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Father of crewman says coast guard should never have left capsized fishing boat


Falon Nickerson speaks to reporters following a meeting with RCMP officials at the mobile command post in Woods Harbour, N.S. on Friday, Feb. 22, 2013. Nickerson's older brother Katlin Nickerson is one of five fishermen who are currently missing after a 13-metre boat, named Miss Ally, is believed to have capsized off the coast of Nova Scotia on Sunday. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Devaan Ingraham

HALIFAX - The father of one of the men on board a fishing boat that capsized off Nova Scotia said Friday the coast guard should never have left the upturned vessel before trying to stabilize it.

George Hopkins said search crews may have needlessly lost track of the Miss Ally, which is believed to have overturned in a violent storm late Sunday with five young men aboard.

The 13-metre boat, on an extended halibut fishing trip, was last spotted by the coast guard on Tuesday, floating upside down more that 100 kilometres offshore.

Hopkins, whose 27-year-old son Joel is among the missing fishermen, conceded that the coast guard may not have been able to search inside the unstable boat, but they could have kept an eye on it.

"They should have stayed there," he said from his home in Woods Harbour, N.S. "That was a big mistake, right there. You don't leave it, you leave someone by it."

Maj. Martell Thompson, spokesman for the Joint Rescue Co-ordination Centre in Halifax, said once the search for survivors was called off Tuesday at 6 p.m., the navy and coast guard pulled away from the area.

"We don't do recovery, we do search and rescue," Thompson said in an interview, adding that the RCMP was in charge the moment the search was ended.

"The JRCC, search and rescue, we focus on saving lives, not assets."

He said if the RCMP had decided to recover the Miss Ally, they would have to hire a private salvage company to do so.

RCMP Cpl. Scott MacRae said in an email the Mounties "had no ability with our resources to keep track of the boat."

MacRae couldn't be reached for an interview, but indicated in the email that the RCMP was looking into getting a submersible, remotely operated vehicle "to come up with answers."

Recovering a capsized vessel in the open ocean is a risky, expensive proposition, but it can be done, said Capt. Joseph Murphy, a professor at the Massachusetts Maritime Academy in Buzzard's Bay, Mass.

He said capsized vessels can be safely towed or explored by divers, but only if the vessel is first stabilized by flotation devices. An unstable craft is simply too dangerous for divers and salvage crews, he said.

"Obviously, there's serious risk to human life in any attempt to salvage anything in the open ocean," said Murphy, a master mariner who teaches in the marine transportation department.

"(However), as long as the desire is there, anything can be salvaged. Given some good weather and planning, I think they could do something."

In a conference call Friday from Brussels, Defence Minister Peter MacKay said there will be a review of the Canadian Forces response to the accident.

"I know, having grown up in Atlantic Canada, that these tragedies are devastating for the families and for the entire community, and so all efforts were made with respect to both the search and rescue in the early stages and now we are working with other agencies to do what we can to support the families," he added.

Meanwhile, a military aircraft headed out Friday to resume the search for any signs of the Miss Ally. A sweep over the area Thursday by aircraft revealed small items of debris close to the last known position of the boat. Analysis of photos taken during the patrol suggested the items were from the vessel.

Late Friday the RCMP said the air patrols had failed to turn up any sighting of the vessel.

The Canadian Coast Guard Vessel Sir William Alexander also found no trace of the boat after conducting a grid search in the area of he debris field.

Officials said additional flights would be conducted on Saturday and the coast guard vessel would continue to search until operations were called off.

About seven fishing vessels also steamed out of Woods Harbour on Thursday, fed up with the decision by the government on Tuesday to end the search.

But Hopkins said crew aboard the fishing boats reported that it was too windy to continue the search Friday, though they planned to wait for the weather to improve.

After the search for survivors was called off, families of the fishermen asked federal authorities to recover the overturned vessel to determine if there were bodies inside.

"If they're in that boat, we want them brought home so all the families will know more of what happened and give them a decent burial, not a burial at sea," said Norman Nickerson, an uncle of one of the men.

Pastor Phil Williams of the Baptist church in Woods Harbour said the community of about 800 people will be angry if the boat is not found since officials had it in their sights for days.

"There will be a great disappointment, a great let down," Williams said. "A lot of hope will have been dashed and we will go into a very dark time of despair."

Hopkins was also critical of the initial efforts to find a life-raft believed to be from the Miss Ally, insisting that an infrared photo taken Monday by the U.S. Coast Guard actually shows the Miss Ally's hull, not a life-raft.

"There was no raft, there never was," Hopkins said. "They wasted a lot of time looking for a raft that wasn't there."

Thompson said officials at the rescue centre were aware of the U.S. Coast Guard's report that a life-raft had been spotted. But he said a debriefing with the U.S. pilots and inspection of the infrared photo led Canadian officials to believe it showed either a raft or the boat's hull.


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