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Search on for missing halibut fishermen off Nova Scotia after distress signal

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HALIFAX - Two coast guard vessels and a rescue helicopter searched late Monday for the crew of a fishing boat that went missing off the southwest coast of Nova Scotia in 10-metre seas lashed by hurricane-force winds.

The 13-metre boat, based in Woods Harbour, N.S., had a crew of five on board when its emergency locator beacon transmitted a distress signal Sunday at 11 p.m., said navy Lt. Peter Ryan, spokesman for the Joint Rescue Co-ordination Centre in Halifax.

"The weather out there was very poor, low visibility and high winds and very challenging seas," he said in an interview.

A Canadian Forces Cormorant helicopter and two Canadian Coast Guard light icebreakers — Earl Grey and Sir William Alexander — were dispatched to the area, about 120 kilometres southeast of Liverpool.

The helicopter crew conducted a four-hour search Monday morning then headed to 12 Wing Shearwater near Halifax for refuelling before resuming the search.

Ryan said the crew of a U.S. Coast Guard aircraft — a Falcon twin-engine jet from Cape Cod — reported spotting a life-raft early Monday, but he couldn't offer further details.

George Hopkins, the father of one of the missing men, 27-year-old Joel Hopkins of Woods Harbour, said the name of the vessel is the Miss Ally and its crew is experienced.

"They are to a certain extent, but the captain is really young," said Hopkins. "I don't know how experienced you can be when he's only 21 or so. ... The oldest one is only about 32 or 33."

Hopkins said the crew probably had survival suits aboard. However, he said fishermen don't wear them while they're working because they restrict movement.

He said the Canadian Coast Guard reported seeing the capsized hull of the vessel, but Ryan couldn't confirm that.

As for the life-raft, Hopkins said the U.S. Coast Guard aircrew spotted it using infrared equipment.

"They haven't seen anything since," he said in telephone interview from his home. "They're the only ones who saw the life-raft."

Transport Canada records show the vessel is owned by Katlin Todd Nickerson of Woods Harbour, who Hopkins identified as the captain.

The fishing boat, made from moulded reinforced plastic, was by built Hubbie's Boat Builders Ltd. of Clark's Harbour, N.S., in 2006, the records say.

The warden of the Municipality of Barrington, Eddie Nickerson, said the community of 7,000 was waiting anxiously for any news from searchers.

"I know all of the boys that were on the boat," he said in an interview. "It's a fragile situation."

Nickerson said he believes all five men come from different families, but most of them come from the Woods Harbour area.

"I just can't picture myself in the position of the families," he said.

"(But) it's good that much of the community is very supportive around here. Friends and family have gathered at the families' homes. They're all comforting each other and doing what they can do to make a terrible situation a little more comfortable."

Nickerson said a candlelight vigil was planned for Monday evening at the Calvary United Baptist Church in Lower Woods Harbour.

The municipality officially describes itself as the "Lobster Capital of Canada." Its website says the community is "rooted in tradition and shaped by the sea."

The overnight storm that swept through the Maritimes knocked out power for thousands of Nova Scotians and schools were cancelled in parts of the province Monday.

At Baccaro Point in southwestern Nova Scotia, wind gusts were recorded at 80 to 90 kilometres per hour throughout the night and much of Monday morning.

Stewart Franck, executive director of the Fisheries Safety Association of Nova Scotia, said the industry needs to find ways to prevent accidents at sea.

"There's sadness, but you also get a little bit angry because we hope to avoid these things," said Franck, whose non-profit association represents approximately 1,300 companies in the province.

"I'm sad that we're not there yet as far as an industry. ... Our hopes and prayers and best wishes go to the family and friends of the crew and the community."

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