A Newfoundland skipper says he and his two crew members are very lucky to be alive after their boat started to sink off the coast of Cape Breton.

The fishermen were on their way to a fish plant in North Sydney Wednesday afternoon when they started to take on water. 

fishermen rescued

The crew aboard the vessel issued a mayday around 4:45 p.m. when the boat started taking on water. (Todd Kearley, skipper of Bradley Venture)

Todd Kearley, the skipper of the Bradley Venture, says the strong wind and wave conditions were too much to save the vessel.

They then called for help and jumped into a life raft. 

Kearley says he's had a few close calls over the course of his life but this one ranks "pretty well up there."

He says he's glad to have had a cell phone in the life raft to keep in contact with the rescue centre. He says after his many years at sea and close calls, having a cell phone ready in a plastic bag is a good idea.

He says it was a tense hour or so waiting for rescue.

"We were just so lucky that the cooler off the boat floated by the life raft. We decided to grab the cooler because we were all thirsty after working like dogs to keep ‘er afloat. … We were smoking cigarettes, talking about how lucky we were," says Kearley.

Herb Nash, a fisherman and member of the Canadian Coast Guard Auxiliary, was part of the rescue team, along with the Marine Atlantic ferry MV Highlanders.    

The ferry blocked the wind while Nash and his crew hauled the men aboard the vessel.  

Nash says when he arrived only a few feet of the fishermen's boat was still above water. 

"I'm glad that the three of them were rescued, no one got hurt. I know they lost everything they own there but, you know, we got them to shore and gave them some dry clothes to put on them and gave them a pair of shoes — none of them had shoes or anything on, they had [survival] suits on. ... We gave them something to eat and then drove them to the ferry," says Nash.

Since they had to leave in such a hurry, Kearley says only one of the men had his wallet when they jumped into the life raft. 

Kearley says Nash forced him to take $150 to help with expenses for the ferry trip from Cape Breton to Newfoundland.

"He wouldn't take no money for gas from us," says Kearley.

"He’s a good man, I can tell you that. I told him ‘You know Herb, we've got a bit of money there in a bank account,’ and he says ‘If you don’t take this money from me, I’m not going to be a very happy man.’ We could have done without, but we did need it, I just don’t like to feel like a burden on anybody." 

It's not clear why the boat started to leak. 

The three fishermen have safely returned to Newfoundland.     

"They were in good shape. They were a bit nervous and that because of the fog and the sea picking up and they were just after losing the boat. They were a bit nervous over it all but they were happy they got on the boat, that's for sure. They couldn't thank us enough when we picked them up," says Nash.