A rogue wave and an improbable outcome

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Don’t tell Sandy Stoddard there are no guardian angels because he’s pretty sure it was an angel that saved him and his four crewmen when a rogue wave picked up their fishing boat, slammed it on its side and dumped two of the men in the water.

A huge sea as seen from a pilothouse.

“I started fishing when I was 15 years old,” says Stoddard, a commercial fisherman from Woods Harbour, Nova Scotia. “I’m 57 years old now. You do the math. I’ve never seen anything like it in all those years.”

Stoddard, captain of the 45-foot Logan & Morgan, was in the wheelhouse; his four crewmen were in the stern — wearing their “oil gear,” their slickers — and reeling in a long line of baited hooks shortly after dark March 5. They had been fishing for halibut inside Sable Island off Nova Scotia’s east coast in what Stoddard described as typical North Atlantic conditions: a 35-knot southeast wind gusting to 40 or 50, seas 10 to 12 feet.

“It was just a normal fishing day for us in winter,” he says. “Then out of nowhere — where it came from I don’t know — a wave picked us up and slammed us down on our butts.”

A big wave, a gigantic wave. Stoddard has to be pressed to say how big — it was dark, and it happened so fast — but he thinks it was “50-, 60-, 70-feet high.” The wave picked Logan & Morgan up and, as the boat slipped sideways down the wave’s back side, the wall of water accelerated out from under the boat and dropped it broadside into what seemed like a bottomless trough, slamming it down at 80 degrees — almost on its side, he says. Had there been another big wave behind it, Logan & Morgan would have been smothered in water. “It would have pushed us under,” he says.

The boat popped back up, but before it did so — when it hit the bottom of the trough — it threw two men overboard. Stoddard thinks he saw one of them, Gordie Rhyno, go over the side. “His head went below the rail, but when the boat surged up again, [Rhyno] says he stood on something, and it flipped him back in,” Stoddard says. The skipper believes he saw Rhyno up to his neck in water, but when he landed on deck “he was perfectly dry.” Stoddard can’t explain how it happened. He just knows it did.

Moments after Rhyno was safely back on board, Stoddard heard a dreaded cry from below, “He’s gone! He’s gone!” This time Greg Nickerson had gone over the side — and disappeared. He had slipped under the fiberglass hull, hit the running gear — cutting his head, though not badly — and wound up under a 5-foot overhang at the stern.

“He hollers once,” Stoddard recalls, and they realized Nickerson was at the stern. He had grabbed a brace under the boat. They kept throwing a life ring to him. Nickerson had been in the water probably five minutes when Rhyno finally spotted him, the life ring around his torso, which itself is pretty remarkable, Stoddard says. Nickerson is 6 feet tall, 200 pounds and was dressed in his oil skins. “It still has me baffled how he fit inside it,” Stoddard says.

Sandy Stoddard

The men pulled Nickerson close to the boat with the life ring line. Then one of the crew lunged down and snagged the life ring’s grab rope and threw Nickerson aboard with a powerful one-armed tug. “It’s phenomenal,” Stoddard says. “I can’t figure it. It’s only by the grace of God that it all happened [the way it did].” The other two crewmembers were Daniel Crowell and Jared Bishop.

The near-fatal accident occurred just a few weeks after the Feb. 17 loss of the Miss Ally, a 46-foot halibut boat, also from Woods Harbour, with all five hands aboard — a crushing blow to the small fishing community. An emergency beacon on Miss Ally activated while the boat was returning to port in near-hurricane-force winds and 30-foot seas about 120 kilometers southeast of Liverpool, Nova Scotia. Searchers later found the overturned hull with the wheelhouse and sleeping quarters sheared off. The crew remained missing.

Stoddard says the Logan & Morgan encountered the rogue wave in waters where there are steep bottom ridges and depths ranging from 60 to 100 feet. The veteran seaman has encountered rogues out there before and, he believes, with increasing frequency.

Stoddard says he’s looking to buy foul weather gear with inherent buoyancy for his crew in the event it happens again. “You’ll never be able to predict something like that happening,” he says, so it’s best to be prepared. “I’m hoping I go another 40 years before I see something like that happen again. But then again, it could happen again tomorrow. I’m praying it doesn’t.”

June 2013 issue