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Rescuers recall the search for their friend, neighbour in Lake Wanapitei

Goulet family on the incredible storm, resilience of capsized Robert Tunney and crew

It was a storm like none other they had seen before. Not in Joanne Goulet’s lifetime on the lake, or in the 35 years since her husband Dan had joined her. 

But as they stood huddled in the bay of Lake Wanapitei’s North River beside their beached 28-foot cabin cruiser as it lifted and crashed under eight-foot waves, they say they couldn’t wait to get back in the water. 

It had been 30 minutes since they had last seen Robert Tunney driving into the storm in the direction of Post Creek Campground, and roughly 20 since the couple called for police assistance for their friend and his passengers

Over the years, Dan and his son Daniel Junior (DJ) have rescued countless boaters from the largest of Greater Sudbury’s lakes (188.4-square kilometres). But even he, given the conditions of July 10, doesn’t believe he would have been able to keep their boat right-side-up. 

“I’ve been on that lake a long time, I know how rough it gets -- half of that wind is scary as hell. The wind that we got, I knew right away he wasn’t going to make it,” said Dan. 

“I got my hair standing up just talking about it.”

The two groups met through the campground a little over a year ago and had happened to find each other on the nearby sandbanks that Friday afternoon, where they spent the day enjoying the shallow water and blistering summer sun. 

It wasn’t until a little bit later that Dan said the group began to notice a small patch of grey sky near the south end of the lake, but it appeared to be heading away from them. 

They were the same clouds in the weather report that Tunney said he saw earlier that day but seemed to be clearing, and with conditions changing as rapidly as they have been, the group thought nothing of them. He's used to relying on this reading, not just for boating, but riding his motorcycle, he said, but his opinion changed when the Goulet’s got a call from their friend in Hanmer about the fast-approaching storm. 

Immediately the two groups began packing their belongings just as rain and lightning began to fall around them. Deciding during that time to tie an abandoned paddle boat tagged by the Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry for salvage to the back of Tunney’s boat for his five-year-old son, Xander Beausoleil-Tunney, which Robert now considers a grievous mistake.

The 50-year boating veteran and his three adult passengers and son left the sandbanks a short while later and before the Goulets, crashing through the waves in his 18-foot Sylvan just as the sky began to darken.

It was a route Robert had travelled numerous times before and was mapped by a navigation system that he said showed rough, but not unmanageable conditions. On this path, he believed he would have had no trouble reaching the beach before the storm, had he not been impeded in mobility and speed by the paddle boat. 

“We're going into the perfect storm,” Robert remembers saying jokingly, having no idea the true extent of what lay ahead. 

The weather began to worsen just a few minutes from the campground, he said, visibility reduced so significantly that GPS became his only source of navigation. 

It was at this point that Robert said he asked everyone to don their life jackets, but unfortunately, all he had time to do was get his son out of the boat before it filled with water and began to overturn on top of him.  

Having nearly drowned when he was younger, Robert said he is not one to go in the water unless necessary and always with a lifejacket. But this fear came second to the needs of his young son and friend who he said, not only can't swim but has never practiced, even with a lifejacket. 

Once he resurfaced from under the boat, he said he asked everyone to try and get atop the now capsized vessel, but every time an attempt was made, it would begin to sink and turn. They decided instead that he and his son would sit alone atop the boat as everyone else held on from the water below as waves crashed around them.

It was an unimaginable circumstance, said Robert, the screams of his son and friend still ringing in his ears. 

Hope rose when the storm appeared to break around halfway through the ordeal, he recalled, but fell just as quickly when the wind picked back up again. Even as the spirits of those around him fell, however, the captain of the now partially sunken ship said he knew help was on the way. 

And as luck would have it, it was. 

Rather than head toward the safety of the boat launch, the Goulets had parked their vessel somewhere where they could have seen Robert’s arrival at Post Creek in normal conditions. This not being possible, the couple waited until there was a break in the storm and took off looking for him as soon as they could get their boat back in the water. 

“The whole time the storm was happening and I couldn’t see them, I just couldn’t stop thinking about what the hell they’re going through, because what we were going through, I swear I’ve never seen in my entire life. It’s the stuff you see on TV," said Dan.

When asked why they did not wait for police assistance, he explained that it was simply a matter of time and the severity of the storm on their hands. 

"I’m bigger than them and I've been on this lake forever. Their rescue boat would have capsized as well.”

They struggled to find the boat for a short time, said Dan, but eventually came across the group, still shaking under the falling rain. 

“I never said anything to anybody, but I had water in my eyes when I realized we found them. Joanne was teary-eyed too.”

The group was brought on-board with difficulty, they said, but no injury. The majority of their belongings were also recovered aside from Robert’s cellphone, some sandals, and the breast insert of one of his friends who recently underwent cancer treatment. 

They even recovered the paddle boat, said Robert, but none of that mattered more than seeing his friends and family safe. 

"I don't care what I lost -- I really don't -- I'm just blessed to be here."

Greater Sudbury Fire Services’ marine crew arrived a short while later, he said and escorted the group to Post Creek Campground, where nearby residents helped turn the boat over and get it onshore. 

In the end, Robert said the only damage resulting from the incident was a few bent poles on his boat, but he is in no hurry to get back on the water. 

"It's a wake-up. Those waves were tossing us around like we were in a canoe, not a big boat."

Neither he nor his son got any rest Friday night, riddled with nightmares, he said. There is no way that this will keep the two from the water forever, but the weather will be a considerable factor in their decision to cast-off. 

They have had a lot of discussions since that time on the seriousness of water sports, the unpredictability of mother nature, and the importance of wearing a life jacket - which he said has been a lesson for both of them. 

"I count my lucky stars my wife in heaven was my angel looking after us," he said, and that he has friends like Dan and Joanne in his life.  

"You couldn't ask for better people."

Keira Ferguson, Local Journalism Initiative reporter

About the Author: Keira Ferguson, Local Journalism Initiative reporter

A graduate of both Laurentian University and Cambrian College, Keira Ferguson is a Local Journalism Initiative reporter, funded by the Government of Canada, at
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