The modern-day Grenfell
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