up the couple. They had planned to go the day before, but cancelled due to choppy waters.
They weren’t expecting him on Tuesday.
“I didn’t want to go but Johnny was enthusiastic about it,” said Ms. Williams.
It was only after the boat was launched from Codroy Harbour and they were heading out that Ms. Williams looked around the boat for lifejackets. She found one in the bow and handed it back to Mr. Beggs, because she knew he was scared of the water. The only other one she could find was too small for her.
Mr. Beggs and Mr. MacDonald started jigging for cod right away, but Ms. Williams was hit with sea sickness almost instantly.
“It was very, very choppy, she said. “The swells were huge. I was very dizzy and very disoriented. I didn’t quite recognize what was happening.”
Mr. Beggs was in the stern of the 16-foot boat. He noticed water collecting at the back but assumed everything was OK. After catching two cod, the problem seemed to be getting worse. He asked Mr. MacDonald if he should start bailing and the retired fisherman came back to see what the problem was.
“He said, ‘The plug is out of her.’ The water was just coming in so fast. I started bailing. I scooped about two scoops and he said look for the plug. But it took about 30 seconds and the boat was gone.”
Ms. Williams had been throwing up over the side of the boat, at the advice of her host. She looked up just in time to see the boat being swamped.
“I saw the back corner of the boat and the sea was coming over top and I said, ‘Sweet Jesus.’ I had enough time to get the camera over my neck because I thought, I don’t have a life jacket and this is going to weigh me down big time.”
The boat flipped over as they all went in the water. Immediately, Mr. MacDonald took charge, even though he couldn’t swim and wasn’t wearing a lifejacket.
“I landed in the water and Johnny shouted out, ‘Grab the boat, William! Get on the boat, William!’” said Mr. Beggs.
Mr. Beggs was able to swing his leg over the keel and climb aboard. Next Mr. MacDonald told Ms. Williams to get on top of the boat, even while he was holding on to her.
“I said, ‘Johnny, you have to let go of me. Grab the boat.’ He didn’t panic. God bless him. He grabbed the boat.”
After much struggling, Ms. Williams was able to get on the overturned boat with some help from her partner. But then they both realized Mr. MacDonald was in trouble.
“He said, ‘I’m not gonna be able to get on the boat. I’m not strong enough to get on the boat. I’m done.’ He knew he was gonna die,” said Ms. Williams.
Despite barely climbing aboard the boat just moments earlier, Ms. Williams jumped back in the water and tried to hand Mr. MacDonald a floating seat cushion from the wreckage of the boat.
“I pushed it over to him and I said, “Johnny, grab the cushion!’ And he reached out to touch it but he was sort of slipping off the boat then. And he said, ‘No, I’m gone. This is it. This is where I meet my maker.’”
Not willing to give up, Ms. Williams took a rope that was still attached to the boat. She got it under Mr. MacDonald’s arms and threw the end back to Mr. Beggs, who leaned back to keep him above water.
Waves kept breaking over their heads. Despite their best efforts, Mr. MacDonald was swallowing water.
“I was just leaning back there, looking into his face, just knowing he was a goner,” said Mr. Beggs.
Ms. Williams said she held his hand in the final moments. For a minute she refused to believe he was gone, but Mr. Beggs insisted she climb back aboard and save herself.
“That man did not die alone,” said. Ms. Williams. “There was no way we were letting him die by himself.”
Ms. Williams noted her watch had stopped at 10:30 a.m. The pair knew Mr. MacDonald would eventually be missed by friends at the restaurant where he always had coffee and supper, but they weren’t sure if they could stay afloat until that time.
Ms. Williams said a lot of questions were going through her mind.
“What happens to a boat that’s upended in the water? Does it stay afloat? Does the air come out from underneath it? Does it sink then?”
For the next six or so hours, the couple performed a deadly balancing act on the water, trying to grab each other, what was left of the boat, and the available rope in desperate efforts to keep each other aboard. At first Mr. Beggs used his legs to pin Ms. Williams legs to the boat.
He was towards the rear, while she was perched on the bow. They couldn’t see each other. Crashing waves caused what was left of the boat to roll left and right, and they shifted their weight accordingly.
“She kept hollering, “To the left! To the right! To the left!” said Mr. Beggs.
After about four hours, Mr. Beggs couldn’t continue.
“He said he was going to let go. And I screamed, “Don’t you leave me! Don’t you leave me!’”
But he did go in the water. Buoyed by a lifejacket, he swam to the bow of the boat.
“It was such a steep angle to the boat. He got up somehow a little bit to say goodbye, and we kissed each other goodbye.”
Ms. Williams get very quiet while recounting this part of the story.
“Then I don’t know it was like some sort of miracle happened,” she said.
Mr. Beggs said what happened was a mouthful of salt water.
“I couldn’t stand the taste of salt water,” he said. “And I really didn’t want to die. I got my arm up on the front of the boat and I just heaved and I pulled myself back up onto the front of the boat.”
It bought them more time. Now Ms. Williams was lower down in the water, feeling the effects of the cold. She stripped off most of her clothing to keep it from weighing her down.
The pair watched three boats a longliner, a sailboat, and an open fishing boat go past them at a distance.
At about 5 p.m., they saw the boat that would rescue them, the Western Passage, heading in their direction.
Mr. Beggs was able to jump aboard without much trouble, but they had a more difficult time getting Ms. Williams aboard. It took three men grasping and her to pull her aboard. She had no strength left to help herself.
“It was like haulin’ in a catch,” she said.
Shivering, cold, and nearly naked, Ms. Williams broke down in tears as soon as she hit the deck.
“They got the blankets around me, and Nelson Samms got down beside me and put his arms around me and said, “Cuddle into me, my darling. Cuddle into me. You’re safe.”
The couple now says they owe everyone in the community of Codroy a debt of gratitude.
“It was better to be safe than sorry, rather than giving it another hour,” said Mr. Beggs.
They know Mr. MacDonald was well known in the community, and they feel people need to know about his final moments.
“We need to let them know we didn’t just let Johnny drown,” said Ms. Williams.