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As he drifted away from the North Cape reef last September in the cold waters of the Gulf of St. Lawrence, Tanner Gaudet found himself in the company of two seagulls and a seal.
Moments earlier, the 22-year-old lobster fisherman had freed himself from the Kyla Anne by flipping open the sunroof in the rapidly sinking lobster boat’s cabin and, using the small opening, escaped before the vessel slipped beneath the crashing waves.
About 90 minutes after the boat was swamped in pounding surf on the reef and sank, he staggered to shore, nearly eight kilometres away, next to a stone formation known locally as Elephant Rock.
Two other members of the boat’s crew lost their lives in the Sept. 18 fishing tragedy. The body of Capt. Glen DesRoches was found at North Cape on Sept. 23. The remains of first mate Moe Getson were found nearly 40 kilometres away on a beach in Campbellton on Sept. 24.
Disaster for the three-man Kyla Anne crew struck in an instant.
Just as one wave filled the vessel, the next rolled it over. As the boat was completing its roll, Tanner said he caught a glimpse of sunlight through the sunroof. He flipped the latches and it opened.
“As soon as I jumped off, she went down. I looked back and she wasn’t there,” he said in his first interview with the media, six months after the accident.
“As soon as I jumped off, she went down. I looked back and she wasn’t there.”
Upon escaping, Tanner, who has been fishing lobster for five years, grabbed onto a lid from a fish tub and clung to it all the way to shore.
That lid now forms part of a memorial to DesRoches and Getson in the Gaudet family’s barn. It’s there that Tanner spends much of his time, playing guitar and harmonica and singing songs. His parents have found music to be good therapy for their son.
The Gaudets acknowledge the support and caring shown to Tanner by the community in the time since. His father, Jody, said there are still people inquiring about Tanner every day.
Tanner who plans to return to the lobster fishery this spring, went fishing tuna with his father twice last November.
“When tragedy happens, it’s either you’re going one way or the other way. It’s either you’re going to get back in the boat or you’re done.
“I told him, ‘If you want to turn around and go home, we’re going home.’ I don’t care if I have a tuna on the rod; if he wants to go home, we’re going home,” said Jody. “But he had no trouble all day.”
“We’re just forever eternally grateful,” said Tammy, who says her son’s survival is nothing short of a miracle.
“When he was in the water, for that second when the boat sort of tilted, and he saw the sunroof and he was able to get out the sunroof and to have the lid there – right there. And then to have the seagulls and the seal…”
Turning to her son, she added, “If that’s not a miracle, and if that’s not telling you that you have a purpose.
“You’re here for a reason and you were watched over.”
Asked if he believes his survival is a miracle, Tanner pauses and answers, “Well, yeah, I guess.”
With waves crashing over him, Tanner said he could never risk loosening his grip on the lightweight lid.
In his perilous situation, he said the seagulls and the seal provided him “something to talk to.” And he said he sang to them, too; Charlie Major’s “It Can’t Happen to Me.”
Tammy said there had been several deaths in her family in the two months previous to the tragedy. She believes those relatives, and Glen and Moe, played a role in her son’s survival.
“To me, (the gulls and seal) symbolize them or angels, just guiding him in, making sure he was safe.
“There’s no doubt in my mind. They stayed there for a reason.”
Drifting with the tide down the shore from the tip of the Island, Tanner said he was lucky to have the wind and the waves gradually pushing him towards the beach.
“Little by little. Felt like forever.”
Jody said his son had shared with him that when he stopped kicking, however, he’d notice he wasn’t getting closer to shore. And he’d start kicking again.
After making it to shore, Tanner said it took him a few minutes to recover enough to get his feet back under him so that he could find help, eventually making it to the Wind and Reef Restaurant to summon assistance for the crew.
The Gaudets estimate it took Tanner another hour and 15 minutes to get from the beach to the restaurant.
At a recent fishermen’s awards banquet, Tanner was presented with the Valour Award for bravery at sea in recognition of never giving up in the face of extreme danger and his efforts to find help for his fishing buddies.
He and members of the Getson and DesRoches families also accepted the Kyla Anne’s Vessel of the Year award in recognition of the joyful atmosphere that had previously existed onboard the vessel.
“It was a happy boat to be on,” Jody said. “They had a good time. Glen was a very easy man to work for.”
His son agrees.
“Singing and dancing and jokes.”
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