Captain Martin d'Entremont and the crew of the Poseidon Princess were sailing home from Georges Banks on their third and last fishing trip of the winter season. It had been a big success – the 20-metre boat was filled with 51,000 kilograms of haddock from nearly three days of fishing.
A strong choppy wind was blowing, but it was nothing the Poseidon Princess hadn't sailed through before. The boat was halfway through the 12-hour voyage from the rich fishing grounds that divide the Gulf of Maine from the Atlantic Ocean to Lower West Pubnico on Nova Scotia's southwest shore.
Crew member Oscar d'Entremont was at the wheel just after midnight on Jan. 31. The rest were fast asleep – Martin, the 57-year-old veteran skipper, Oscar's brother Lee, who is also married to Martin's sister, and fisheries observer David Murphy. In Pubnico, most residents are named either d'Entremont or d'Eon.
Oscar was chatting on the radio with Brian Belliveau, on the Chief Blair Francis, which was about 13 kilometres behind the Poseidon Princess, when he realized something was wrong. The ship was starting to list.
"We are in trouble," Oscar told Brian.
They would soon find out how much trouble in the frantic minutes before the ship sank – and in the nearly two hours they floated in a life raft, desperately calling out and searching for a missing crew member.
Pubnico is considered the oldest village in Canada still occupied by descendants of its founder, Philippe Mius d'Entremont. Losing four men from this close-knit Acadian fishing community would be a huge tragedy, just as it was two years ago in nearby Clark's Harbour when five young men drowned after their fishing boat capsized on their way home from fishing halibut.
"We stood on the outside of the boat, holding on to the rail," said Martin, who a week later is still haunted by flashbacks. "It was laid down so far [it was] almost like a floor on the side of a boat. And then by that time she started getting water inside."
The sea threw Martin off the ship. The other men, deciding they were going to stay together, jumped off. All of them had donned their survival suits.
"I swam to the life raft," Martin said. "It wasn't open at the time, so I opened it and the boys jumped in."
But Martin is not a strong swimmer and for some reason his survival suit did not provide any buoyancy. "When I got to the life raft I was shot. I was gone," he said. "If I had to swim 50 or 100 feet I probably wouldn't have made it."
Oscar pulled him in – but Dave Murphy, a Department of Fisheries and Oceans observer, didn't make it to the raft. He was thrown against the Poseidon Princess and tangled in ropes as he tried to reach it.
For nearly two hours, they sat in the life raft – an eight-man vessel that has a canopy over it and is equipped with flares and lights. All they could think about was rescuing Dave Murphy. They could see the light on his survival suit; for a time they yelled back and forth with him.
Lee jumped into the water and tried to tow the raft to where they could see the light on Dave's suit. It didn't work – and then Dave stopped yelling.
Later, they found out he had put on Martin's survival suit, a lucky mistake because it was buoyant as Martin's was not.
Although nothing like this has happened to him before, Martin says he wasn't frightened. He plans and visualizes what can happen on the fishing boats – and for example, he had moved the survival suits from the crew members' bunks in the bow and attached them with a bungee cord over the door going out of the wheelhouse.
That decision likely saved their lives. "If they had to go back to get their survival suits they would have been coming through water," Martin said.
Finally, the three saw lights in the distance and shot up flares. One of the rescue ships reported seeing them.
"That is a game-breaker right there," said Shawn d'Entremont, the owner of the Poseidon Princess, who was working the phones on shore, keeping in touch with the families of the fishermen. "That sent chills up my spine because I knew somebody had made it for sure."
The Atlantic Destiny, a 43-metre scallop trawler, found the men in the life raft. Dave, who by then was unresponsive, was spotted floating in the dark water by the bright lights from the ships, and the crew of the Chief Blair Francis used a gaff to pull him up.
"He was not in too good shape," Martin said. But he was alive – and was treated in hospital for a cracked vertebra and a gash on his forehead, and released that night. Martin and the others were also checked over in hospital.
No one knows what went wrong. The Transportation Safety Board has gathered information but will not be launching an investigation, according to a board spokesman. However, Shawn d'Entremont says Martin's survival suit will be tested.
"The fishermen are a tight bunch. They came together," Shawn said. "They were calm under pressure. Some of these decisions they are making you can't go back … It's a life-or-death decision."
But for Martin, the most important thing now is that he and his crew get back out on the water. "We have to go as soon as possible," he said, "because if you don't go soon you don't want to go."