Despite everything Lou Simoneau lost on December 5, he at least came out of his ordeal with this life.
And an amazing story.
Simoneau’s overnight adventure began on December 5 in the late afternoon on the Douglas Channel during a return trip to Kitimat from Butedale where he’s a caretaker for the old cannery property.
He has taken the winter off and what should have been a fairly short boat trip turned into 20 hours of freezing cold temperatures.
What he said he didn’t realize as he left Butedale was just how heavy the weather was on the route back.
He said he was near Coste Island when things went south. His diesel engine quit on him, in the middle of rough seas.
He called the Coast Guard right away, but it was the last chance he’d get to talk to them before his boat, the 28-foot Steel Eagle, struck a rock, and flung him over the rail and into the Douglas Channel.
“The boat took off on me and I was all by myself in the water,” he said.
The day of the incident, the Victoria Rescue Coordination Centre reported strong outflow winds and rough seas.
In all, the marine search would draw out five ships, plus a cormorant helicopter.
But those ships wouldn’t yet be deployed. Simoneau meanwhile, swimming in freezing salt water on a late afternoon in December, worked his way to shore about 50 feet away, even as the waves pulled him in and out. He was able to grab onto a rock eventually, and waited for the next wave toward shore, where he let it carry him to land.
Once on stable ground, he took time to wring out his clothing and tried to get back to his boat, which had drifted just around a corner down the shore.
But it’d be no use getting back on board, even if he could make it down the steep embankment to the water line where his boat was resting. The hole from hitting the rock was letting water in and the vessel was listing.
“No use getting back on that boat because it would sink and you wouldn’t get anywhere.”
Materials-wise he lost a lot on that boat, from car keys to credit cards.
“I didn’t even have insurance,” he adds.
With his boat no longer any use to him, he had to face time to himself while hoping to get rescued.
“It was cold. No fire, no lights, no nothing,” he said. “Just me and my whistle, and no one to whistle to.”
He holed up about 30 feet into the bush, which meant he missed some opportunities for rescue when a helicopter scoured the shoreline looking for him. He would have no time to get back to the shore.
He slept on-and-off-again through the night, but with no light to read his watch he had no sense of the time.
“I was quite confused when I woke up,” he said.
When it was daylight, he crawled back to the shore, and again wrung out his clothes. His feet were soaking wet.
“Those feet, I couldn’t feel them.”
It was when he was back on the shore and visible that rescue came.
“I was hoping to see a boat but I seen nothing, but all of a sudden the plane flew right over me from behind.”
The plane didn’t see him right away, but it turned sharply and came back from the other direction, where the pilots on board noticed a gas can along the shore.
“They saw me then…they gave me the signal,” he said. The plane would tip its wings to alert him that he was seen. They also threw a flare into the water. “It was almost instant the boat the Gordon Reid showed up.”
The Gordon Reid is a Canadian Coast Guard ship.
Simoneau, or as he says he’s sometimes known, Butedale Lou, credits some outdoor experience as what helped him survive, but he said he’s never had quite the ordeal as what he survived.
“My experience probably saved me. It was not a pretty night but it turned out all right.”
He worked for 25 years in the pipeline business and has experience as a rancher, so he said he was used to outdoor sleeping.
But he’s quick to point out that’s in a nice, dry sleeping bag. If there had been more snow he could have also buried himself in it.
But state-of-mind would also be critical. He had to forget about what he had lost on the boat.
“After I got caught in the dark I was worried about my boat because I had a lot of stuff in there,” he said. But then he turned his mind away from that.
“This is no place for panic. I have to think about surviving here. So I put my mind to it, I’m here to stay,” he said. “I think that’s what saved me.”
Even so, after a night outdoors with no supplies and soaking wet, he’s come out in amazingly good shape considering.
“I’m in pretty good shape. Deal is if I was younger I’d be a little better. But I’m 69,” he said. “I’m still paying for it. My feet are still numb, my fingers are all full of needles…I can’t stand the cold anymore.”
After the winter he will be returning to Butedale, and he said he does have another boat.
He’ll just hope for better seas the next time around.