Doucet, Alphonse

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                                          ALPHONSE DOUCET
                                     1992 Fisherman of the Year
                                        By Cathy Carnahan

The Escuminac Disaster happened 33 years ago. But the man named the 1992 Baie Ste. Anne fisherman of the year has never forgotten it.

Alphonse Doucet is to receive the award at a special ceremony on Sunday held during the 17th annual Festival des Fruits de Mer. It’s an honour the community bestows on a local fisherman each year and Alphonse is proud to be this year’s recipient.

Fishing is the 51-year-old’s livelihood. It has been for 35 years. No year, however, remains quite as vivid in his memory and 1959. When strong winds blow and waves run high, memories of the disaster and devil seas come flooding back to him. “It doesn’t take much to bring it all back. It’s like a nightmare which keeps repeating itself,” he said in an interview at his home in Eel River Bridge this week.

There was little warning as the freak storm swept through the Gulf of St. Lawrence on the afternoon of June 19, 1959. Fifty-four salmon drifters left Escuminac harbor unaware of the tragedy that awaited them. The next morning over a third of the fleet was gone. Thirty-five men and boys were drowned.

Seventeen-year-old Alphonse Doucet, his brother Everett, 14, and their father, Jack, were among the more fortunate. Their boat, the Francine D, capsized, but fortunately Cyril and Bernie Jenkins were able to rescue them. “The sea had wanted them and almost claimed them, but they had saved each other,” author Roy Saunders wrote in his book, The Escuminac Disaster. The Jenkins’ received the British Empire Medal for gallantry and rescuing the Doucet family and Alphonse was given two oak leaves from the queen for his bravery – the Queen’s Commendation Award.

The young man unselfishly made certain his father and brother were rescued before he accepted any help. He was referred to as the Hero of the Sea by some, but Alphonse says he is no hero. “I don’t know if it was love or instinct, but there was no bravery involved in that. “I told this story a hundred times and it never used to bother me, but I guess I’m getting old,” he said smiling, tears in his eyes. “There was no happy ending for anyone because even the survivors lost friends, neighbors or family. When you lose 35 fishermen in a community, you lose quite a bit,” Alphonse said. Among the friends his family lost was William George Manuel. He was with them aboard the Francine D drifting for salmon.

“The weather had been foggy and stormy all week, but the fish was good and we didn’t pay no mind to it much – ignorance I suppose, and poverty,” recalled Alphonse. We didn’t wait for the weather report at 5 (p.m.). We took off at 4 or 4:20. We jigged cod for a while and settled down for the night. During the night the wind picked up and at about 4:30 or 5 (a.m.) our nets broke clear. We got dressed and searched for them again and found them then we tied onto them again because the weather was too bad to make it to shore. At about 7 (a.m.) they broke clear again. This time we couldn’t find them. The visibility was poor and the seas were mountains. We didn’t have enough fuel to ride out the storm, so we headed for shore,” he said. “A ways in further we passed by Clifford Kingston who was hauling nets. We waved to him.

Alphonse Doucet – the 1992 Baie St. Anne fisherman of the year – has seen many changes over the years. “When government was in Ottawa and the fishermen were out on the fishing grounds struggling for a living, I think we were better off. See, now there is no cod left, very few mackerel. We can’t fish salmon, and the fall herring there is no money,” he said in an interview at his home in Eel River Bridge.

“The fishing (industry) changed as much as much as the equipment we had back then and what we have now. There are too many hi-tech companies behind it, too many restrictions, and too many laws that most of us know nothing about,” Doucet said. “Fishing now is more like a job we’re doing for someone else. We’re not our own bosses anymore. They tell us where to go, when to go and what to fish. We get tags now and we have escape measures (on the lobster traps). “But don’t get me wrong. This is something we really need if we want to keep fishing up for the next generation or future generations,” he said. The escape mechanism on the traps allows the smaller, younger lobster to escape.

The spring season ends on Saturday and Doucet planned to pull in the last of his traps of Friday. “The season was fair to good,” he said. “It seems when there is a recession the fish follow it. Seriously, I’ve watched this a number of years now and it seems that way. I think we’re on for four or five years again before it picks up,” he added.

Doucet sat at the kitchen table in his home and puffed away on a cigarette as he talked. At 51, he has no plans to retire from lobster fishing. He uses his own boat in the spring season and helps a cousin in the fall. “When you’re fishing, you’re fishing in the open air and the air is great out there. It’s a tough life but a great way of life. I don’t like taking orders. I like being my own boss and I have my own fishing route,” he said smiling, his blue eyes gleaming.

In recent years, it’s been a tradition for Alphonse Doucet to have a small family celebration as the lobster season draws to an end. This year was no exception.

“I’m a carpenter, a plumber and a sheet metal worker, but I still prefer to fish,” he said. “I was brought up that way and it was a way of life. I was the oldest of the boys and I started with the old man,” he said. “I hated it at first, but now I love it.” Jack and Yvonne Doucette had nine boys and four girls. Alphonse is the oldest boy and the second oldest of the 13.

Over the years he has been the chairman of Baie St. Anne parish council and has served as a volunteer with the District 39 Mental Deficiency Council in Kent County, and the local Air Cadets.

“I love to see people getting involved, helping themselves,” he said.

Source: Miramichi Leader – July 19, 1992

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