Canadian shipwreck mystery connects two American vets

Eye on Veterans
January 11, 2019 - 9:58 am

Photo courtesy Steve Smith

Cape Breton Island is a quiet, remote place. It sits at the northern tip of the Canadian province of Nova Scotia with Prince Edward Island to the west and nothing to the east, except water, until you reach Europe. Among the island's 130,000-plus residents is retired American Sailor Steve Smith, who settled in his wife's hometown of Coxheath after a 20-year Navy career and was recently connected to a fellow veteran in a most unusual way.

It all began when Smith, now the founder/owner of coffee roasting business Bungalow Beans, came across a story by the Cape Breton Post about a mysterious man who was seen walking through the tiny coastal fishing village of Gabarus with only a backpack and a dog, and didn't say a word to anyone. The man came out of the east where, remember, there's nothing between the coast and France save about 2,600 miles of the North Atlantic's rough seas. 

Was he a ghost? An Atlantis resident on vacation? The world's most quietly successful long-distance swimmer?

"They don't know who he was or where he came from," Smith recalls of the initial story, but says a discovery was soon made that rendered a supernatural explanation unlikely.

"Come to find out there was a boat, a sailboat, that had wrecked on the shore out there in the (Gabarus) Wilderness Area." 

Photo courtesy Steve Smith

The mystery man was the talk of the island, and remained so even after the Cape Breton Post tracked him down. His name was Andy Bunn, a Marine Corps vet who had been sailing around the world on his 36 foot sailboat Liberty for some time. It turned out that Bunn had actually been in the Cape Breton news weeks earlier for a previous maritime mishap when he ran into trouble off the coast and had to be towed in to port for repairs.

This time, however, Bunn had apparently decided Liberty was beyond repair. He abandoned the boat and silently headed home to America. In doing so, Bunn had taken only the necessities and left behind personal possessions. So when the local paper reached out to him for a follow up article he asked that if anyone might be able to help him recover some things he'd left behind.

Steve Smith read that article and decided right away to do what he could to help his fellow vet.

"I told my wife, I said, 'Heather, get your boots and get the dog, we're going out to the Gabarus Wilderness Area,'" Smith says. "'And we're gonna find this guy's boat and bring back his stuff!' So that's what happened."

Smith was able to get Bunn's contact info from the paper to ask him what, specifically, he was looking for and headed out to find Liberty. When he located the wreck, with help from a Gabarus resident who gave him directions, it was in rough shape. Smith says the North Atlantic weather had already taken a toll and describes the scene as a "tangled, gnarled mess" but he wasn't going to let that stop him. After digging his way through the wreckage, Smith was able to locate important documents Bunn had asked for, and some more sentimental items. 

Photo courtesy Steve Smith

"I took two trips out there," Smith says. "...I found his wedding ring in there and there was a few things from the Marine Corps, a couple challenge coins and some various things like that. So I put it all in a box and mailed it off to him. (First) I had to bring it back home and dry everything out."

RELATED: See more photos from the wreck of Liberty on Cape Breton Island

Bunn has since received the shipment from Smith, thanking him for taking the time and putting forth the effort to help out. For Smith's part, he says once he found out the shipwrecked Sailor was a fellow vet, he had to find a way.

Photo courtesy Steve Smith

"If the guy was from another country or had no military ties? It would have been just another story to me, y'know?" Smith says. "I mean, you'd like to help the guy out but you don't know him from anybody. But as soon as you add that title in there 'veteran.' Y'know what? I'm gonna make this happen, because that's what veterans do. You do it your whole military career, and you do it afterwards." 

And it was done just in time, as Liberty was torn apart a short time later by a severe winter storm, leaving only fragments of the vessel strewn across a quarter-mile stretch of the Cape Breton coast.

You can hear the full interview with Steve Smith below.

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