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Sea searchers: How a sea of volunteers is saving lives on B.C.'s coast

If you get into trouble on the ocean, a team of volunteers is ready to help.

On a sunny day in March three years ago, Marcel Holzherr and his wife, Shyla Wever, decided to take their newly acquired ocean kayaks for a leisurely paddle from their property in East Sooke to a restaurant on the other side of the Sooke Basin, about 1.5 nautical miles away.

The weather was good and the seas were calm when they started their excursion. “The sea was like glass,” recalls Holzherr.

By the time they were ready to leave the restaurant, however, the weather had turned, and the sea was whipped by gale-force winds and two-foot waves.

Weaver wanted to wait out the storm, but Holzherr, an active outdoorsman his whole life, was confident he could handle it.

“I’ll paddle back, get the truck and come back to get you,” said Holzherr, then 58. He and Wever had moved to Vancouver Island in January of that year after nearly 40 years in Banff, where he was the chef and owner of a restaurant as well as travelling and cooking for the Canadian Olympic cross-country ski team.

He had only made it a third of the way when he realized the wind was so strong, he wasn’t going anywhere. He decided to turn back, but just then, a wave flipped his 17-foot kayak, throwing him into the frigid waters.

He tried and failed to get back into the kayak, He was wearing a personal flotation device, but between the shock of hitting the water and wrestling with the kayak, panic crept in.

He decided to abandon the kayak and swim toward shore, which he estimated was 45 minutes away.

He believes he was in the cold water for about an hour and suffering from Stage 3 hypothermia as he made his way towards a rocky escarpment beside the Galloping Goose trail. He remembers swimming even though he couldn’t feel his limbs. Once he reached the shore, he scrambled onto the rocks and started to drift in and out of consciousness.

“I thought I was done for — I was going to die. I let go and felt a sense of peace wash over my body,” said Holzherr.

Fortunately for Holzherr, his wife had raised the alarm. Scot Taylor, co-owner of West Coast Adventure College and a non-active member of Royal Canadian Marine search-and-rescue, was nearby and paddled over to help.

After reaching Holzherr, he used his knowledge of hypothermia survival to keep Holzherr stabilized until paramedics arrived.

“He saved my life, no doubt about it,” said Holzherr, who signed up with the Sooke station of RCMSR three months after the incident. “I got another crack at life and I want to motivate others to learn more about boat safety — a lesson I had to learn the hard way.”

NETWORK OF STATIONS ON B.C. COAST

It’s technically the Canadian Coast Guard Auxiliary, a national network of non-profit organizations with regional offices in Newfoundland, Nova Scotia, Quebec, Ontario and B.C., but in this province, it’s been known as Royal Canadian Marine search-and-rescue since 2012.

In B.C., 900 volunteers are assigned to one or more of 31 stations on the Island, north coast and Haida Gwaii, the Lower Mainland and Shuswap. Vancouver Island and the Gulf Islands have 15 stations.

Collectively, the RCMSR’s area of operations covers more than 25,000 kilometres of B.C. coastline, along with the inland station in the Shuswap.

In the 2020/2021 year, they were credited with saving the lives of 138 boaters — 29 of them out of Vancouver Island’s stations. Of the 7,000 marine and humanitarian requests for help received every year in Canada, about one quarter are answered by Canadian Coast Guard Auxiliary.

Holzherr is a crew member with Station 37 in Sooke, which has a roster of 12 members. All of the active members have Connect Rocket, a communications tool on their cellphones.

When a marine distress call is made — either from a member of the public calling 911 or a mariner hailing others on VHF Channel 16, the emergency channel — the call is received by one of three Joint Canadian Rescue Co-ordination Centers or one of two Maritime Rescue Sub-Centres.

Once the area the call comes from is determined, Connect Rocket pages all of the members of the nearest station. Some stations designate two teams on rotation, with one on call 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. and another responsible for the 6 p.m. to 6 a.m. shift. For other stations with smaller rosters, all members are on call 24 hours a day.

Response times average 20 minutes.

Each boat requires three crew members before it can launch, with one serving as the helmsman, one as the navigator and the third as the coxswain, the person in charge of the boat. Typically the first three members who arrive at the station embark on the mission. Those who live farther from their station, like Holzherr — a 30-minute drive away — usually can’t get there on time.

Once the crew members arrive, they need to put on their rescue suits, a full-body drysuit. With practice, some can put one on in about two minutes, but with its layers of neoprene, waterproof zippers and latex gaskets, a novice can take considerably longer.

Before the crew sets out, they do an equipment check and go over the mission. Anyone who is uncomfortable with any aspect of the mission, or who feels it’s more risk than they are willing to take, is encouraged to voice their concerns.

The search-and-rescue rigid-hull inflatables typically have four seats. Some are open to the elements, while others have partial or full cabins. The helmsman sits on one of the two forward seats with the navigator beside him or her, and the coxswain behind. The navigator has the primary sonar and radar screen up front, with auxiliary screens behind.

On a sunny day with calm seas, voice communication is typical. The helmsman also responds to hand commands from the coxswain. A tap on either shoulder indicates the direction to turn. A tap on the helmet means go, while a tug on the collar is a sign to stop the boat.

On patrol, voice commands are given, with the helmsman repeating them to acknowledge receipt. The navigator divides his or her time between the screens and the water ahead, serving as an extra set of eyes looking for hazards in the ship’s path.

A crash of a rescue vessel into the shore at Christie Point during a training exercise in February 2019, which injured two crew members, showed how important communication can be. The Transportation Safety Board found navigational errors and poor communications contributed to the crash. The two injured crew members have launched a pair of lawsuits seeking damages.

Bill Riggs, Sooke-based CEO of RCMSR, said the TSB’s report was balanced and the organization agrees with its conclusions. Although it didn’t make any significant changes, he said, protocols already in place have been “emphasized.”

A CHALLENGING ROLE

All chatter ceases when the VHF radio, tuned to the marine emergency channel, squawks to life. Hearing “Pan-pan, pan-pan, pan-pan,” the crew goes on high alert — it means a mariner is in trouble and needs assistance urgently. It’s one step under a mayday call, where a rescue is required immediately.

The caller gives the nature of the emergency and the assistance needed, as well as the co-ordinates, so boats in the vicinity can respond. Once the crew realizes the call is coming from outside their region, the sense of tension leaving the boat is palpable.

On a typical mission, Amber Sheasgreen would assume the position of coxswain. She grew up in Prince Rupert and has been in and around boats her whole life, volunteering for search-and-rescue missions for 10 years, the last three in Sooke.

Sheasgreen works full time from home in an administrative role with the Royal Canadian Marine search-and-rescue, and is also on call 24/7 for search-and-rescue callouts. “Luckily my employer is undertandably comfortable with me dropping everything to respond to a call. That usually isn’t the case with most employers.”

At 36, she is one of the younger members in the organization, which is open to everyone from novices who are at least 19 to seasoned mariners well into their 70s. The time commitment is substantial, with Wednesday evenings usually set aside for training and optional weekend meetings.

Being on call 24/7 has an effect on your social life, something Sheasgreen has come to accept. “My friends are so understanding. I have left dinners so many times that my friends are prepared to quickly put together a doggy-bag if I have to leave unexpectedly.”

When possible, crew members help each other out, providing baby-sitting for those with children or looking after pets. If they are planning to have a few drinks, they first call other members to ensure someone is available to respond to an emergency.

The toughest time to get enough crew is over long weekends in the summer, Sheasgreen said.

Next month, she’s taking her rescue experience to the Mediterranean.

After hearing of the need for experienced helmpersons, she signed on with Refugee Rescue, a non-governmental organization based in Northern Ireland that uses a rigid-hull inflatable to rescue refugees attempting the perilous voyage across the Mediterranean Sea to Europe.

She’s combining her holidays with a leave of absence to spend between six and eight weeks on the mission, and has raised $6,500 via a GoFundMe page to help her cover travel costs and to board her dog while she is away.

“Just like many people who I grew up with, I just put my hand up to help out,” said Sheasgreen.

THE SEARCH FOR VOLUNTEERS

Attracting and retaining recruits is a constant challenge for the organization, which depends on volunteers.

“We are telling people that even if they don’t want to be out on the water, there is a role they can play in the organization,” said Riggs, adding the group recruits across all demographics and is trying to diversify.

Riggs realizes it can be a balancing act for some people, including those with young families.

The intake program takes place once a year, usually in the fall or winter. In the last year, there were 10 applications to be a volunteer in Sooke, with six passing a background check and interview. Of the six recruits who took the full-day orientation and physical-fitness assessment, only three stuck with it. They will undergo a three-month probationary period before they become active members.

Sheasgreen, who helps train the recruits, said common reasons for dropping out include moving out of the area, discovering the program requires more time than they expected, and wanting to start a family. “Typically there is also one who leaves because they are not a good fit. Last year, there was one who left due to issues around COVID-19.”

If a new recruit stays beyond a year and a half, there is a good chance they will continue to serve for up to eight years, she said. And while there is no strategy to attract more women, there are no barriers, either.

“I think there is a perception that the marine environment is male-dominated,” said Sheasgreen, who spent time in boats almost every day growing up in Prince Rupert. “But we promote women in many roles.”

A recent internal report found that less than 20 per cent of the applications they receive are from women. “We all need to work together to diversify to attract more women and underrepresented minorities,” said Riggs.

The Oak Bay station recently saw the addition of five female crew members in a cohort of nine recruits, all of them under the age of 30.

An even bigger issue than recruitment, however, is funding, which Riggs says is what keeps him up at night.

In the 2020-2021 fiscal year, which starts April 1, the lion’s share of RCMSR’s revenue, at 63 per cent, came from the federal government, with the province kicking in 15 per cent.

A further 16 per cent comes in the form of corporate donations and federal grants, with the final six per cent coming from donations from the public.

The individual stations raise the last six per cent. All are incorporated as charities and apply for gaming grants and hold fundraisers such as gala dinners, online auctions and bingo games.

Volunteers fundraise for their own life-saving equipment and vessels, which can cost upwards of $500,000 each, with capital grants generally covering half the cost.

“We need somewhat expensive equipment to operate — and they are not cheap to run,” said Riggs.

If the group had more money, it could do more on-water training, he said. “It costs money to train and we do as much as we can afford, because that is what keeps people safe.”

EVOLUTION OF THE ORGANIZATION

Canada boasts the world’s longest coastline, with more than 243,000 kilometres of coast.

Canadians own an estimated 4.3 million boats and spend a considerable time on the water — about 12.4 million adults go boating every year, according to a survey by the National Marine Manufacturers Association Canada.

Shortly after it was established in 1962, the Canadian Coast Guard began using volunteer search masters and marine rescue agents in remote communities to assist in search-and-rescue efforts with their own boats.

In 1978, the Canadian Coast Guard established the Canadian Marine Rescue Auxiliary to involve volunteers in a structured way. The organization changed its name to Canadian Coast Guard Auxiliary in 1997.

The auxiliary assists the coast guard, Department of National Defence and Transport Canada on search-and-rescue calls and promoting boat safety programs in the community.

They were joined last year by the newly created Coastal Nations Coast Guard Auxiliary, a parallel organization and the first Indigenous-led auxiliary group in Canada. It began its on-water operations in the fall of 2020 in the territorial waters of Ahousaht and Heiltsuk First Nations. Response units in Nisga’a, Gitxaala and Kitasoo/Xai’xais territorial waters are expected to be operational in the near future.