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Fishermen recall rescue by Marine Atlantic ferry in waters off Cape Breton


NORTH SYDNEY, N.S. — Three fishermen spent about an hour and a half huddled together in waters off Cape Breton, talking about the stars and worrying about sharks.

The trio had set out Monday at noon from Glace Bay in a boat belonging to the Waycobah First Nation.

They managed to haul in about 3,000 pounds of red fish before the Sulia’n caught fire and capsized.

The men were later rescued from waters of the Cabot Strait around midnight by a government vessel used to shuttle passengers between North Sydney and Port aux Basques, N.L.

Three rescued fishermen, from left, Capt. Blaine Hamilton, Christian Phillips and Levi Poulette arrived at the Marine Atlantic ferry terminal in North Sydney carrying the suits they wore while waiting to be rescued in the waters off the coast of Cape Breton.
Three rescued fishermen, from left, Capt. Blaine Hamilton, Christian Phillips and Levi Poulette arrived at the Marine Atlantic ferry terminal in North Sydney carrying the suits they wore while waiting to be rescued in the waters off the coast of Cape Breton.

“The stars — you could see the stars,” said Christian Phillips, a crew member from Waycobah when asked about his time in the water.

“The light show we were talking about, making little jokes. We had to keep our humour.”

Sulia’n captain Blaine Hamilton of Annapolis Royal said the vessel was about 80 kilometres northeast of Glace Bay when they noticed an exhaust fire in the ceiling of a washroom.

A call for help was sent to the Canadian Coast Guard around 10 p.m.

At the same time, Marine Atlantic ferry Capt. Scott Dowding was approximately 22 kilometres away navigating the MV Leif Ericson to Port aux Basques from North Sydney.

He began making his way toward the boat when a call came through instructing that everything was under control.

“It was only a matter of about 15 or 20 minutes later — I heard the (urgency) in his voice, the second time, saying the fire had reignited and I knew then it was pretty serious. And so, we altered the course even before we got tasked,” said Dowding.

Hamilton, 54, Phillips, 39, and crew member Levi Poulette, 29, of Waycobah put on survival suits and jumped away from the vessel.

They had already placed bags containing a few belongings into a life-raft, but the device later became tangled in the Sulia’n and eventually caught fire.

As they waited for help, they used flares to guide the rescuers.

“Hoping that shark don’t get us,” said Phillips, a father or three, who was aware a great white shark has been navigating Cape Breton waters.

“Before I left, I hugged my family because you never know, right. I called them before we left and said I loved them, and I’ll see you when I get back.”

Related:

• Marine Atlantic crew rescues three Waycobah fishers from the water after vessel caught fire

Dowding said the crew members were fortunate that the water was relatively calm.

After a small rescue boat was launched, it took crew members of the Leif Ericson about 35 minutes to pluck the men from the water.

Phillips and Poulette say they were shivering because water had seeped inside their suits as they shifted around during the wait.

Poulette stayed relatively quiet throughout a press conference at the ferry terminal in North Sydney on Tuesday afternoon.

He said it was the first time he’d ever been involved in such a close call.

The Sulia’n fishing boat a boat, owned by Waycobah First Nation.
The Sulia’n fishing boat a boat, owned by Waycobah First Nation.

“It’s good to be back,” Poulette said.

Once they arrived on land in Port aux Basques, Phillips, who is diabetic, was taken to hospital for insulin.

The volunteer firefighter said seeing ferry lights shining across the water brought a sense of relief.

“First time I had to abandon ship,” he said. “Just trying to stay sane.”

Hamilton said he’d just hoped his second call for help had been received.

The 39-year veteran of the seas said it was his fourth close encounter on the water.

“I was quite sure that I got my call out to the coast guard and everything. I was quite sure that help was on the way. It was a little tense, but it wasn’t too bad.”

The men are credited with remembering survival training and staying together in a huddle.

Waycobah Chief Rod Googoo said Tuesday that Sulia’n is one of the older vessels in their fleet.

“All that matters to us is that they’re all safe and sound,” Googoo said as he waited for more details in the case.

The men were expected to begin the journey to their respective homes Tuesday afternoon.

All three said they didn’t expect the misadventure will deter them from fishing.

erin.pottie@cbpost.com

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