Friday evening, June 19, 1959, 54 fishing boats – most with two or three person crews — sailed from the sheltered harbour of Escuminac, New Brunswick to set their 1,600 metre long drift nets to catch migrating salmon. Once they had lowered their nets and marked them, they planned to stay attached to them, waiting until dawn when they would haul in their nets, retrieve their catch, and head for home.
When they sailed, the wind was blowing but the weather forecast issued by the Dominion Public Weather Office (now Environment Canada) at 4 p.m. Atlantic time called for “light winds tonight, tomorrow north-east 25,” (Saunders, 96; in 1959, Canadian weather forecasts referred to miles per hour). By 10 p.m., with the next forecast calling for “North-East Gales 35 shifting about Dawn to North-West 35” was issued (Saunders, 96), most of the boats were at sea. By then, however, the sea was increasingly rough. Boxing Champion Yvon Durelle, who lived at nearby Baie Ste.-Anne, started out then turned back. At 5 a.m. the next morning, on nearby Prince Edward Island, the wind was recorded as 88 kilometres an hour, gusting to 112 (Saunders, 100).
As the weather grew worse and the waves higher and higher, the crews of the boats huddled in their small cabins – known as “cuddies” – unable to sleep as their boats tossed. As the waves started crashing over the boats, one after another got into trouble. On one, the sails were torn apart. On another, the mast was broken. On several, the motors were swamped. Some tried desperately to bail but that was difficult in the rough weather. A few released their nets and tried to run for harbour but this made things worse: it was much rougher in the shallower water closer to shore. During that night and after dawn the next morning, 22 of the 35 boats were lost and 35 men and boys drowned. Eventually 13 of the 35 bodies were recovered. The impact, however, was even greater: some missing fishermen had as many as eight children. The tragedy left 26 widows and 83 fatherless children.
Not all of those on the 22 lost boats died. When a boat belonging to Jack Doucett disappeared beneath a large wave, some watching assumed his boat, Francine D, had sunk. In fact, the wave did kill George Manuel who was hit by flying debris. But Bernie Jenkins in Alda Marie saw that Doucett and his two sons were clinging to the wreckage and managed to toss them a rope and haul them onto his boat. He and his crew rescued the father and one son fairly quickly but it was another hour before they were able to rescue the other son, Alphonse, who had caught the rope twice and handed it to his father and brother (Saunders, 59). After the rescue, in an effort to keep the three drenched men warm, the crew of Alda Marie ripped the tires they used as guards on the side of their boat to use as fuel. For food, they ate some of their salmon catch. At one point, all of them – including the three they rescued, had to bail water to keep Alda Marie afloat.
By morning, those on shore knew there were problems and they gathered on the docks to watch and wait. Sometimes they would see a boat approach the breakwater then, on hitting the heavier seas in shallow water, turn and head out again. By then, word of the disaster had been relayed to the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) and to the Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF), which sent out search and rescue aircraft. But there was little the searchers could do. Bits of debris began to drift ashore as did some bodies. Some debris was recognized. Albany Martin of Baie Ste. Anne found the side of a wheelhouse, which he identified as part of his brother Andre’s boat. His brother, age 31, and Albany’s son, 22, who was with his brother, had been on that boat and were both lost at sea.
The tragedy was featured on CBC radio and television and led to the creation of a relief fund that eventually reached $400,000. Part of the money — $75,000 – came from the Canadian Disaster Relief Fund, money left over after assistance was given to victims of the 1950 Red River flood in Manitoba. In addition to money, supplies of food and clothing were also collected and shipped to the families of those lost. In Moncton alone, the Royal Canadian Legion collected five tons of canned goods, flour, meat, drugs and candy and arranged to have it sorted and delivered in packages to individual families (Saunders, 69).
The fishermen had headed out to sea on Friday, June 19. The first funerals were held Tuesday, June 22. First there was a Roman Catholic service followed by burial in Baie Ste.-Anne for William Manuel, Edgar Daigle and Remi Martin, followed by an Anglican service in Bay du Vin for Cunard Williston, Haley Williston and Harold Taylor. There were more funerals that Wednesday and Thursday as more bodies were recovered.
News of the incident reached the Queen and Prince Phillip who were in Canada on a Royal Tour. They made a personal contribution to the fund and, after some discussion, arrangements were made for the royal yacht Britannia to anchor off Pointe-du-Chêne wharf near Shediac and for the widows and their children to be bussed there to meet the Queen.
There is now a stone monument of a fisherman, 2.3 metres high, created by Acadian artist Claude Roussel. It is titled simply, “Les Pêcheurs – the Fishermen.” Those who sail from Escuminac have strong family ties. When Archie Martin compiled the list of those who died for the monument, he included three of his cousins, Raphael and Victor Robichaud and Alonzo Marin and one uncle, Andre Martin.
Tags: 1959 Escuminac