The mod­ern-day Gren­fell

The Compass - - OPINION -

I met Rex Saun­ders of St. Lu­naireGri­quet two sum­mers ago. My wife and I were in Ming’s Bight vis­it­ing her sis­ter, who said to me, “Rex Saun­ders is in his trailer over the way help­ing his son build a house.” I knew the name, as his story had been in the news. Later that evening, I saun­tered over and in­tro­duced my­self. I sat spell­bound as he re­lated his tale of spend­ing two nights on an ice floe af­ter his seal­ing boat cap­sized in May 2009. I said, “I’m go­ing to dub you ‘the mod­ern-day Gren­fell.’” At the time, Saun­ders was await­ing the re­lease of his au­to­bi­og­ra­phy — that book has now been pub­lished.

Ron­ald Romp­key writes about an event in Wil­fred Gren­fell’s life that’s strik­ingly rem­i­nis­cent of Saun­ders’ ex­pe­ri­ence.

“Set­ting forth by dogsled in re­sponse to an emer­gency call , (Gren­fell) risked cross­ing Hare Bay dur­ing spring breakup, and when the ice parted be­neath him he was cast into the wa­ter, far from shore, with­out hope of res­cue. Af­ter strug­gling with his dogs to reach a float­ing co­ag­u­la­tion of ice, he stood there in noth­ing more than the football uni­form he had worn as un­der­clothes, while his pro­tec­tive gar­ments and equip­ment floated away within sight. In this state of un­dress, he re­mained for 24 hours, gamely de­vis­ing ways to con­tain his body heat while the ice took him in­ex­orably to­wards the open sea.”

Saun­ders, be­fore head­ing out to the ice fields, said, “this is go­ing to be a good day out in boat.” Later that day, the frigid and mer­ci­less At­lantic Ocean nearly claimed an­other vic­tim af­ter his boat over­turned. Only mo­ments be­fore the mishap, he had phoned his wife, telling her to ex­pect him home within the hour. But now, the hardy sealer found him­self stranded and alone on an ice floe. He was armed only with a flota­tion suite, a five-gal­lon gas can … and his faith.

His chill­ing story is told in a chap­ter ap­pro­pri­ately en­ti­tled: “A mir­a­cle on the ice.” As far as he’s con­cerned, there’s no other ex­pla­na­tion.

“I wasn’t in any big hurry,” he re­calls, “be­cause there wasn’t any wind and the sun was shin­ing.” He was look­ing at two young harp seals on an ice pan mea­sur­ing 20-30 feet long and 15-20 wide. “I grabbed the throt­tle and pulled her out of gear and waited for the boat to strike the ice on her bow and bounce off, so I could put her in gear and go on again, just like I did a hun­dred times.”

But things didn’t go as Saun­ders had expected. “In­stead, she ran up on the pan of ice and tipped to one side.” Then his ves­sel was “go­ing over, bot­tom-up … The next thing I knew, I was un­der­neath the boat.” Things then went from bad to worse.

At his low­est point, as he sat on his gas can out on the drift­ing ice pan, he pre­pared him­self phys­i­cally, men­tally and spir­i­tu­ally for what he knew would be his death.

“So I put my glasses on and got ready to die. I said, ‘Lord, now I’m ready. The gulls won’t be able to pick my eyes out or pick my face to pieces.’ I said, ‘Lord, when they find me they’ll open my hood strings and loosen my coat col­lar and my face will look the same as it does now. Then they’ ll take me back to my home and they’ll put me in my cas­ket and put me in my church and my wife and fam­ily will look at me and say, “Yes, that’s him, all right,” and they’ll bury me and put a clo­sure to all this and get on with their lives again.’ Then I said, ‘Lord, it’s all in Your hands now, but not my will, Lord, but Thy will be done. Amen.’”

Saun­ders tells his amaz­ing story with both aplomb and pathos. It’s a rous­ing tes­ti­mony to great stam­ina and un­remit­ting faith in a time of se­vere per­sonal dis­tress.

In an af­ter­word, Saun­ders re­flects on the ef­forts of the Coast Guard who, he says, “did all they could to find me … I’m sure (they) know what they’re do­ing.” Still, he’s both­ered about some­thing: the Coast Guard can take pic­tures of seal­ing ac­tiv­i­ties from a DFO air­plane eight miles away. He won­ders “if the Coast Guard would save money if they in­vested in a few of these cam­eras.” If they had, per­haps he would have been found ear­lier. Hav­ing sur­vived 40 hours lost at sea, he’s en­ti­tled to ask this prob­ing ques­tion.

“Man on the Ice: The Rex Saun­ders Story” is pub­lished by Flanker Press of St. John’s. Bur­ton K. Janes lives in Bay Roberts. His col­umn ap­pears in The Com­pass ev­ery week. He can be reached


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