Editor’s Note: This is part five of a five-part SaltWire series Our Changing Arctic, looking into the ever-changing world of the Canadian North.
ST. ANTHONY BIGHT, NL — 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 nerve-wracking 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.
Battling the north
A shift of the ice could spell doom for sealers
For sealer Dave Patey, each trip out seal hunting is a potential battle against those northern forces of nature that make their way toward the Northern Peninsula waters each spring.
“It’s always dangerous sealing. You only need to strike a pan (of ice) the wrong way and your boat can go bottom-up in no time,” said Patey.
Once, in the 1980s, Patey got caught in the ice for three days on a seal hunting trip by speedboat. Thankfully, a nearby longliner had also gotten caught in the ice. Patey and his father shacked up there until the ice cleared days later.
“If they hadn’t took us aboard we would have died then,” he said. “Being left in an open speedboat on a pan of ice in the middle of the ocean — we would’ve froze to death. My father was up in age then and we were already wet by the time we got stuck; we wouldn’t have lasted.”
With ice so thick and impenetrable that even a 39-foot-11 longliner is not powerful enough to break through, there’s little options sealers have to escape it. Patey says calling the Coast Guard for assistance and waiting for the natural elements to work in their favour is often the only solution at hand.
The year 2017 was a difficult one for ice along much of Newfoundland and Labrador. Harbour ice had stayed so late into the summer on many coastlines of the province that the crab season did not open until late June. This prevented many sealers on the Northern Peninsula from hunting last year.
But if the weather and ice charts appear promising, Patey says he will back aboard boat this April to hunt seals. Even with the difficult and life-threatening obstacles that can come his way, Patey has a clearly unbreakable attachment to a way of life he’s been a part of since boyhood.