As the new year dawned, the search continued for the Chief William Saulis and the five fishermen who went missing with the vessel in the early morning hours of Dec. 15 in the Bay of Fundy.
Aaron Cogswell, Leonard Gabriel, Daniel Forbes, Eugene Francis and the boat’s captain, Charles Roberts, were still missing as The Atlantic Fisherman was going to press. The body of crewman Mike Drake was found the same night the vessel went down.
The Chief William Saulis sent out an emergency beacon signal around 5:51 a.m. on Dec. 15 near Delaps Cove. The vessel was a scallop dragger out on a fishing trip, returning to its home port in Digby. Seas were rough that day. A second vessel, Guess, went ashore on the rocks in Yarmouth Harbour later that same morning. The crew was safe, but the vessel was a loss.
After more than 36 hours of searching, covering 260 square nautical miles, the Joint Rescue Coordination Centre Halifax (JRCC Halifax) turned the matter over to the RCMP as a missing persons case on Dec. 16.
Since then, with a Command Centre at the United Baptist Church in Hillsburn as a base of operations, the RCMP has been supported by the Nova Scotia Emergency Management Office (EMO), Nova Scotia Public Safety and Field Communications, Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO), Land and Forestry and Ground Search and Rescue teams from West Hants, Valley, Annapolis, Digby, Clare and Yarmouth in the search for the missing fishermen and debris from the vessel.
In addition to shoreline and aerial searches, the RCMP, in partnership with the Canadian Coast Guard who provided a platform and Canada Border Services Agency which provided a remote operated vehicle (ROV), were also involved in the search for the missing vessel.
The Chief William Saulis was owned by Yarmouth Sea Products. In a statement issued by the company following the incident, it said the vessel departed Digby on Dec. 12 and was engaged in fishing until approximately 5:50 a.m. on Dec. 15.
“The company received a call as a result of the automatic activation of the EPIRB (emergency position locator) at approximately 6 a.m. local time on the 15th. An attempt was made to contact the vessel by cellphone shortly after and there was no response. There appears to have been an unknown event causing the vessel to capsize as no distress call is known to have been made. The black box which provides information to the vessel management system was checked by the company and it was determined that it appears the fishing vessel left the fishing ground at approximately 1 a.m. local time on the 15th. The black box provides hourly updates of location information through the VMS (vessel monitoring system). The system indication shows that the vessel continued steaming toward Digby until the signal stopped around 6 a.m. local time.”
“The company has spoken to other fishermen who were fishing during the same period of time who spoke with Captain Roberts on Monday by inter-vessel communication and every indication indicates that the trip was proceeding as normal.
“During Monday (Dec. 14) the forecast indicated that the weather would deteriorate later on Monday and into Tuesday. Because of the forecast, vessels began to depart the fishing ground and proceed to the home port of Digby late Monday night.”
The company said Captain Roberts was “a very experienced fishing captain on scallop draggers. He has fished for Yarmouth Sea Products and other companies over the years on different scallop vessels. He is highly regarded by his peers in the industry. He had been operating the Chief William Saulis for most of 2020. The crewmembers, several of whom were from Yarmouth, were experienced fishermen.”
Yarmouth Sea Products said it’s committed to cooperating fully with the Transportation Safety Board, Transport Canada and the provincial Department of Labour into the sinking.
“It takes time and a lot of research to figure out what might have happened when there are no witnesses and no vessel,” said Pierre Murry, operations manager for the Transportation Safety Board in the Atlantic Region in an interview.
With no mayday sent, that could “indicate that maybe it did go quick,” said Murry. “There was no one to send any kind of distress message other than the EPIRB.”
Murray said the Transportation Safety Board does have a team in the area and the investigation is ongoing.
Meanwhile, several benevolent funds have been set up to help the families of the lost fishermen. An account in the name of Chief William Saulis Benevolent Fund has been set at area Credit Unions.
The Full Bay Scallop Association, an industry association representing the majority of the inshore scallop fishery, including Yarmouth Sea Products, has donated $60,000 and set up a GoFundMe account to help collect funds for the families.
The Chief William Saulis was a 50-foot fibreglass vessel built in 2004 in Lower East Pubnico, N.S.