YARMOUTH, N.S. — When the crew of a Cormorant helicopter saw the bright flash of a distress flare beam up from the churning seas below in pre-dawn darkness Tuesday morning, they looked down to see a man frantically waving and signalling for help.
The six-man crew hovered above the disabled yacht that had hours earlier issued a distress call after the boat ran into trouble at about 10:30 p.m. Monday in the Atlantic Ocean off Nova Scotia’s southwest coast.
Lt.-Col. Guy Leblanc, co-pilot of the Cormorant, said a technician was lowered down to the small sailboat as 10-metre swells and winds gusting up to 90 kilometres an hour whipped up the waters around them sometime after they arrived at 3 a.m.
“There were pretty demanding conditions for my crew,” he said in an interview from 14 Wing Greenwood before heading off for some food and sleep.
“We made it work, but it was not pretty and it was very demanding.”
There were nine people in total on the yacht, with Leblanc saying the three he took on board appeared to be in their 40s and were from Russia, Ukraine and Georgia.
Three of the men were taken aboard the tanker FSL Hamburg, which was headed to Saint John, N.B. A military official in Halifax said they were able to get on the tanker because they weren’t injured, but stayed on site to make sure the others were rescued by the Cormorant.
The search continued Tuesday for the three missing sailors who were not thought to be wearing survival suits in the frigid waters when they went overboard at about 12:30 a.m. Tuesday.
Maj. Paule Poulin of the Halifax search-and-rescue centre said the yacht was drifting about 150 kilometres south of Cape Sable Island when officials received an emergency call.
“Time is of the essence,” Poulin said.
Military officials said they do not know where the vessel was from, where it was going or what it was doing at sea at the time it sent the distress call.
Sub-Lt. Tania Meloni of the search-and-rescue centre said crews were contending with low cloud while searching for the missing men. Meloni said they were reportedly wearing life-jackets.
A Cormorant, Hercules and a Canadian Coast Guard cutter were scanning the area, but had not spotted any sign of the men by late Tuesday afternoon.
Leblanc’s crew hoisted all three men onto the helicopter, with two suffering from hypothermia, broken bones and cuts. The third was unresponsive and later pronounced dead at hospital.
Leblanc said the survivors spoke very little after they were lifted aboard and wrapped in blankets to try to warm them up, though one man showed his appreciation for the difficult rescue.
“He was smiling and just kept saying, ’Thank you very much,’ ” he said. “He didn’t talk about where they were going or what they were doing out there.”
The two injured and the body of the dead man were taken to a hospital in Yarmouth, N.S.
Fraser Mooney, a spokesman at the Yarmouth Regional Hospital, said the two injured men arrived by ambulance sometime before 8 a.m. after being flown to the local airport.
He said they were in fair condition, but couldn’t release details about their identities or ages.
— By Alison Auld in Halifax