The Deep Newsletter
published December 1998. by Gene Peterson
No Man is an Island
I shared an unique and memorable experience this summer on St. Paul’s Island, Nova Scotia which is located in the Cabot Strait. An abandoned island where numerous shipwrecks were lost and hundreds lost their lives conceding to the elements. Our group was briefly marooned on this deserted island when a violent storm engulfed us. We were battered by 60 mile per hour winds with seas breaking over 20 feet, that surrounded the small island. The two boats that transported and supported us had to head for safer shelter on the mainland without being able to take us. The night of the storm our remaining zodiac was located at the bottom of a forty foot cliff on a spit of gravel beach. It was securely anchored and tied off to the shore, but if the tide rose, it would take a beating in the rocky surf. We believed this would be unlikely, because of the prevailing wind direction, but I remained concerned. Our only means of transportation back to the boats and safety could be destroyed, if the wind direction changed. So the story of our trial by nature begins...
At one o’clock in the morning, my fear was realized. The wind direction did change. Gusts near hurricane force had blown down several tents and snapped poles. The rain was relentless and those of the group in conventional tents were soaked while struggling to hold down their temporary shelters. Throughout the night, one could hear the occasional cursing and tamping of hammers. The construction work of neighbors was regular as they attempted to rebuild their makeshift dwellings. Lines were tied to trees and rocks were used as ballast to secure stakes and poles. The modern expedition tents, designed to withstand higher winds were flexing to the ground and popping out their fasteners. My tent partners’ Lynn DelCorio and Gary Gentile were awakened and unnerved by mother nature’s unleashed fury. Several times our tent had flattened from the gusts and snapped down on our heads. It would then spring back into position. The effect was like being in a parachute collapsing and inflating. The whipping lines pounded against the tent’s shell sounded much like the whipping of sheets on a sail boat bashing into a storm. Blowing off the nearby cliff could be a reality, if the wind got more intense.
Unable to sleep, I abandoned the tent and took vigil crouched over the cliff with my spotlight. I scanned the jagged shoreline below me. Destructive forces were bearing down on our little craft. White breakers were crashing over the rocks taking gigantic leaps as the wind power-washed the cliffs eroding the shore line. It was a fearful demonstration of an incredibly violent sea. Like a vision momentarily, I imagined the terror shipwreck victims must have experienced after their sturdy vessels careened into the ominous rocks and then were pounded into splinters on the shore. Over four hundred ships had met their fate on the rocks of this island. The day previously, we dived a wreck called the Norwegian. It had driven itself up on the rocks in a nearby cove. Five hundred passengers survived by scaling the treacherous high cliffs to save themselves. Other ships that struck the island were not so lucky. Most were lost in fierce storms making their rescue impossible. Now, we would be tested mentally and physically by similar forces.
By 1:30 am the storm had reached full intensity. The ocean now washed over the beach and was smashing the zodiac with it’s motor up against the razor sharp walls of the beach crevice. Decisive action needed to be taken at this moment or the vessel would be obliterated by the crashing surf that was devouring the shoreline. Without a signal, the group was on hand. Apparently a mutual anticipation of the necessary duties was realized. In the pitch black all able bodies were perched over the cliff gazing at the tumultuous sea attempting to crush the boat. Instinctively, we knew what must be done. Unrehearsed, yet working in regimented unison, my comrades began the arduous task on the dangerous slick rocks. Equipped with grapnel and lines, the team scaled down the sheer granite wall, as the rolling surf broke over us. We held fast in our tenuous positions, anchoring lines and hauling up gear mechanically. The piercing wind, rain and showering waves were deafening. Essential commands were shouted to reinforce the safety of those dangling precariously on the cliff.
Andy Pierro leaped like a mountain goat above us securing and fastening down lines. Momentary lulls in the wave sets allowed for a short effort to gain ground and stabilize the zodiac. John Galvin and Jim Brightly seized the moment, jumping into the unstable boat as it buckled and pitched with each leaping wave. They quickly unfastened the motor mounts as ferocious waves pounded them. The beach was gone and the water had risen over our heads as we held the boat off the rocks. We barely managed to stabilize the boat as John hefted the heavy 25 horse motor over his shoulder. Incredibly, John bore all the weight of the unmanageable motor. Pure adrenalin coursed through his veins as he and the rest of the group hauled the burden up the cliff. His amazing strength was undeniable.
Now to save the boat itself, the whole group simultaneously pulled and lifted the vessel up the rock wall inch by inch. Ingeniously Greg Modelle drove a grapnel into the earth and anchored the boat into a position safe from the savage sea.
At ease, we stood in awe of the amazing feat we had just performed. There was not doubt of the necessity of this risky undertaking. Afterwards we smirked at each other upon seeing the sleeping attire that some of us remained in for the event. Realizing our task was completed, we retired to our shelters with pride. The comradery we shared on that cliff will long be remembered.Those who were there are as follows: Andy Pierro, John Galvin, Jim Brightly, Greg Modelle, Gary Gentile, Lyn DelCorio, Mike Benson, Dennis O’brian, Franz Dietl and myself.