For 23 days, N.L. fish­er­men felt the crush of the ice on their boats and lived with the dread that the next creak would be the last

The Beacon (Gander) - - Front page - This is part five of a five-part SaltWire se­ries look­ing into the ever-chang­ing world of the Cana­dian Arc­tic. BY KYLE GREENHAM

The mem­ory of 23 long, cold and un­cer­tain days trapped in the At­lantic ice are never far from the rec­ol­lec­tion of fish­er­man and sealer Dave Patey. The 59-year-old St. An­thony Bight res­i­dent has hunted seals since he was a boy. Grow­ing up on New­found­land’s North­ern Penin­sula he spent many spring days of his youth get­ting out of school and jump­ing aboard a boat with his fa­ther and un­cle to take part. If there’s any­one ca­pa­ble of ri­valling the Inuit’s knowl­edge for how to work a small boat in the ice, it would be New­found­land and Labrador’s fish­er­men/sealers. Patey is still in­volved with the seal hunt to­day, though he says, as the years go on, the north­ern ice is be­com­ing more com­pacted and dif­fi­cult to con­quer. “It’s tighter ice all the time; the tides have changed and the ice seems clus­tered to­gether,” said Patey. “Sev­eral years ago you could get in a speed­boat and go on for miles and miles. Now you get through eight or 10 miles of loose ice and then you hit a solid wall all along the coast. You can’t get through it.” The rough­est year to date was 2007 — a year when ice from north­ern Labrador made its way south and en­snared more than 200 boats in its path. Patey, his brother Dean and three other crew mem­bers were caged in this ice for 23 days. ‘You could get killed . . . you didn’t know’ Patey says his long­liner was only 15 miles from the coast of St. An­thony when they got trapped. Over the next weeks, the ice flow pro­ceeded to take them an­other 80-90 miles away from home. “It hap­pened sud­denly. All of a sud­den you couldn’t go no fur­ther,” he said. “And that was it — you couldn’t get back and you couldn’t get out; ev­ery­one was caught.” It wasn’t the first time the crew had been stuck in frozen wa­ters. Most of­ten, Patey says, they would only have to wait a few hours or overnight at most for the ice to be­gin to sep­a­rate. A typ­i­cal tech­nique used to get the boat free was to bring the mo­tor re­peat­edly into for­ward and re­verse to break through. But this ice was of such im­mense strength that this op­tion would have been to no avail. Many evenings were spent with a stag­ger­ing fear that the chang­ing tide at night­fall would make the ice crush the boat and sink it to the bot­tom of the sea. Patey says it re­minded him of the un­der­ground mon­ster movie Tre­mors, where at any mo­ment his long­liner could have been pulled from be­neath his feet and never seen again. “You didn’t know what was go­ing to hap­pen next; some days we were pretty ner­vous,” said Patey. “Big boul­ders of ice would be press­ing to­gether and lift­ing, tilt­ing your boat. “In the mid­dle of the night ev­ery­one would be scram­bling out of the boat and out onto a pan of ice be­cause you didn’t know if the whole thing was go­ing to be crushed.” Patey re­called try­ing to get a de­cent sleep in a bunk bed was rarely an op­tion. If the evening tides be­gan to tilt the ves­sel, the per­son was bound to fall out and have quite a wakeup call. “You could get killed stay­ing in your bunk; you didn’t know. It wasn’t a good ex­pe­ri­ence,” Patey said. The crew would have to find a good pan of ice to set foot on as their hefty wa­ter­craft shifted along. Of­ten, the crew would spend the rest of the evening in­side an­other boat that was trapped in a more sta­ble area. Be­cause of nights like this, many ves­sels took a con­sid­er­able beat­ing. Most had speed­boats along with them, and sealers would take these off their long­lin­ers onto a sturdy pan of ice. That way, if their long­liner was set on sink­ing, they’d still have a craft to travel home in. “Some boats had more trou­ble than oth­ers,” Patey rem­i­nisced. “Some were sure they would have to leave theirs be­hind, fig­ured it was go­ing to crush any day. “You had to take ev­ery­thing into con­sid­er­a­tion that could hap­pen; you couldn’t just wait around for it to hap­pen.” But those rough and nervewrack­ing evenings came in spurts. There were still many calm nights with no sud­den jolts and fears to send crews jump­ing ship. As the days went on, the sealers found ways to pass the time. Patey says a path­way of sta­ble ice was made for trav­el­ling from boat to boat, and of­ten the sealers would get to­gether for a meal or to play cards. The Coast Guard of­ten sent its chop­per in with food and any needed sup­plies. Patey spoke with his fam­ily ev­ery day, and his wife once gave some chicken to the Coast Guard to bring out to her hus­band. When he fi­nally did get home, Patey found him­self with a $1,000 phone bill. To keep bev­er­ages and food cold, Patey’s crew tied a rope around a cooler and left it in nearby wa­ter. “If you ran out of wa­ter, you’d come across a big old pan of ice with blue in it — that blue was all fresh wa­ter,” said Patey. To wash them­selves, wa­ter was heated in a pot over the boat’s kitchen stove. While they did not have to stay there for weeks on end, Patey says most men were not set on leav­ing their boats be­hind. “The Coast Guard wanted us to leave our boats and go on, but we wouldn’t leave the boats like that,” Patey re­called. “The boat was our liveli­hood. To save your fish­ing boat you’d take what­ever comes.” But af­ter 23 days there was still no sure sign of get­ting their long­liner out of the ice’s snare. When one of his crew mem­bers got gout, they had no choice but to make their way to Fogo Is­land by Coast Guard. Af­ter two weeks, the weather ap­peared to have cleared enough so the crew trav­elled back out and safely res­cued their boat.

“Big boul­ders of ice would be press­ing to­gether and lift­ing, tilt­ing your boat.”


Dave Patey has sev­eral pho­tos re­tained from his 23 days trapped in the At­lantic ice. It was a dan­ger­ous ex­pe­ri­ence he’s sure to never for­get.


LEFT: A group of sealers passed the time vis­it­ing or sit­ting on their own ves­sels. Dave Patey says a path­way of sta­ble ice was made for trav­el­ling from boat to boat, and of­ten the sealers would get to­gether for a meal or to play cards.


The chang­ing tides at night­fall could of­ten send the boats tilt­ing to one side – and even close to crush­ing. Usu­ally on the fol­low­ing morn­ing a sta­bi­lizer and a crew of men would be used to try to bring the boat back into up­right po­si­tion.


A group of sealers travel across the pans of of ice.


Many ves­sels re­mained trapped within the ice that spring of 2007 for over a month.

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