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Sinking ship strands American couple in LaPoile

Kit Leary and Adrienne Mendell on the Splice in warmer waters.
Kit Leary and Adrienne Mendell on the Splice in warmer waters.

LAPOILE, NL – A Pennsylvania pair’s usual sailing adventure along the southwest coast took an unexpected turn when their boat began to sink. 

LaPoile at sunrise.

The couple was en route to Petites for the recent filming of a Land and Sea episode about the resettled outport when they had to be rescued by fishermen from LaPoile. The tiny community has since taken them in while they await a solution.
“We’ve been sailing up this way for quite a long time,” Kit Leary said via phone interview. “I initially came up with my sister and brother-in-law.”
Leary first visited the area in 1992, and Adrienne Mendell, his wife and sailing partner, has been along for the trip since 1996.
“We both fell in love with Newfoundland and have been coming back ever since,” says Adrienne.
While sailing the southwest coast in 2005, the couple happened upon Petites, which had been resettled two years before. At the time, Bethany United Church was still in pristine condition. Through a pair of former Petites residents, Kit and Adrienne learned the church was also selling off the schoolhouse and community centre.

Fisherman Ross Francis came to the rescue when the Splice began to sink.

“It made sense because we just wanted to be part of Newfoundland so we bought those places,” said Adrienne.
It would be a decade before the couple would return to visit, and while the schoolhouse has fared reasonably well given the climate, Kit says vandals have ripped apart the old community centre.
“They basically tore out everything, include the two by fours that hold up the walls,” Kit reports.
Part of the reason for the couple’s return this summer was to take some plywood and other materials in an effort to better secure the buildings and prevent further damage. They were also planning to offer it as free shelter for visitors coming to Petites for the filming, and intended to help out with the ongoing church restoration.

Headed for Petites
On Sept. 6 they left LaPoile and headed for Petites on their sailboat, Splice. About an hour after departure and third of the way through the voyage, Adrienne went below to grab a warm jacket and found the cabin filling with water.
“I somehow expected he would come up and say it’s no big deal,” said Adrienne.
Instead Kit told her, “Make a mayday call to the Coast Guard. We’re sinking.”

Adrienne Mendell, Kit Leary and LaPoile schoolteacher Terry-Lynn Organ in the Petites schoolhouse.

The Coast Guard responded with an ETA of two hours.
“Our response was we’ll be at the bottom in two hours,” recalls Kit.
After some back and forth a helicopter was dispatched from Gander and a boat from Burgeo, but given the rapid rate at which Splice was taking on water both would arrive too late.
The couple asked the Coast Guard to turn to LaPoile, still the closest community at that point. The Coast Guard contacted someone in Burgeo who reached out to Ross Francis, a fisherman in LaPoile.
Luckily for Splice, Francis had just returned to port and along with two other men, promptly rushed to help, bringing along a powerful gasoline pump that would keep the foundering sailboat afloat.
Once Splice was sheltered in a bay the pump failed, even though it had been working fine only a month before. By then Kit was exhausted. He had been bailing out his boat by hand for over three and a half hours, chucking bucket after bucket of seawater over the side while Adrienne kept tending the sails and steering them towards safety.
One of the rescuers, Brian Chant, jumped into the sailboat to help. Together the two men managed to stay ahead of the leak long enough to be towed into LaPoile by Ross’ vessel, 4 Strong Winds II, as the water had gotten too high and overcame Splice’s engines.
More people joined the rescue, bringing the LaPoile fire pump down to the dock to drain water from Splice. That pump also failed.

“I called up to the dock and asked if anybody up there knew how to operate a bucket,” said Kit.
Matthew Francis immediately jumped in to help, relieving Chant who was trying to get the pump operating.

Community effort
Much of the rest of the town had turned out to witness the commotion, including teacher Terry-Lynn Organ, whose tiny schoolhouse has a total of three students. Kit and Adrienne had met her on a previous trip, and it was Organ who had the idea to use a sump pump. Dolores Vautier quickly rounded up two.
“That’s what saved us,” says Kit. “We got the boat pumped out far enough that we could see where the water was coming in.”
The culprit turned out to be a drain fitting that had broken, and Kit was able to close it somewhat with a wooden plug. The sailboat was still taking on water though, albeit much more slowly, meaning it couldn’t be left unattended.
The couple asked if there were any divers that could help, but there were no commercial divers close by. Trevor Francis, Matthew’s brother, volunteered anyway. He jumped into the water and secured the outside of the leak with a steel plate, which Kit also secured from the inside. Finally, the leak was stopped.
“That was the end of step one,” says Kit. “We had an insurance surveyor come. Now that alone took a week.”
A community of only 85 people, LaPoile lacks a hotel, a B&B or even a restaurant, forcing the American couple to rely on the kindness of strangers. Almost three full weeks later the pair is still in LaPoile, renting a two-bedroom house courtesy of Chant. The insurance representative stayed in the spare room of the couple’s rental house while he evaluated options.

Terry-Lynn Organ in the Splice’s cabin. The next day the water was up to the seat level.

Normally the boat would be towed to Burgeo to be lifted out of the water, but the Burgeo heavy lift is currently in need of some expense repairs if not outright replacing. Instead the plan is to have Splice towed to Isle aux Morts and lifted from the water with a crane that will be brought down from Port aux Basques. From there the sailboat will be put on a truck and taken to Halifax, Nova Scotia.
“It’s a logistical nightmare,” admits Kit.
For now, the couple can do little but continue to wait for their insurance provider to finalize arrangements. In the meantime, they are enjoying the comfort and hospitality of their new neighbours and friends.
“It really is a special place. The people here are totally, totally amazing,” says a grateful Adrienne, who delights in such things as chopping up a piece of moose meat to make her first-ever moose stew. “The south coast is totally special. There’s nothing at all like it.”

Rosalyn.roy@gulfnews.ca
Twitter: @tygerlylly

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