WHITEHEAD, GUYS. CO. – “We are all just thankful that everybody made it out. Boats can be replaced, and gear can be replaced, but lives can’t,” Fallon Conway-Boyd said after her husband Millan Boyd’s boat sank on the first day of the lobster fishing season in Whitehead, Guysborough County.
Every year, on setting day, communities like Whitehead have the lobster boats and their crews top of mind as they head out, decks loaded with gear, to start the fishing season. On April 19, that was exactly what Conway-Boyd was thinking about as her husband, his crew and other boats headed out to sites across Lobster Fishing Area 31-B, which stretches from Whitehead down the Eastern Shore.
Watching and waiting
“I was up in the house making breakfast for Loki (their nine-month-old son) and getting a coffee – typical day, thinking about all the fishermen out for setting day. And I looked out the window and saw people rushing down to the wharf; they were running, and boats were taking off,” Conway-Boyd said.
Raised in a fishing family and having worked as a fisher, Conway-Boyd knew that someone was in trouble, and she knew her husband was out on the water.
“My brother-in-law Corey (Watt) left the wharf first with a bunch of people on board and then my Dad (Pat Conway) left the wharf with a bunch of people on board. I knew something was wrong. I started to panic; thinking ‘Oh my goodness what’s going on,’” she said.
She did the only thing she could do at that moment, which was to get on the phone to start calling people in the community. Nobody was answering their phones at first until finally her mother answered a call and told her she was on her way to the young family’s house. When she arrived, she had the news, the boat My Buddy had gone down, but the crew – Millan Boyd, Trent Boyd and Kirkland David – were all safe.
Conway-Boyd was relieved, but shaken. She told The Journal, “Honestly, after I called my mom, I was expecting her to come up and tell me that they had drowned. That’s the first thing that went through my mind. Something really bad is happening ... When she said they were okay – I was okay. I felt better; [it was] a relief.”
Search at sea
While Conway-Boyd was in Whitehead watching the wharf and waiting for news, the lobster boat Dirty Deeds skippered by Duncan Bellefontaine was out on the water near Port Felix looking for the crew of My Buddy.
Bellefontaine has been fishing on and off most of his life and fishing steadily for the past three decades out of Port Felix, Guysborough County. That morning, at approximately 7:15 a.m., he and his crew – son-in-law Michael Snell, son Robert Bellefontaine, and nephew Jonathon Dort – had just set 10 pots, when a call came in over the radio that a boat had gone down and the crew was on a life raft.
“My understanding was every fisherman in our area was looking in different places,” Bellefontaine told The Journal, “everyone was spread out because we fish in a fairly big area and there’s not a big amount of us.”
Not long after the alarm was raised, Snell called out ‘I see something.’
“That day I forgot to put my glasses on, and my sight isn’t the best without them,” said Bellefontaine, “and I look and I go, ‘I don’t see anything.’ And he keeps looking. And I said to my son, ‘Will you see if there is anything over there? Mike says he sees something but I don’t see anything.’ I looked again and I said, ‘Yes, I see something!’ and I told Mike, ‘Keep looking, keep them in your sight.’”
Bellefontaine turned his boat towards what he hoped was the missing crew and as he drew closer he was assured that what they all saw was indeed a life raft; and soon after he could see there were three men in the raft; just as he had been told there were three crew members on the boat that sank.
“We came up to the side of the life raft and – I hope I don’t get emotional here,” said Bellefontaine, “but the look on their faces; I haven’t slept good ever since then because you put yourself in their place, the look on their faces, it wasn’t happiness that they had seen us, it was fear of what they went through, I think.”
Robert Bellefontaine grabbed the rope from the raft and, with Michael Snell, started to get the men aboard the vessel Dirty Deeds. The Boyd men, Trent and Millan, who are brothers, were both wet and very cold. The surface water temperature that morning was 2.7 Celsius.
My Buddy crew member Kirkland David was dry and “lively” and helped the recusing crew get all aboard. “Within a minute I think we had the three of them in,” said Bellefontaine, adding that he was surprised how quickly it happened, “because there was only enough room for one person at the rail to help because we didn’t have the room because we still had a lot of traps on. Michael Snell said, because of Kirkland. He was a good-sized boy, and he was practically lifting them up and Mike would pull them in.”
Once aboard the wet crewmen were taken below deck to a heated washroom where they got out of their wet clothes.
“Mike, he took some of his dry clothes off and gave it to them. Then a call came into us from Cecil Cashin (another fisherman). Sometimes you’re just not thinking when all this stuff is going on and I thank Cecil for reminding me that we had immersion suits aboard,” said Bellefontaine, “so we got the boys into the immersion suits and Michael had some hot coffee and gave it to them.”
Meanwhile, the remaining Dirty Deeds crew members got the life raft aboard the boat and worked to secure gear that had shifted when the boat turned to head towards the raft. A call came in from Pat Conway, Millan Boyd’s father-in-law, that he was coming out to get the crew of My Buddy.
“Pat told me to try to get in closer to shore because it wasn’t a good situation out there; we were exposed to the winds. Once we got everything straitened away, I told Pat I was going to head in because the wind was pretty well on my stern then,” Bellefontaine said.
Once the Boyd brothers were warmed up, said Bellefontaine, “They came out and they were feeling a little better and my son-in-law said he never had so many hugs in all his life and thank yous. And Millan; I was at the wheel going in and he came up to me and put his arm around me and thanked me like crazy. I can tell you we were overly thanked. I told him anybody would do what we did that day.
“I am so proud of my crew—I don’t think that anybody that was certified in doing this stuff that we have been learning over the years, could have done any better in the bad situation that we were in. I keep telling people that another five or ten minutes, the situation could have been worse,” said Bellefontaine adding, “And when you talk about heroes, there were a lot of heroes that day. When you talk about them getting off the boat, you don’t realize what they went through. When you think about it; somebody had to do certain things for those people to survive.”
“The other day,” Bellefontaine told The Journal, “when I was steaming in and Millan had his arm around me, I said, ‘Millan you go home now and you hug your wife and hug your little boy,’ because you never know.”
Paying it forward
When asked if he’d ever experienced an event like this before in all his years on the water, Bellefontaine said he hadn’t, with the exception of one incident when he was about 13 years old fishing in a small open boat with his father not far from Whitehead.
“Our engine broke down. Back then we never had a house on the boat, never had radar or ship to shore radio and we drifted into a place called Ball Rock off of Whitehead, not too far from where this happened, maybe two miles westward. And we were anchored there, and our anchor was dragging. I thought that day that we were gone. And I never saw my dad get seasick before, but he threw up that day. But I don’t think it was seasickness, I think he was worried about me.
“There were three people that came out of Whitehead in the fog; Gerald Rhynold, his son Lee Rhynold and Rene LeBlanc, a senior from Whitehead, that came out and they were beating on a galvanized bucket and we heard it and the fog just cleared up enough for them to see us and they brought us ashore. On the 19th, I returned the favour to another crew,” said Bellefontaine.
When the crew of My Buddy was ashore, they went to Eastern Memorial Hospital in Canso to get checked out and were all deemed to be in good condition.
“Right after that,” Conway-Boyd said, “Millan started making phone calls trying to figure out how he was going to get back out; he had to set the gear, he had to get the traps out. You only have 60 days to make most of your living for the year. It’s our livelihood. You have to get your gear out. You’ve got to get back out there.”
In short order offers of help and support were coming in from Whitehead and surrounding communities. Conway-Boyd said, “It’s just amazing. I am so glad to be part of this community. I don’t know how we are going to thank everybody.
“My dad offered up his boat – he starts fishing the end of this month…there were so many people trying to help, and I feel like everybody is a hero in this story. There’s not one person that shouldn’t be recognized for everything that is going on. I can’t single anybody out because every single person is helping … it’s just incredible,” she said.
Later that day, Millan Boyd went back out to set the rest of his pots. When asked how she felt about that, Conway-Boyd said, “I’m always going to be worried about everybody; all my family and all my friends that are in the fishing industry … It always was a worry but now that something actually has happened it really sets the tone. It makes you think and makes you realize not to take people for granted and to give everybody you love a hug because tomorrow you might not have them. That’s how I am feeling.”