Back-to-back rescues; human smuggling?

Tina Comeau
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Survivors plucked from water in two separate incidents hours apart in southwestern Nova Scotia

By Tina Comeau


What started out Monday night as a routine training exercise for the crew of a Cormorant helicopter based at 413 Squadron in Greenwood ended up with two back-to-back life-saving missions in southwestern Nova Scotia that involved plucking survivors from the water in two separate incidents just hours apart from each other.

And now comes word that the federal government is investigating whether a stricken yacht with a deadly outcome may have been a case of failed human smuggling.

Public Safety Minister Vic Toews says some of the people who were rescued in an incident off around 140 kilometres off Cape Sable Island have claimed refugee status. 

"This tragedy highlights the need for speedy passage of the Protecting Canada's Immigration System Act," Toews said in a statement on Tuesday. "There is an enormous and unnecessary risk involved with the act of human smuggling. Our government's message is clear to those contemplating a human smuggling operation — don't do it."


Two rescues occured in southwestern Nova Scotia on Monday night. 

In the first case five people were hoisted from the water in Great Pubnico Lake after a pleasure craft they were on became disabled. All were brought back safely to shore.

In the second incident – the one now suspected to be a possible case of human smuggling – the outcome was not as fortunate, with one person pronounced dead as the search continued into the morning for three missing people from an overturned sailboat, the SV Tabasco 2, in waters off Cape Sable Island. The nine people onboard the overturned vessel, which had reportedly broken down, were said to be from foreign nationals, possibly from eastern Europe.They were also said to have been wearing life jackets.

Three of them had been rescued by the tanker FSL Hamburg, which had heard the SOS and responded to the scene as the incident unfolded. The Cormorant crew picked up three others, including the man who was pronounced dead.

On Tuesday the search continued for the three other missing sailors. A Hercules aircraft and the coast guard vessel Earl Grey, along with other vessels in the area, were involved in the search.

While the squadron crew involved in the two separate rescues was at the Yarmouth airport Tuesday morning, preparing to head back to Greenwood, Lt.-Col. Guy LeBlanc, the commanding officer of the squadron, told the Yarmouth Vanguard that the conditions of the second rescue mission off Cape Sable Island were horrendous.

“The guys were all saying those were the worst conditions they had ever seen,” he said. “The sea state and the state of the vessel, how broken it was and how it was rolling and pitching, those were horrendous conditions and they had never seen anything bad like that.”

Reached shortly before 5 p.m. on Tuesday, media spokesperson Lieutenant Edward Stanfield of the Joint Rescue Coordination Centre in Halifax said there had been no change in the search effort. The search was still underway and no one had been found in the water.

“Unfortunately there is really no change, they are still out there searching, all of the same ships and aircraft are still there. Unfortunately there is no sign of anything, no indication of the three missing individuals.”

Overnight, however, the search concluded since it was felt there was no hope of finding anyone alive, given the frigid temperature of the water and sea conditions.

It has now been turned over to the RCMP as a missing person’s investigation.

Asked about the conditions during the day Tuesday at the scene of the search, Stanfield said they were still pretty severe.

“There’s not been much improvement. I don’t think it’s gotten any worse but it hasn’t gotten any better,” he said.

The three missing sailors were said to be wearing life jackets, but that’s all they had.

“We don’t believe they had any life boat or any other life floatation device, or what we would call floater suits that would keep them warm, it would just basically be a life vests,” said Stanfield.

After it was determined that there was no one still on board the yacht, which was badly damaged, it was left to drift in the sea.

The FSL Hamburg tanker that had picked up three of the sailors remained on the scene throughout the day to assist with the search. Initially there had been reports, said Stanfield, that the tanker was headed to Saint John, N.B. with the three survivors onboard. But because the three men were considered relatively uninjured, the tanker stayed on the scene and contributed to the search throughout the day.

It was through the tanker that the Joint Rescue Coordination Centre was first alerted to the fact that a boat and those on board was in peril. In an ideal situation the coordination centre receives a distress call where everything is clear and the information is readily laid out. Other times it is more common for information to come trickling in. That was the case with this incident.

“We were receiving information second and third-hand through the tanker, and we were able to sort of backtrack through to them to get more information from them and that’s when we were able to fully engage ourselves in the search,” said Stanfield. “But as soon as we were alerted there was an issue the coast guard ship Earl Grey was dispatched right away and it wasn’t long after that that the Cormorant helicopter was tasked.”


As mentioned, Monday evening had started out quite normally for the helicopter crew. They were performing a night training exercise off Greenwood, mostly focused on getting one of the flight engineers re-qualified. On board were two flight engineers, two search and rescue technicians and two pilots.

“While we were doing our training mission we got a distress call that was relayed to us from the Joint Rescue Coordination Centre in Halifax and we turned towards Yarmouth immediately, it took us roughly half an hour to get here,” said Lt.-Col LeBlanc.

That call involved a report of five men who were in distress in Great Pubnico Lake after their boat ran into trouble. A 911 call had come in around 9:20 p.m.


West Pubnico Fire Department chief Gordon Amiro said one of the men on the boat was able to call 911 with a cell phone. Both the West Pubnico and East Pubnico fire departments responded to scene, expecting to help bring the men back to shore.

There are reports the stern of their boat had gone underwater and the 4.2-metre boat then filled with water. It didn’t sink but it drifted for a while before getting stuck on a sandbar. The men used a flashlight to signal their location to those on shore.

As firefighters were responding to the scene with boats, they received word that the rescue helicopter was just minutes away. Amiro said that news was a relief.

“You’re probably looking at waves as high as a four-storey building, in darkness, 40-knot winds and a vessel that was still afloat, but pretty much destroyed." Search and rescue technician Sgt. Norm Penny

“I was glad the helicopter had arrived because if we had had to have gotten them it would have taken a while to get to shore and the men would have been really cold,” he said. “Our men that went out onto the water, when they came back any water that had sprayed on them was all frozen on their clothes, it was very cold.”

The Cormorant crew quickly sprang to action.


“We found the people, they were clinging to the hull. There were five guys, one was on top, and four others were surrounding it and holding on,” said Lt.-Col LeBlanc.

The helicopter came into a hover and inserted one of the rescue technicians, Sgt. Norm Penny, into the hoist that remained connected to the helicopter. Sgt. Penny took control on the capsized vessel, by taking charge of the survivor situation, coordinating what order the survivors would be hoisted into the helicopter and also giving the men from the capsized vessel a safety briefing.

“Our second search and rescue technician, Master Corporal Rob Featherstone, essentially was used to ferry the people back up to the helicopter, so we would hoist him down, and then he would grab one of the guys, use a double rescue sling and then tie himself up with the survivor and then we’d hoist him up,” said Lt.-Col LeBlanc. “We extracted all five guys like that.”

He says it took about 15 minutes to get everyone on board the helicopter. The wind at the time, said Lt.-Col LeBlanc, was gusty and strong. He figured at times there were wind gusts of up to 60 or 70 kilometres an hour.

“So for the helicopter we were definitely struggling on the controls just to maintain position, it was definitely quite demanding,” he said. “But we have good aircraft systems that helps to stabilize the systems so we were definitely making good use of that.”

Aiding the situation were the two flight engineers on board, Warrant Officer Mike Mar and Corporal Clint Lewis, and aircraft commander Trevor Pellerin.

“We came back to the Yarmouth hospital and offloaded the men. We were told they were suffering from mild hypothermia and one person was a little more affected than the others.”

Fraser Mooney, a spokesperson for South West Health, said the five men were treated at the Yarmouth Regional Hospital and released after a few hours.

After bringing the men ashore, the helicopter and its crew, meanwhile,headed back to the Yarmouth airport to refuel since they had essentially used up all of their fuel and didn’t have enough to go back to Greenwood.

But the night would not end there. 

And things would get significantly more dangerous.

“While we were refueling we get a second call from the Joint Rescue Coordination Centre, telling us about a sailing boat in distress off Cape Sable Island,” said Lt.-Col LeBlanc. “There was a 36-foot sailing boat with nine people on board that had been reported in distress, and there was a larger ship that was providing assistance.”




Geographic location: Southwestern Nova Scotia

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Recent comments

  • Trina Norman
    March 28, 2012 - 14:48

    Great article! What a night for these brave men on the Cormorant! Too many people like to tear down the efforts of our search and rescue teams ( recent Fifth Estate Show) and not look at the danger they put themselves in time after time. They can only work with what they have and the personnel that are tasked only have 24 hours in the day like the rest of us. Unfortunately, they cannot be everywhere at once, but they were sure in the right place this time!!! Great job. !!

  • Ronald
    March 27, 2012 - 23:53

    I love straight honest articles that explain the real life obstacles people encounter. This was a great read, much respect to the SAR crew and author for presenting this story.

  • LCol Guy Leblanc
    March 27, 2012 - 19:52

    Great write-up, Tina. This is by far the best article I've read on our mission last night. I'm glad you came by and took good notes. It now seems the story is evolving into a suspected case of human smuggling. My crew and I obviously know nothing about that, and are just happy to finally get some rest at home. The two SAR Techs and two Flight Engineers reported to the military hospital to have their minor injuries checked-up, and will be quite sore for a while. I'm extremely proud of the entire crew! Cheers Guy