Quebec canoeist recalls harrowing near-drowning and heroism of missing friend

As they struggled to breathe and stay above the water after their canoe capsized in Quebec's Chambly Basin, Rémi Nolet told his best friend to put on the sole life-jacket. The 19-year-old hasn't been seen since.

'He's my best friend, and he saved my life,' Catherine Desautels says

RAW: Watch an emotional Catherine Desautels and her father talk to the media about their hero -- Rémy Nolet.

CBC News: Montreal at 6:00

6 years ago
Catherine Desautels and her father talk through tears about Rémy Nolet's heroic deed. 0:57

Catherine Desautels and her best friend Rémy Nolet set out by canoe on the Chambly Basin last night eager to grab some pizza before paddling back. 

It's a trip the childhood friends had made countless times. But on this night, as they headed home, the wind picked up. The waves turned from exhilarating to menacing. 

Before they knew it, they were tossed out of the canoe into frigid water. 

"I just had time to grab one life-jacket. We were both holding on to it. He said to me, 'Cat, put the belt on. Do it.' I put it on,'" Desautels, 17, said, struggling to hold back tears. 

Rémy Nolet told his friend Catherine Desautels to take the only life-jacket they had after their canoe capsized. (Facebook)
The pair managed to stay together for a while — Desautels grabbing hold of her friend as he slipped beneath the surface and pulling him back up. But eventually the waves and the current proved too strong, and the young woman was pushed further and further away from 19-year-old Nolet.

"The waves were horrible," she said. "Both of us were scared, scared, scared, scared. Eventually, the waves separated us, and I screamed, 'I'm going to get help, Rémy! Hold on! I'm going to get help!'"

Fighting the waves

Desautels can't explain why they weren't both wearing life-jackets. It was an unlucky turn because they usually did.

I just kept yelling that everything is OK, that I loved him and that I was going to get help.- Catherine Desautels

The young woman said she was able to fight the current buoyed by the vest, but Nolet slipped further away. 

"He tried to fight the water, but I couldn't get to him," she said.

"There were too many waves. There were too many waves between us. I just kept yelling that everything is OK, that I loved him and that I was going to get help."

Desautels focused her sights on a church and tried frantically to get to shore. She was having trouble breathing, she was cold, and she could barely feel her legs. She had been in the water for more than two hours. 

Then it started to rain. 

Eventually, she spotted a white house and figures moving on the shore. 

"I screamed like I've never screamed before," she said. "I woke up next to a fire."

She was taken to hospital and treated for shock and hypothermia.

Firefighters on Montreal's South Shore were able to recover the canoe, which capsized last Monday. (Simon-Marc Charron/Radio-Canada)

Chambly firefighters searched the water for Nolet until 1:30 a.m. and resumed their search this morning.

Desautels returned to the river bank this morning to help with the search, retracing her path from the shore. 

Visibly shaken, she recounted how her friend, whom she'd grown up with and lived next door to her entire life, sacrificed his life for hers. 

"He's my best friend, and he saved my life," she said.  "Without him, I wouldn't be here."


To encourage thoughtful and respectful conversations, first and last names will appear with each submission to CBC/Radio-Canada's online communities (except in children and youth-oriented communities). Pseudonyms will no longer be permitted.

By submitting a comment, you accept that CBC has the right to reproduce and publish that comment in whole or in part, in any manner CBC chooses. Please note that CBC does not endorse the opinions expressed in comments. Comments on this story are moderated according to our Submission Guidelines. Comments are welcome while open. We reserve the right to close comments at any time.