HILLSBURN, N.S. — After a year that has brought so much suffering to Nova Scotia, six families in a remote corner of the province are having to cope yet another loss following the sinking of a scallop dragger Tuesday.
As night fell Wednesday, the Joint Rescue Co-ordination Centre in Halifax announced it was suspending its air and sea search for the missing fishermen and turning the effort over to the RCMP as a missing persons case.
“Our thoughts and sincere condolences go out to the families, friends, and community of these men,” the rescue centre, which co-ordinates military and coast guard resources, said on Twitter.
The 15-metre Chief William Saulis sank in the Bay of Fundy near Delaps Cove, N.S., early on Tuesday morning, its emergency beacon alerting the rescue co-ordination centre just before 6 a.m.
The boat foundered northeast of Digby amid heaving, three-metre waves pushed by 40-kilometre-per-hour gusts and an unusually high tide. Searchers later found two empty life-rafts, some clothing and debris consistent with a sinking.
The body of one man was recovered late Tuesday, but the search continued Wednesday for five other men as ground search crews said they were seeking closure for the families.
The RCMP said in a statement late Wednesday that the ground search would be limited to daylight hours because of hazardous conditions at night. They said searchers will be looking for “life-jackets, survival kits, survival suits, emergency beacons and human remains.”
The company where the fishermen worked, Yarmouth Sea Products, confirmed their names: Aaron Cogswell, Leonard Gabriel, Dan Forbes, Michael Drake and Geno Francis, and captain Charles Roberts.
As he guided his lobster boat close to shore Wednesday morning, fisherman Colin Sproul noted the sombre mood in the nearby fishing villages with Christmas only nine days away.
“We’re just searching the waters here, hoping to see something,” he said in an interview, adding that visibility was poor because the -10 C air temperature was causing “bay steam” to rise off the water.
“When any fishermen might need help, we always turn out,” Sproul said.
Jacob Jacquard, who worked on the missing vessel last year, said the boat had been fishing off Alma, N.B., at the head of the bay and the crew was returning to shore with a full load of scallops when disaster struck.
Harold Jarvis, a fellow Yarmouth fisherman, said he, too, had previously fished with the same men.
“As far as I know, they were just on their way home from a trip,” he said. “They just never made it to port.”
In a statement late Wednesday, Yarmouth Sea Products said the boat had been at sea since Dec. 12 and left the fishing ground to return to Digby, N.S., at about 1 a.m. Tuesday. It said a forecast of deteriorating weather had led other vessels to being to leave the fishing ground Monday night.
“There appears to have been an unknown event causing the vessel to capsize, as no distress call is known to have been made,” the statement said.
The company said all required maintenance and inspections of safety equipment were up to date, and it said Roberts was a seasoned captain of scallop draggers who had been operating the Chief William Saulis for most of 2020. It said the crew were also experienced fishermen and offered condolences to the six families.
As volunteer searchers assembled at the church hall in Hillsburn, N.S., on Wednesday morning, school buses crawled through the village, picking up bundled-up children.
The village’s brightly coloured Christmas decorations provided a sharp contrast to the low clouds and slate grey waters of the bay.
It’s not hard to tell that most residents along the shore make their living on the bay. One home that backs onto the water features a tall Christmas tree made from colourful buoys. A few doors down, a replica lighthouse is festooned with lights.
Alain d’Entremont, president of the Full Bay Scallop Association, said the scallop fleet goes out on the bay to fish and then returns to more sheltered water to remove the meat in the shellfish, a process known as shucking.
“It’s just sadness now in the community,” he said. “Everybody knows it could have been any fisher. It’s a hard thing to reflect on.”
The scallop fishery is a year-round enterprise, which means the crews must get used to rough weather.
The Transportation Safety Board of Canada said it will send a team of investigators to the scene of the sinking on Thursday. They will assess what occurred and determine what level of investigation to conduct.
On Wednesday, searchers had to climb over rocky beaches still covered in a light dusting of snow and ice. They had to deal with heavy surf, freezing spray and winds that were blowing the snow sideways.
Lt.-Cmdr. Brian Owens, spokesman for the rescue co-ordination centre, said three military aircraft joined the search, as did three Canadian Coast Guard vessels and some local fishing boats.
“We keep searching until they tell us to stop,” said search manager Hilton Seymour, team leader of Annapolis Valley Ground Search and Rescue. He said the searchers were “looking to provide the families with closure.”
Rev. Bob Elliott of the Hillsburn United Baptist Church noted the tragedies that have come one after another in Nova Scotia this year.
“I believe that COVID-19 and the 22 who were killed earlier in this province (in the April mass shooting) has taught us that family and loved ones are more important than anything else we have,” he said.
“We will get through this. We’re Maritimers. We’ve been through a lot in the years past.”
— With files from Danielle Edwards and Michael Tutton in Halifax.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Dec. 16, 2020.
Michael MacDonald, The Canadian Press