National Fisherman

Sealed in

Pack ice strands harp seal fleet off Newfoundland

By Alison Dyer

After days of blasting northeasterlies over the region, followed by some weak southwesterlies, the night of May 1 was still. A fog settled down over the compacted Arctic ice field. Skipper Dean Patey, his brother Dave and remaining crewman Sheldon Richards were settling in for another uneasy night aboard Patey's Venture, a 35-foot boat stuck in the North Atlantic's icy grip.

They were one of the last three boats beset by ice, although they took little comfort in that knowledge. The fog obliterated any sign of lights from the other two vessels. In contrast, their nemesis constantly reminded them of its presence. The scrunching sound of ice kept the pressure on their boats and on their nerves.

"Put a pencil dot in the middle of a piece of paper, and that's us. That's the ice all around us," said Dean Patey. It had been 21 days at that point, and the crew was battling stress, boredom and, that night, a feeling of being alone in a harsh environment far from home.

"We drifted 136 miles from the time we left home 'til now," Patey said. That night, they remained lodged somewhere between Fogo Island and the Funks.

Patey's Venture sat off the northeast coast of Newfoundland in a sealing area referred to as The Front. Much of the sealing fleet set out in the second week of April to The Front, where the majority of this year's quota of 270,000 harp seals would be taken. Some of the sealing vessels made it out and were heading back with their quota. Many boats from the Northern Peninsula never made it out of their ice-bound harbors. Still others, like Patey's Venture, sailed from port but never got close to the harp seal herds. Instead, they became stranded in an ice pack that stretched about 200 by 80 nautical miles: from the Strait of Belle Isle south to Cape Freels. For some sealers, the ordeal of being trapped in ice lasted almost a month.

Dean Patey was one of them. That night of May 1, they were hoping to be rescued by a Canadian Coast Guard vessel. But not that night. Maybe the next. It was a game of wait and wonder.

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