In 2017, fishing remains one of most—if not the most—dangerous job in this country. Between 1999 and August 2015, 55 people died on Canadian fishing vessels simply because they fell overboard, according to the Transportation Safety Board. Overall, more than 200 fishermen have died in Canada since 1999. A recent Globe and Mail investigation showed that fishing vessel deckhands have a higher workplace fatality rate than roofers, farmers, pilots, and—by a wide margin—cops. In all, fishing has the highest fatality rate of any sector in Canada. Storms, equipment failures, and even stingrays are among the many hazards fishermen face. Then there’s the everyday work, including setting longlines with hundreds of sharp hooks, hauling heavy lobster traps, and gutting swordfish, sharks, and tuna. Yet for many fishermen, the potential pay outweighs the hazards. Statistics Canada says the average pay for a fisherman is about $1,000 a week. But fishermen will tell you that a crew member working year-round for a skilled captain can make $75,000 to $120,000—serious money in many of the economically depressed fishing towns on the East Coast. Even six months on a lobster boat can net a deckhand $50,000 to $90,000 depending on market prices. Fishing is a rarity in that you can make six figures without a high school diploma. Others simply love the thrill of fishing, or see it as their only job option. Regardless of what pulls a fisherman to sea, hazards are always lurking, so we talked to three East Coast captains about their most harrowing experiences at sea.
Richard Gillett Homeport:
Richard Gillett has lost three fishing boats. Two sunk; one was a “total destructive loss.” The first sinking was the most harrowing, the 46-year-old says in an interview by phone, while mackerel fishing off the northeast coast of Newfoundland.
Gillett was 25 and aboard his 34-footer, Sea Breeze, with a crew of three. The men were off the coast of Labrador, with a load of seals aboard, caught in a fierce storm: hurricane-force winds of 73 knots (135 km/h) and waves of 12-14 metres. Plus, chunks of ice—some as large as buildings and half city blocks—surrounded the boat. “We figured we could ride it out in the ice floe,” he recalls. “Unfortunately we couldn’t.”
At 5:30 AM, Gillett lost his steering. “We couldn’t turn from the big chunks of ice and one of them came and hit on the port side and literally tossed the boat over on its starboard side.”
Gillett watched water come up the windows as he issued a mayday.
The ice busted a hole in the wooden boat, cracking planks and ribs and forcing the crew to abandon ship. They loaded supplies in a small auxiliary boat and headed onto the ice.
Fortunately, a 250-foot shrimping boat appeared out of the snow and ice. But the scariest part remained: being in the auxiliary boat, 20 metres in the air, as it was hoisted by crane aboard the shrimper. As the shrimper rolled in the heavy seas, the men swung precariously in the lifeboat—one second out over the water; the next smashing into the shrimper. “I told the guys: ‘Bye, when she gets alongside that rail, get out of this boat as fast as you can.’” Gillett looked down to see Sea Breeze half sunk in the ice floe.
“If we tried to get in [to shore] with that much wind and that big of swells… I wouldn’t be talking to you now,” he says.
Fifteen minutes into our interview, Gillett interrupts me. “I’m a bit distracted here. Can I call you back?” he says.
Sure, I say.
“I’ll give you a call when I get a minute. I’m very close to the rocks here now,” he adds in a hurried voice. “I don’t want to have a fourth story for ya.”
He laughs hard and hangs up.
Homeport: Yarmouth, N.S.
The first day of lobster season is known as Dumping Day. In southwest Nova Scotia, Dumping Day occurs on the last Monday in November. Boats head from the wharves, most loaded high with 375 traps to be “dumped” in the water.
On Dumping Day 2015, Nathan King was crewing for his father, Richard. King and a new crewman, Wayne Atwood, were putting the first line of 20 traps in the water when King noticed the starboard (right side) rail, which helps support the stack of traps, was loose. He and Atwood were standing atop the mound of stacked traps when the rail suddenly broke. King and Atwood toppled into the water, along with 75 heavy traps, anchors, buoys, and a tangle of rope linking the traps together. Falling, about to hit the six-degree water, King thought: “Yep, this is going to be cold.”
Underwater, there was a tangle of rope around his feet. He grabbed a knife strapped to his boot and started cutting. “You couldn’t see anything. It was just all bubbles. Everything was happening fast,” King, 24, recalls. When his lifejacket inflated, he floated to the surface. He was amongst a mess of gear. Shocked by the cold water, King couldn’t breath. But he recalled his lifeguard and marine first aid training. “I took 20-30 seconds to chill.” Then he helped Atwood, who was screaming: “We’re gonna die! We’re gonna drown!”
King and Atwood clung to the boat, while trying to avoid gear still falling from the deck. The men struggled in the cold water for more than a half hour before they were finally hauled aboard. King stripped, put on dry clothes, and started cutting away the mess of gear hanging from the boat. Atwood, meanwhile, was in worse shape. Two search and rescue technicians were lowered from a helicopter to retrieve Atwood and rush him to hospital. Both men were unhurt, but for King the season was largely ruined. Atwood and a fourth crewman quit, and King and his father struggled to get a fraction of their traps in the water. (Most of the gear was unrecoverable—a tangled ball on the ocean floor.) “It was bad luck,” King concludes, “but the main thing is nobody actually got hurt.”
Homeport: Woods Harbour, N.S.
As Chrisjon Stoddard was lying on deck, in excruciating pain, he wondered: “Is this going to kill me? Will I lose my leg?”
In the summer of 1996, Stoddard, then 16, was crewing for his father—Sandy—more than 500 kilometres off the coast. They were longlining for tuna, but many of the incoming hooks had snagged black stingrays.
Stoddard was tending the line when another stingray appeared. He carefully removed the hook and was about to toss the ray overboard when someone on deck hollered: “Swordfish!” Stoddard turned just briefly and the ray struck with its razor-sharp barb.
“I had it too close to my leg and he stuck me right through the inner thigh of my right leg. He shot me full of his poison and my legs went numb, and the burning and the pain started. I couldn’t feel my legs,” he recalls.
He fell to the deck, with blood oozing from his leg: “It got me! It got me!”
Stoddard wondered if he would die, but the intense pain—“100 times stronger than a bee sting”—helped distract him.
Stoddard’s father, Sandy, was patched through to a doctor. “If he’s still breathing, the worst has passed,” the doctor told Sandy. Sandy, not wanting to cut the trip short, decided to stay at sea. Stoddard rested as a bruise formed up the entire backside of his right leg. “I can still touch places on my calf muscle and feel the tingling up the back of my leg because of the nerve damage,” he says.
Now 37 and the captain of his own boat, Stoddard prefers to simply cut stingrays loose, instead of bringing them on board. To show new crewmen the threat rays pose, he sometimes pulls a barb from a ray and uses the barb to slice the ray's wings off.
“You slice them off just like slicing butter to put on your potatoes,” he says, admitting it’s a cruel way to prove a point. “It’s to show a real respect for what they can do.”
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