Couple survive hours at sea after whale topples boat off Northern Peninsula

Sarah Alyward and her boyfriend Tyler Brown spent three hours clinging to a gas can in the waters near Cook's Harbour, hoping for a rescue.

The two clung to a gas can to stay afloat while waiting for rescuers

Sarah Alyward and Tyler Brown survived three hours in the ocean, clinging to a gas can and trying to swim to shore. (Submitted)

A young couple from the Northern Peninsula credit a red gas can for saving their lives after a whale capsized their small boat, dumping them into the icy waters off Cook's Harbour, where they spent hours trying to make it to shore.

Sarah Alyward, 21, and her boyfriend, Tyler Brown, 23, were cod jigging Aug. 3 when the whale surfaced underneath them, throwing them into the ocean.

"All of a sudden, I just heard this bang — and next thing I know, I was just in the water and everything was all dark and I was spinning around trying to get out, trying to find the surface," Alyward told CBC.

Alyward was underneath the capsized boat but managed to grab its hull, orient herself and make it up for air, to where Brown was clinging to the bow of the boat, after being thrown a few metres by the whale's impact.

With no lifejackets on — those were stuck underneath the water, by the boat's motor — the couple spotted their red gas can floating nearby.

"[We] didn't know what to do. Tyler swam and got the gas can. He managed to dump the gas out, and he dumped it all over himself and he ended up with a burn on his body," said Alyward.

"We pretty much held onto the gas can, and our only choice was really swim to shore."

The shoreline near where the boat accident happened on Aug. 3. (Submitted)

Numb hands, fading hope

The two may have been buoyant, but the gas can was no help against the frigid waters.

"We were kicking the whole time. My feet never stopped moving once. I never noticed the cold, at first. First when the boat got tipped over, the water never even fazed me," said Alyward.

As the shock wore off, the cold seeped in.

I looked at Tyler a few times... and said, 'this is how we're gonna go. This is it.'- Sarah Alyward

"We were still really far from shore and my hand was going numb. All my fingers were white and I was starting to get leg cramps and couldn't feel my toes anymore. I didn't even really know if I was kicking my feet, it just felt like I was."

As the hours slipped by, so did her strength.

"I looked at Tyler a few times, probably eight or nine times, and said 'this is how we're gonna go. This is it.' [We] started to lose hope at the end of it," she recalled.

'Scream whatever you got in ya'

Three hours passed. The two had managed to make it fairly close to the shore in Cook's Harbour, but a strong tide kept beating them back from reaching the land. That's when they spotted a few people on a beach, and rallied their energy for one last attempt to get rescued.

"Tyler looked at me, and said 'on the count of three, scream whatever you got in ya, and try to let them know we're here.' So that's what we done," said Alyward.

The couple's boat overturned off Cook's Harbour, near the northernmost tip of Newfoundland. (Google Maps)

The cries reached the shore, where one of the people spotted them — thanks to the bright red gas can — and drove off to Cook's Harbour, where someone jumped in a rescue boat and sped towards the tired swimmers, who could barely believe help was there at last.

"[The] best feeling ever. I wouldn't even be able to explain to anyone what it feels like — just relief," Aylward said.

She and Brown were treated in hospital for hypothermia, and Brown's gas burns, before being released the next day. Despite having no feeling in three of her fingers, Alyward said she's recovered from the ordeal physically, although memories of her hours in the ocean still sends ice down her spine.

"I don't even like driving by the water. it's gonna be a long time before I'm in a boat again, I'd say."

She's thankful for their unlikely saviour.

"I probably wouldn't have lasted 15 minutes without that gas can."

With files from Caroline Hillier