Still The Water

Malpeque, as seen from the Darnley side. Setting Day, 2017.

Malpeque, as seen from the Darnley side. Setting Day, 2017.

It's going to be tough to do justice to the subject of this blog post. 

So maybe I'll just take that pressure off right from the get-go and do the best I can.

At 80 knots, wind does not howl - it screams.
— Quentin Casey - The Sea Was In Their Blood; The Disappearance of the Miss Ally's Five-Man Crew

Those of you who know me are aware that I'm working on a film with some friends of mine. For years I've referred to this screenplay as 'the hockey film,' simply because it's a quick way of referencing one of the subjects covered. Essentially what the story is really about is brothers, and family, and how the men in one broken family reconnect after years of estrangement brought on by one very bad day.

But there's another theme in our film, Still The Water.

I live on an island. I'm tied to the water - I breathe better when I'm near the water, when I can see it, when the salt tang of the sea wafts over me in waves and whispers. The ocean, to me, is healing. It gives me peace. At the same time, I've learned to respect its power. This thing that is so beautiful, so majestic when I'm floating above it on a sunny day or diving beneath waves at the shore where I spend my summers, can turn ugly. Occasionally it demands I shove my hands in my pockets and just stand in silence and take it in. These are the days when the spray coming off the crests of waves is so thick that I'm reminded of baptism; these are the days when the wind cries out in some kind of wild, fierce honour the names of those the sea has stolen.

The theme I'm speaking of is and women who make their living from the sea, who take to boats in the blissful pink sunrise of early dawn in search of a good day's haul - lobster, mussels, tuna, mackerel, herring, rock crab, snow crab...

When I'm slumbering in my small camper in Darnley during the summer months, I am gifted the sweet, sweet pleasure of waking to fishing boats chugging through the water. They seem so peaceful out there on the Darnley Basin, so real when I later bike close, skid to a stop, and cock my head to hear the country music some crews blast over their radios. From a distance, these people are nameless, faceless, although over the years I've known a few island fishermen - families with campers hole up for the summer near my spot at Twin Shores. Some of these fellas were only too kind to sit down with me while I was writing my script. They shared a few key points, about things like gear used on boats. These fellas will be essential technical advisors to the film as we move along, as my friends and I recreate fishermen's lives; a brief glimpse, that is. For Still The Water is primarily a film about brothers, and family. Fishing is secondary to the plot. Yet in researching the story, I've been humbled by the sea, and its capacity to steal.

You've got to be smart when you work on the water. Yeah, it's an adrenaline rush to be carried over waves, to raise your face to the sky and let the waves wash over you. I used to sail - just for pleasure, and only locally. But I've been caught in more than one gale - close to shore but still at the mercy of the wind and waves. I recall being at the wheel when one storm hit. Steve was braced on the cabin fighting with the sail, trying to bring it down. We were a mere few feet away from each other, yet we couldn't hear each other's voices. He was likely hollering directions at me. I was clinging to the wheel; the boat was heeling over so far that the tip of the mast was dipping into the bay. And I was praying. I'm a fair weather sailor - you won't catch me bungee jumping. Corona in one hand, tiller in the other, that's me. Those times I got to shoot B-cam on a North Lake tuna boat? Heaven. "We caught the calmest water all season," the young skipper on my boat told me. I suntanned when I wasn't shooting. Easy, peasy.

So, about those guys who went out on the Miss Ally? Youngsters. The skipper was 21. They were not P.E.I. fishermen, they were Nova Scotia boys. As a direct fallout of poor lobster prices the season prior, Katlin, the captain, was behind on his payments - he'd paid $ 700 000 for a boat, gear, and a license. At 21, that's a helluva lotta pressure. That's a lotta green to have to pay back. He took his crew out winter fishing, long lining for halibut. A gear failure prevented him from wanting to return to shore, even though he knew a fierce winter gale was blowing up. He wanted his catch secure before he headed for home. The delay was long enough to prove disastrous.

In the summer, water SPLASHES over a boat. In the winter, it comes at you like a WALL. It’s half frozen; it forces you sideways.


Before the boys left on that trip, two had already had a bad scare trying to outrun bad weather on their way to safe harbour. On the day the boys left on their final venture, one of the guys was found by his girlfriend sitting on the kitchen floor, leaning against a dishwasher, crying. Fear can do that to a man. The guy had a bad feeling. Intuitively he knew this winter fishing trip was risky. He went anyway. He needed the money, and he didn't want to let his friends down. 

He didn't come home. None of the boys did.

The story of the Miss Ally breaks my heart. It's up there with all young men who, in the realm of history, went off to war thinking they were invincible. The older guys on the Miss Ally crew didn't feel as invincible as the younger few. They'd been through enough bad weather to respect the ocean. To bow to its power.

Our P.E.I. film is a first feature. We need to keep it as simple as possible this first go-round with a large cast and crew. We do have a climactic fishing boat accident at the climax of the movie, but it's dramatic more in terms of the brothers involved, and the hard choice one of them must make. It's not so much about the accident. Yet when I was writing the script I drew from stories of actual accidents. One claimed the life of a Tignish, P.E.I. fisherman.

By portraying even a tiny aspect of their livelihoods in this film, we can't possibly do justice to the perils any fishers - men and women - are subject to simply by virtue of their choice of profession. Yet what we can do, perhaps, is remind all of you who read this blog to stop and think about where your beloved seafood comes from the next time you lick your lips at the sight of a succulent lobster on your plate, or when you dip your scrumptious garlic and wine-soaked mussels into foamy yellow butter while you listen to locals sing sea shanties at some Island pub this summer. Before you partake, think of the families who draw their livings from the water. Think of those who keep the home fires burning while their partners are out hauling in traps, always at the mercy of the weather.

We was born up in this area and that’s what we done and that’s the only thing we knew.
— Jack Hatfield, father of Billy Jack Hatfield (Miss Ally crew member)

Other professions are equally dangerous. Farm accidents happen; industrial accidents, too, you name it. It's just that right now because of my film, I'm embroiled in learning about those who spend their time on the water, and so they are forefront in my mind. 

Our film's not a hockey film. It's a film about family. it's a film about a choice that has to be made when a boat goes down, and it's a reminder of the power of water, the restlessness engendered by the silent beckoning of water, and the stilling of chaos in one's heart when the endlessness of icy roiling water is finally stilled. 

It's a film about forgiveness, and healing. 

There are some wounds that never heal. To the boys on the Miss Ally, and to all who have been affected by maritime tragedies, I raise my misty eyes to the salty-spray carried on our gusty maritime winds and I salute you. Some question the Miss Ally captain's decision-making, but Katlin - I know you did your best. You were no different than the eighteen and nineteen-year-old fighter pilots who liked to horse around by buzzing their girlfriends' homes here, in Summerside, while they were training for aerial combat during World War II. They too were young, hungry for adventure, and often fearless.

Invincible. Or so they thought...

Alberton, Prince Edward Island; May 2017

Alberton, Prince Edward Island; May 2017

Prince Edward Island and maritime FISHERS - I wish you all a SAFE and prosperous season. I'll be that gal standing by the cliffs at Secret Beach in Darnley, leaning on the handlebars of my bike, raising a fist to the air in solidarity, cheering you on from the shore.