By Kathy Johnson
It was with fair winds that Woods Harbour fisherman Sandy Stoddard left the Port LaTour wharf on Sunday, Feb. 10 bound for the fishing grounds along the Scotian Shelf.
“The weather was good,” said the veteran fisherman. “We had perfect weather for four or five days.”
Stoddard, aboard the Logan and Morgan, his son Chrisjon on the Benji and Sisters, as well as Katlin Nickerson and the crew of the Miss Ally were among the boats on the fishing grounds that week. “Others were fishing to the east of us in an area known as the edge,” said Stoddard. “We were in the Gully. The Miss Ally was about 110 to 115 miles away to the southwest.”
As fishermen do, Stoddard kept an eye on weather forecasts during the trip, especially two low pressures- one that was forming along the U.S. eastern seaboard and the other coming across from the southern U.S.
With the forecast calling for the two fronts coming together and intensifying, Stoddard made the decision Saturday morning (Feb. 16) that he would haul his gear back that day and head for port the next morning in Arichat. “I called Chrisjon and then contacted Katlin to let him know what was going on,” said Stoddard.
“At that point Katlin confirmed to me that he was also going in after he got his gear back,” recalled Stoddard. “That night I called him and it was at that point that I learned that they couldn’t find their gear.”
The Miss Ally had lost use of the power inverter, used to power the bright deck lights and search lights by which fishermen work. Speaking with crewmate Joel Hopkins, the plan was for the Miss Ally to lay anchor that night and get the gear back in the morning, said Stoddard.
When Stoddard contacted the Miss Ally on Sunday morning (Feb. 17), the crew had found the gear and were hauling it in. “I called Katlin again at 6 that evening,” said Stoddard. “He was on his way to Sambro at that point and said the northwest wind had just struck.”
Stoddard stayed in contact with the Miss Ally until 10:40 p.m. “That was the last time I spoke with Katlin,” said Stoddard. At that point he was still en route to Sambro, and while not in any real trouble, had wanted to contact the coast guard to alert them that he was on the way in so they could track him, but the Miss Ally’s radio wasn’t working so Stoddard made the call.
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Twenty-six minutes late the Miss Ally’s emergency locator beacon was activated about 120 kilometres south of Liverpool
“I don’t think at any point that he was in real trouble,” said Stoddard. “I think what happened, happened all at once.”
For Stoddard, the tragedy of the Miss Ally hits close to home. “I knew them all,” he said. “They were hard working, good young men just making a living.”
Billy Jack Hatfield was Stoddard’s second cousin. He called Katlin Nickerson, Cole Nickerson, Tyson Townsend and Joel Hopkins “my babies. I took them under my wing to help them out,” said Stoddard, sharing his knowledge of the fishing grounds with Katlin. “We communicated all the time,” he said.
“I have a lot of respect for Katlin,” said Stoddard. “He was an aggressive young man and he was good at what he did. If this was a world of sports he would be classified as the Sidney Crosby of the fishing industry. Any plant owner looking for a kid to skipper a boat, this is the kind of kid they would be looking for.” said Stoddard.
Reflecting over the capsizing of the Miss Ally, “There will be many people wondering what if,” said Stoddard. “The truth of the matter is the Miss Ally got caught in a storm. The truth of the matter is that Katlin didn’t do anything different than any other skipper has done before. The truth of the matter is it’s going to be sad around here for a long time.”
Stoddard has logged 40 years in the commercial fishery. Like any businessman, Stoddard tries to make the best living that he can with the resources that he has. That means fishing lobster in December at the start of the season and switching to halibut and groundfish from January to March when lobster catches are slow. “This is our livelihood. This is our life,” said Stoddard. “As fishermen this is what we do.”