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Four men who teamed up to save teens at Sproat Lake among Lifesaving award winners

Robert Cole, Kelly Lance, John Mahaffy, and David Murphy among more than a dozen British Columbians to receive lifesaving awards.
Ryan and John Planes of Sooke will be honoured for rescuing an American mariner found adrift off Tofino after being missing for two weeks. THE CANADIAN PRESS/HO-Ocean Sunset

Four Port Alberni men who showed “remarkable bravery and teamwork” are among those receiving awards from the Lifesaving Society B.C. and Yukon Branch in March.

On the morning of Nov. 11, 2023, three 17-year-olds set out on Sproat Lake for a day of canoeing. While the weather in the morning had been nice, around noon, the wind picked up along with a heavy rain, and the canoe capsized.

None of the teens were wearing life-jackets.

“Hearing screams from the water, John Mahaffy and son-in-law Kelly Lance rushed into action,” the Lifesaving Society said.

The two borrowed a boat from neighbour Robert Cole, who wasn’t home, and headed into the lake.

By the time the two reached them, the teens had been in the water for about 25 minutes and were exhausted, hypothermic and traumatized, the Lifesaving Society said.

Mahaffy manoeuvred the boat closer for Lance to pull in a teenage girl who was weighed down by her soaked clothes.

Lance then rescued a second teen who had shed some heavy clothes but was still struggling. It was then that they learned there had been three teens in the canoe.

They searched the water but could not locate the third teen, so they returned to Mahaffy’s house and waited for emergency services to arrive.

When Cole got home, he headed back out on the water with Mahaffy in search of the third teen, without success.

Meanwhile, another area resident, David Murphy, who had been fishing nearby, used his fishing expertise and equipment to pinpoint the location where the canoe had flipped and the water depth, and gave the information to Alberni Valley Search and Rescue.

Unfortunately, however, the third teen was found dead.

Cole is now advocating for Sproat Lake Marine Patrol’s life-jacket loaner program to be available year-round to the public in hopes it will prevent more tragedies, the society said.

Other Islanders will receive awards from the Lifesaving Society in a ceremony at the Fairmont Hotel Vancouver on March 9: Preston Hayden for saving a capsized kayaker in Nanaimo; Lucia Dell, 7, for saving her grandfather from drowning in Nanaimo’s Beban Pool; Sooke fisherman Ryan Planes and his uncle John Planes for rescuing a mariner adrift off Tofino; and Rylie Matthews for rescuing a man and woman at Thetis Lake.

Ryan and John Planes were setting out their fishing gear about 75 kilometres off Tofino in late October when they spotted a life-raft about half a kilometre away, with someone on board waving his paddle, Ryan told the Times Colonist at the time.

They pulled the castaway aboard and discovered the American had been missing for two weeks since setting out on a three-day trip from Westport, Washington. After feeding the famished man, who had run out of rations on the life-raft, they transferred him to the Canadian Coast Guard, which took him to the hospital in Tofino before he returned home to California.

In May 2023, Matthews was inflating her paddleboard at Thetis Lake when she heard splashing in the middle of the lake and saw a woman waving her arms and calling for help. When she reached the woman, she noticed a man about a foot under the surface of the water.

The woman grabbed on to Matthews’s paddleboard, while Matthews reached into the water to pull the man out by his hair. He was unconscious and blue, she said at the time. Others at the lake helped Matthews bring the two victims to shore, where they were met by off-duty paramedics who administered first aid. He began to spit out water and regain consciousness. The two victims were taken to hospital.

Other awards will be given to Chris and Ben Carlson for rescuing two people from a capsized boat on the Thompson River in Kamloops; Ty Hurley, a forward for the Kelowna Rockets, for rescuing a drowning man from a hotel pool in Strathmore, Alta.; Chris Pearson, Jason Sherratt, Nixen Sherratt, Cooper Pearson, and Cole Pearson for saving a drowning girl at Wasa Lake in the East Kootenay; and Fadi Jabo for rescuing a drowning girl and her father at White Pine Beach in Port Moody.

“These individuals’ selfless actions highlight the importance of preparedness and quick response in preventing tragedies,” the society said.

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