Plucked from high seas

Emma
Emma Graney
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Fisherman recalls the agonizing moments after the Marine Clipper II caught fire

It was 9 a.m. and Shawn Hughes was standing on the deck of the Marine Clipper II keeping watch.

The Bartlett's Harbour fisherman, his skipper and three other crew members had steamed out of Harbour Grace at about 2 a.m.; most of the crew were asleep.

As four-metre waves pounded the boat's hull, an alarm went off in the engine room.

Assuming rough weather had somehow brought water into the bilge of the crab boat, Hughes went to investigate.

Above, Shawn Hughes sits in his living room with his two kids, nine-year-old Dawson and 13-year-old Summer. Below, The Marine Clipper II on fire off the coast of St. John's. Top photo by Emma Graney/The Northern Pen/below photo courtesy of DFO

St. Anthony -

It was 9 a.m. and Shawn Hughes was standing on the deck of the Marine Clipper II keeping watch.

The Bartlett's Harbour fisherman, his skipper and three other crew members had steamed out of Harbour Grace at about 2 a.m.; most of the crew were asleep.

As four-metre waves pounded the boat's hull, an alarm went off in the engine room.

Assuming rough weather had somehow brought water into the bilge of the crab boat, Hughes went to investigate.

"I opened the door but I couldn't see anything. It was just all black," Hughes said, recalling the incident that made national headlines two weeks ago.

"I reached out to turn on the light but when I switched it on nothing happened. I still don't know if no light came on or if the smoke was just that thick and that black that I couldn't see it, but then I realized what was going on and I yelled 'Fire!'

"I yelled that we needed to get our survival suits on and get off the ship. Usually it's the skipper's call to abandon ship but I wasn't waiting for no skipper."

Sitting at his kitchen table last week, Hughes recalled what happened next in detail but admitted he had no idea how much time it took between noticing what would soon become a ferocious fire and being plucked from a lifeboat about 28 kilometres northeast of St. John's.

"It's strange when you're out there - things that seem like they took hours took seconds, things that seem like they took seconds took hours. You just can't tell," he said.

"(Crewman) Little Steve took his suit and I told him to go out to put it on, then I grabbed mine and followed him out. The skipper was out there and he's been sizing up the situation. He went for the fire extinguisher but as he reached for it he touched the wall - you could see where his hand and back were scorched because it was already that hot in there."

Realizing they couldn't fight the fire, the skipper issued a mayday.

By that time, Hughes and Little Steve had thrown the lifeboat into the crashing waves and smoke was billowing from the engine room.

The first crew member, who was sick, was lowered by rope over the edge of the Marine Clipper II into the lifeboat.

"I was at the top yelling that he had to get under the canopy bit of the lifeboat. He wasn't doing so well, but he finally got what we were saying and climbed underneath it.

"I grabbed the emergency beacon - I was holding onto it for dear life, because it's our lifeline - and I jumps down next into the boat, then came Little Steve, (other crewman) Yves, then (the skipper) Paul."

Paddling hard, the crew tried to get clear of their burning ship but ferocious winds and powerful waves kept pushing them back towards it.

"It was too hard to go into the wind, so I realized we could go sideways, parallel to the boat, which was a longer way to paddle but was easier because we weren't going right into the wind," Hughes said.

"Finally we got clear. It seemed like hours but it probably didn't take that long - maybe just five minutes or so to get clear."

By that stage the sick crew member was starting to doze off.

"We had to make sure he didn't fall asleep because if he did he wasn't coming back," Hughes said.

"What I did was I had the flare in my hand and I said, 'You can't go to sleep - you can jump, you can talk, you can sing as loud as you want but you can't go to sleep, and if you try I'll hit you with this here flare,' and he looked at me and he laughed. We found a sea anchor, which is kind of like a parachute material, so we covered him with that to keep him a bit warm. Then we waited.

"We just sat there, bobbing away, and I was saying we were all safe and everyone was going to be OK. I was just hoping that the emergency beacon had worked, because you never really know if they're going to work, do you; if they're going to send their little signal into the sky."

Not only had the emergency beacon worked, but a ship close to theirs had heard the frantic mayday moments before they'd abandoned ship.

"Paul said he could hear a noise, but there were still three- to four-metre seas on, so I had a look up through the canopy, and sure enough I could see a mast on the horizon. When I was sure it wasn't a mirage, I let off the rocket flare.

"It seemed like hours we were floating there, waiting for that boat to come over the horizon."

That boat turned out to be Goldrac 1, but with seas too big to risk getting the sick crew member onboard, they elected to wait for the fast rescue craft from the supply ship Burin Sea; the crew aboard Goldrac 1 assured them it was only a few minutes away.

Sure enough, the rescue craft arrived in minutes and took them back to the Burin Sea, which then brought them to St. John's.

There the crew were met by waiting media who were eager to talk to the men, but Hughes wouldn't give them his name.

"The thing was, I hadn't managed to get hold of my wife yet and I know how fast things move. We were sitting in the entertainment room of the Burin Sea and watching the TV and seeing our ship on fire - it was really strange. And at first they were reporting that three men were rescued so I knew she'd be worried and wondering who hadn't made it off the ship."

Sitting at her kitchen table last week, Jeannie Hughes nodded her head.

"By the time I heard it, I knew they were all in. They were all safe. I figured his cellphone had gone down with the boat which was why he hadn't called," she said.

"The two kids were home from school and Summer broke down in tears, so I couldn't break down with her or she would've thought something was really wrong."

Hughes lost all his gear in the fire and admits he probably won't be able to head out again this season - as much as he'd like to.

What does his family think about him going out fishing again after the fire on May 4?

"My father fished, my brothers all fish. You know there are dangers but there are dangers in everything," Jeannie Hughes said, shrugging. "The main thing is that he's home safe and sound now."

Their 13-year-old daughter, Summer, was less forgiving.

"Dad," she called out from the living room, "you're not going out again."

Hughes, who has 14 years of fishing experience, smiled.

"My dad almost drowned when he fell off a boat and he was back out two or three days later. Another guy I was with on a boat crushed his hand, but he went back out when that was healed up. In my head that's my bad experience over with. Hopefully they're done with now," he said.

"I'm just like every other fisherman - it's in my blood to go out. It's a fishing thing."

Geographic location: St. Anthony, St. John's

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