HILLSBURN, N.S. — One of the six missing scallop fishers was found dead late Tuesday evening as teams search the shores near a Nova Scotia village for the remaining five and community members struggle to remain hopeful.
Near the scene along the Bay of Fundy, Rev. Bob Elliott, the pastor of the Hillsburn United Baptist Church, said fears of the worst were mounting for the missing scallop dragger Chief William Saulis.
"If you're a praying person, you should be praying now," the minister said in an interview Tuesday.
Earlier in the day, two empty life-rafts from the dragger washed ashore near his church in the village of about 250 people.
"We're remaining hopeful until we're told not to be hopeful. It's nearing Christmas, and there's people, and loved ones, and there are children involved. So we must remain positive for now," Elliott said.
A fisherman who worked on the dragger last year described his distress at the news that searchers only found fragments of the boat near the site where an emergency beacon went off at 5:50 a.m. on Tuesday.
Jacob Jacquard said high tides and wicked winds can rapidly transform the Bay of Fundy into a dangerous place to work.
"It's hitting real close to home," he said from his home in the Yarmouth area.
"It's a very sad day for our community, that's for sure. I grew up with most of these guys. I've known them my whole life."
He said he also finds it hard to understand how the incident unfolded, given the experience of the captain.
"He's (the captain) been in the business a long time, he knows the waters. It could've been a number of things that took place. It could've been anything from mechanical issues to one bad wave hit them."
According to the Halifax search and rescue co-ordination centre, seas were two to three metres high and winds were gusting well over 50 km/h at the time the vessel sank. Poor weather also hampered the search by military aircraft and three coast guard vessels.
Lt.-Cmdr. Brian Owens of the search and rescue co-ordination centre in Halifax said the boat went down off Delaps Cove, N.S., about 40 kilometres northeast of Digby. The debris was spotted at 8:22 a.m.
Owens said a large search effort was underway, but as of 6 p.m. local time no survivors had been located. The organization sent out a tweet around 11 p.m. that one person was found dead and said the search for the others was continuing.
Alain d'Entremont, president of the Full Bay Scallop Association, confirmed that the boat is owned by Yarmouth Sea Products, which is a member of the association.
D'Entremont said the 15-metre scallop dragger was on its way to Digby when it "seemed to have sunk."
"As a vessel owner myself, you go to bed at night thinking about the men who are out on the water. It's something you think about all the time, and you hate to hear about it."
Owens had earlier said the search will continue through the day and into the night.
"Our determination is to find these individuals as quickly as possible and we'll continue as long as we have to in order to find these people," he said.
The area has a long tradition of scallop fishing, and a prior sinking tragedy is still fresh in the memories of many fishers in the Digby area.
On Sept. 14, 2010, a search in the Bay of Fundy for a missing scallop dragger, The RLJ, and its crew of four was called off after the military confirmed none had survived.
The draggers often set out from Yarmouth and Digby on multi-day journeys in the bay, and typically have emergency beacons that can instantly alert authorities if a disaster occurs.
However, Roger LeBlanc, a member of the Maritime Fishermen's Union and lobster fisherman based out of nearby Meteghan, N.S., said winds overnight were unexpectedly fierce.
"The seas are high today, the currents are running high, it's the highest tides of the year, really and there's a lot of currents," he said. "Anything can happen."
The RCMP is overseeing the shoreline searches, which are being conducted by local volunteers. Cpl. Mike Carter, RCMP incident commander, said about 35 searchers had been working in small teams throughout the day and well past dark.
"The weather is not very conducive for searching," he said in an interview, noting that the tide was so high at noon that searchers could not walk along the shore.
"The temperature is below zero and the wind has been blowing from the west all day. There's offshore winds, pounding surf and the searchers are experiencing sea frost and mist coming off the breaking waves."
Kent Molyneaux, search director for the Annapolis County Ground Search and Rescue Association, confirmed searchers had found objects "that indicate there was a boat in distress," but he declined to be more specific.
He said the search covers about 10 kilometres of shoreline.
"Regardless of the conditions, we concentrate on the hope that we will find survivors," he said, standing in the basement hall of Hillsburn United Baptist Church, where volunteer searchers wearing bright orange sipped coffee or ate fish and chips. "You cannot give up. We will not give up. We're trying to help the families."
Angela Burnie, a member of the church, spent the day working in the warming centre for first responders, offering tea, coffee and sandwiches.
“Words can't explain how we feel here on the shore, because it's right in our backyard,” she said.
“There's been, certainly, boats that have gone down and lives have been lost, but nothing this close to our little community,” said Burnie. “We just have to hope and pray that everything goes well.”
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Dec. 15, 2020.
— With files from Michael Tutton, Keith Doucette and Danielle Edwards in Halifax.
Michael MacDonald, The Canadian Press