Skip to main content

Survivors wave during initial contact with a CP-140 Aurora aircraft after abandoning their fishing vessel, the Atlantic Charger, southeast of Iqaluit on Sept. 21.Master Corporal Dianne Neuman/The Canadian Press

As rising waters sloshed just below his knees and five-metre waves slammed the sides of his crippled fishing boat, Byron Oxford knew time was of the essence if he and his eight crew were going to survive in the North Atlantic.

The skipper of the Atlantic Charger was battling 40-knot winds, frigid temperatures and churning seas late last month when he decided he and his mates would have to abandon their 21-metre boat in Frobisher Bay as the storm worsened and they began taking on water.

As waves "fell out of the sky and broke down on top" of them, Mr. Oxford issued a mayday and informed search and rescue officials of their location, confident that a rescue operation involving the military and coast guard would quickly kick into gear.

But after the nine men abandoned their boat, they endured more than 12 hours of being tossed around in a life raft before they were finally scooped out of the sea by the crew of another fishing vessel about 320 kilometres south of Iqaluit.

For Byron Oxford, it was a stunning conclusion to a "nightmare" he expected would end with a military helicopter hoisting them to safety rather than civilians risking their lives to pull them on board their boat.

The 44-year-old veteran fisherman says the incident highlights a problem with a lack of resources in the region.

"Had there been a rescue station in either Goose Bay or Iqaluit, the rescue could have taken place a lot faster," he said in an interview from his home in Springdale, Nfld.

"Thank God we made it to the life raft, thank God that we had immersion suits, thank God everything worked out well for us, but it was done as an eye opener…

"It's just a matter of time before a vessel gets in distress or an airplane goes down in that area and, if there's nothing there to deal with the situation, then they're at the mercy of passerby vessels."

The complaint is not new for some in the Atlantic region, who say there are too few aircraft and vessels at the ready to help with emergencies at sea.

Ryan Cleary, the NDP MP for St. John's South-Mount Pearl, said he spoke with the captain of the Atlantic Charger as the incident was unfolding on Sept. 21 and they both had the same question about the rescue.

"Where the hell was the Cormorant," he said, adding that the area's harsh conditions would make it tough to last long.

"You can't survive jig time in the waters of northern Labrador – you will freeze to death, so it's critical, given the traffic off northern Labrador, that we have immediate response."

Mr. Cleary says the government should be looking at how much vessel traffic there is off northern Labrador and providing search and rescue resources that can be quickly deployed to the area.

Defence dispatched several assets to assist in the rescue, including fixed-wing aircraft, two Cormorant helicopters and a coast guard vessel, along with two civilian ships.

The first Cormorant flew out of Gander, Nfld., and had to make two fuel stops on the way to the scene, including one in Goose Bay. But, a Defence spokeswoman said in an e-mail that after it experienced unspecified technical problems after it left Goose Bay and had to turn back.

The second Cormorant out of 14 Wing Greenwood in Nova Scotia was turned back after the men were rescued.

Maj. Rhonda Stevens of the Joint Rescue Co-ordination Centre in Halifax was working throughout the rescue and said it would have taken 10 hours for the first Cormorant to get there, and about 12 hours for the second.

Mr. Oxford praised the response from rescue officials, who he says were doing the best with the resources they were given.

But he says having to rely on other vessels for rescue can be a dangerous proposition.

He said his crew tried to get aboard the research vessel, the Arctic, after it pulled up at about 8 p.m. and put a rope ladder down its side for the men to climb up. Some were still in pyjamas and slippers, and were already cold from exposure.

But the waves were so high that they risked getting smashed against the vessel, so Mr. Oxford said they had to paddle hard in the life-raft to get clear of it.

"One minute you're down in a trough and you're looking 50 to 60 feet up at the vessel and the next you're up and eye-balling the railing," said Mr. Oxford, who is married and has a teenage son and 12-year-old daughter.

"It was impossible."