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Fathers of missing fishermen demand military retrieve capsized boat


George Hopkins displays a map as talks about the decision to call off the search for the crew of the missing fishing boat Miss Ally in Woods Harbour, N.S. on Wednesday, Feb. 20, 2013. Hopkins's son Joel was one of the five young fishermen on the ill-fated vessel that capsized off the Nova Scotia coast. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Andrew Vaughan

WOODS HARBOUR, N.S. - The fathers of two young Nova Scotia fishermen who disappeared when their boat capsized in violent seas issued emotional appeals Wednesday to the Canadian government to retrieve the vessel and, with it, possibly the bodies of their sons.

Stephen Nickerson and George Hopkins say the 13-metre boat spotted overturned Monday morning off southwest Nova Scotia could contain the remains of the five crew on the Miss Ally, along with answers as to why the boat flipped over Sunday night.

The two men, speaking in separate interviews, say time is running out because the boat is unlikely to stay afloat for much longer.

"If my boy is in that boat, I want to bring him home," Nickerson said. "I think he's in that boat and I think attempts should be made to (salvage the vessel)."

In addition to Cole Nickerson and Joel Hopkins, three other men were aboard the Miss Ally when it capsized in rough seas some time after 11 p.m. Sunday.

Stephen Nickerson said he's asked the military for a salvage operation, but was told the case is now being handled by the RCMP as a missing persons file.

"It seems like they're not going to do anything about that," said Nickerson, a fisherman for 35 years. "They said the search is called off and it's been turned over to the RCMP. That's it. That's as far as they go. ... We're all mad. It should go farther."

George Hopkins agreed, saying the families need both closure and a sense that they did all they could to find the five fishermen who left behind young children, parents or spouses.

"We need to know if there's bodies in there," he said.

"These kids were important. They were important to me, they were important to this community and there's five young boys in the prime of their life. We need closure. We need to know for sure that we've done everything we can."

Hopkins, sitting in his living room with two close friends and surrounded by photos of smiling children, said he was told Tuesday afternoon that the search would be called off. About 25 people sat around his TV in silence as news broke that the navy or coast guard would no longer look for the men after deciding the crew's chances for survival were slim, even if they were wearing immersion suits.

"It was like someone passing you a death certificate," he said, emotion in his voice. "These are five young boys."

Maj. Martell Thompson of the Joint Rescue Co-ordination Centre in Halifax said the most recent sighting of the boat's hull was confirmed by crew members aboard the coast guard vessel Earl Grey at 4:26 p.m. on Wednesday.

Asked whether consideration was given to searching the hull, he said weather and sea conditions didn't allow the hull to be safely boarded.

Police have not released the names of those on board the Miss Ally, but the three other men were identified at a local prayer service on Tuesday evening as Katlin Nickerson, Billy Jack Hatfield and Tyson Townsend.

RCMP Cpl. Scott MacRae said the Mounties are aware of the strong emotions surrounding the case, adding that they have a good idea of where the boat is and that planning is underway to determine whether a salvage operation could be carried out.

"Everything is on the table. That's certainly one avenue, but no decision has been made," said MacRae.

"We understand the emotions with the tragic loss of family members the human aspect of wanting to retrieve your loved one."

It was a sentiment rippling throughout the close-knit, shoreline community as residents grappled with the notion that the five fishermen would not be found alive, if at all.

Tim Nickerson, a long-time fishermen who knew all of the men on board, said he thought the search ended "abruptly" and should have continued for at least another 12 hours while the winds had eased and the sea had calmed.

Talking with friends at a fishermen's hall on the Woods Harbour wharf, Nickerson said the crew were all experienced, responsible and capable even in the roughest of seas. He recalled how some of them had fished on his boat several years ago and that Katlin Nickerson, Miss Ally's captain, offered to haul in his lobster traps when the older fisherman got sick a couple of weeks ago.

"He went the next morning, got them and they are now on the stern of my boat," he said, scrolling through photos on his phone of Katlin catching halibut with friends. "It shows you the integrity of these boys. They were very good workers and very good men."

He said Cole Nickerson, who is not related, was a perfectionist on the boat and could often be seen scrubbing the deck with a brush, even after the rest of the crew had gone.

"He was easy going, easy to get along with, but determined to work," he said with a smile. "This is just devastating from the little ones right through to the grandparents."

Debbie Atkinson, who works at the post office on Cape Sable Island, said her youngest son played hockey with three of the men when they were younger and went to school together. Cole Nickerson stayed with her family on occasion and they got to know him well.

"Cole always had a smile on his face," she said. "He had a space between his teeth that we always used to tease him about."

She said he was a hard worker who ventured out West and was trying to save money to build a house. She said Tyson Townsend, who has a young daughter of about five months old with his girlfriend, was "a bit of a pepper pot on the ice."

"Tyson was a leader," she said, noting that his temper could flare then easily give way to laughter. "He had passion."

She said they all enjoyed camping, hunting and going four-wheeling, but were drawn to the water like their fathers and grandfathers before them.

"The sea was in their blood. I almost wish it wasn't, but it was. They probably started going on the water with their fathers when they were like eight or nine, just kids," she said.

Like many of the men on the boat, Joel Hopkins followed his father into the fishery when he was just about eight years old and stuck with it despite early bouts of seasickness.

"He lived on the edge, no doubt about it," George Hopkins said, describing how when they bought a motorbike, he joked that his son wouldn't need the front wheel. "He was just wide-open Joel. Everything he did was that way even his fishing."

He said his 27-year-old son, who leaves behind two young children and a girlfriend, was also a feisty presence on the ice at only five feet, five inches and 140 pounds.

"He'd play five minutes, 10 minutes and get into a tussle with someone and then after the game, he'd be best friends with that same guy," he said with a laugh. "That's how he did everything. He'd give you the shirt off his back and then realize it wasn't his shirt, it was mine. That's Joel."

With files from Michael MacDonald in Halifax


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