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A Newfoundland kidnapping and a Christmas miracle

It was 53 years ago, on Dec. 20, 1965, that Finton Dobbin (left) and Delbert Mailman were stranded on Flat Island after ditching their boat in the middle of a winter storm.
It was 53 years ago, on Dec. 20, 1965, that Finton Dobbin (left) and Delbert Mailman were stranded on Flat Island after ditching their boat in the middle of a winter storm. - Contributed

Port au Choix family recall harrowing experiences that unfolded early in their lives

PORT AU CHOIX, N.L. - From kidnapping their infant son to the drama of a shipwreck, Delbert and his wife Stella Mailman of Port au Choix have several true life stories not unlike those great movies are made of.

Two such events unfolded about this time of year 53 years ago. 

Stella and Delbert Mailman hold newspaper clippings of The Western Star describing the ordeal of Finton Dobbin (Stella’s brother) and Delbert’s rescue. - Contributed
Stella and Delbert Mailman hold newspaper clippings of The Western Star describing the ordeal of Finton Dobbin (Stella’s brother) and Delbert’s rescue. - Contributed

Delbert and Stella were living in Nova Scotia (Delbert’s home province), with their infant son, Icarus, when Stella was diagnosed with tuberculosis.

“I ended up in the sanatorium in Kentville, but we didn’t have anyone to take care of my baby. So they took him in the hospital. I didn’t want him in there so I had to sign myself out and we had to actually kidnap our baby. I’ll never forget it,” Stella said during a recent phone interview.

Stella walked from her room to the baby wing of the hospital. Delbert was also in that area, she said.

“The nurse or girl was holding my baby (Icarus was four months old at the time) in her arms,” she recalled. “She was keeping him from me and she had sent for the doctor. When she glanced away I snatched him out of her arms and I tossed him to my husband. He grabbed him and headed for the door.”

A family member was waiting in a vehicle in front of the hospital for the couple and their baby.

“We never got a stitch of (the baby’s) clothes, only what he was wearing,” she said. “We jumped in the car and I watched all the way from Kentville, down through the Eastern Shore of Nova Scotia to where we lived, all the way expecting the cops to be chasing us,” Stella recalled. 

Ralph O’Keefe was one of the men to rescue Finton Dobbin and Delbert Mailman. - Contributed
Ralph O’Keefe was one of the men to rescue Finton Dobbin and Delbert Mailman. - Contributed

Once they had their baby out of hospital (in late November 1965), the couple headed home to Newfoundland. Stella left her son in her mother’s care in early December and went to the hospital in St. Anthony where she would spend the next five months on the TB wing.

At about that time, she said, her husband started fishing with her brother Finton Dobbin.

Waiting for word

Dec. 20, 1965 was a lovely, calm day in Port au Choix and at about 11 a.m. Delbert, 24, and Finton, 21, left for the fishing grounds. The men were expected back by suppertime. They didn’t return on time and a winter blizzard had set in.

“My sister called me (at the hospital) late in the night,” Stella said. “Dad wanted her to tell me not to worry because (Delbert and Finton) were on St. John’s Island. We knew there were cabins there and they would be okay.”

Stella had no way of knowing that her brother and husband had not made it to that island. Rather, because of engine trouble with the boat, were stranded on another island (known locally as Flat Island) desperately seeking shelter from the storm.

That night Stella lay across her hospital bed, looking out the window at the vicious storm.

“I was praying for them but still, in my heart, I was thinking they were OK because they were on St. John’s Island,” she said.

Stella said hospital staff, headed by Dr. John Gray, did everything they could to keep her informed about the search efforts.

“They kept a line open to the RCMP the whole time. They were going to put me on a plane and send me home,” she said. “Everybody except me thought they weren’t going to survive. But not once did I give up hope.”

Stella recalled the moment she learned of her husband’s and brother’s fate. It was Dec. 23, she said, three days after they’d gone missing.

“(Hospital staff) came running up the steps. They were smiling saying, ‘You’re wanted on the phone but it’s good news!’”

Stella was told both her husband and brother had been found alive. 

Newspaper clippings from The Western Star detailing the Christmas miracle. - Contributed
Newspaper clippings from The Western Star detailing the Christmas miracle. - Contributed

The men had been stranded on Flat Island, after ditching the 26 ft. open boat in the raging storm (the boat was destroyed).

They thought there was a cabin on the island where they would seek shelter but found just one wall still standing.

This is where Delbert picks up the story for The Northern Pen.

Still in their oil clothes, he said, they huddled behind the wall desperately seeking shelter.

They managed to light a fire and, at some point, he said, roasted some codfish.

After lying down for the night, they found themselves covered in snow.

Finton was stronger than him, Delbert said.

“He could stand more than I could.”

Delbert grew weaker in the unforgiving storm.

Was he thinking about his wife and baby?

“Oh, yes, you better believe it,” he said.

The rescue

When the men didn’t return to Port au Choix that evening, Ralph O’Keefe and Stella’s father Joseph Dobbin (now deceased) took to the water to search for the lost fishermen. Also aboard the boat were Jim Plowman (now deceased) and Martin Gould.

When contacted by phone about the search, O’Keefe said they went out in the middle of the night in a raging blizzard.

“It was pretty rough I tell you,” O’Keefe said. “We had to come back. Them days our boats wasn’t equipped for searches like they are today.”

The men continued their search when the weather was fit for them to go out again. (Newspaper clippings from The Western Star also confirm that an official search had also taken place). 

“It was scary due to the weather. Nobody even knew if they got to the islands,” he recalled. “But we searched the big island (St. John’s island) first. We never saw anything so we went to Flat Island. We searched there, then we saw a boat (in the distance) and we saw one person. That rattled us up.” 

O’Keefe said, at that point, they thought they would be rescuing only one survivor.

It was impossible to get his boat into where the men’s boat had drifted, he said, so they used their lifeboat to rescue both Finton and Delbert.

Still fishing

Stella said her brother Finton still enjoys fishing.

After the wreck, and more time on the water and close calls, Delbert carved out a career as a mechanic (Mailman’s Service Station). He eventually returned to the fishery and, for the past 15 years, Stella has been his crewmate.

They fish the same waters Delbert and Finton fished when they were shipwrecked over half-a-century ago.

For Delbert, it’s hard not to think about his near-disaster, especially heading into Christmas.

He credits his survival to some luck and lots of prayers.

“The snow was unreal. I don’t think, if we had to go another night, I would have made it.”

Flat Island and St. John Island are located just off the western coast of the Great Northern Peninsula, north of Port au Choix. - Google Maps

danette@nl.rogers.com

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