Refugees remember heroes at sea

Tamils honour 25th anniversary of rescue off coast of Newfoundland

Published on August 12, 2011
Gus Dalton's ship the Atlantic Reaper was the first to reach 155 Tamil refugees floating in a pair of lifeboats on Aug. 11, 1986. Among those looking for a new lease on life was Siva Mehanathan, who now lives in Ontario. Photo by Andrew Robinson/The Telegram


On Aug. 11, 1986, Siva Mehanathan was surrounded by suffering.

Trying to stay warm in one of two lifeboats 10 kilometres off the coast of St. Shott's on the southern shore, the Sri Lanka native was one of 155 waiting a third straight day for help.

The Tamil refugees had already spent 10 days in a cargo ship that departed from their homeland before dropping them off in the Atlantic Ocean.

They were without food or water, and times were getting desperate.

But the sight of the Atlantic Reaper, a fishing vessel captained by Gus Dalton of Admiral's Beach, was the beginning of what's turned into a rewarding life in Canada for the married father of three, who now lives in Scarborough, Ont.

The Canadian Tamil Congress celebrated the efforts of Dalton, his crew, and the people of Newfoundland and Labrador at a special dinner Thursday night in St. John's that marked the 25th anniversary of the dramatic rescue at sea.

Prior to leaving his home country in southern Asia, Mehanathan said it was hard living as a Tamil in Sri Lanka. Sinhala Buddhist nationalists ruled the country and consistently persecuted Tamils.

"They were killing Tamils. We weren't safe for our life, so that's why we left the country."

The ride on the cargo ship was an arduous one for the refugees.

"It was a very hard time, because we were underground," said Mehanathan. "We were not sleeping well."

Once they were left in the Atlantic, Mehanathan said the cold air was instantly noticeable, particularly given all passengers on the life boat were coming from a country with a tropical and warm climate.

The timing of the Atlantic Reaper's arrival was timely, given their predicament.

"Without water, we're going to die in the lifeboat," said Mehanathan, who imagines some people would not have made it had they spent another day at sea.

Dalton was fishing for cod and flounder on what he called a fairly calm day when the two lifeboats were spotted.

"I thought there was a ship after sinking," said the 80-year-old Dalton. "No one could talk English, so I did the best I could."

Dalton alerted the Canadian Coast Guard about the situation. He was told not to bring the Tamil refugees to shore, but in the mean time he was able to fit 55 of them on his vessel. It was a tight squeeze.

There was a five hour wait before a larger vessel arrived to take all of the refugees to shore.

Once they were brought back to land by a fisheries patrol boat, the refugees were granted work permits, with most of them later settling in Toronto and Montreal.

In a news release, Canadian Tamil Congress director Piragal Thiru called the efforts of Dalton and his crew "heroic."

"They are national heroes worthy and deserving of national recognition for their efforts in saving 155 lives. Their efforts are engrained in the hearts and minds of those who were rescued."

Mehanathan traveled alone to Canada without any family members, but he has since settled nicely into his new homeland. After working hard at a restaurant, Mehanathan was able to save money and open a jewellery store.

"My situation now is that I'm rich."

Returning to the province for the first time since being rescued, Mehanathan said he's very happy to be back and to have the chance to once again see Capt. Dalton.

As for Dalton, he is pleased to know the people he helped rescue have found new lives in Canada.

"I'm glad they all got into Canada. Picture yourself coming up on a terrible scene of people in those boats trying to get to Canada. They need to be here."