Wild West on the water: Family tells of crash’s toll

Quiet filled the dark sky over Brentwood Bay.

It was the long weekend in August 2015. The fireworks at Butchart Gardens had just ended.

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Anne and Earl Henderson, retired phys-ed teachers in their mid-70s, and their 57-year-old son, Brent, waited 30 minutes for the slow procession of boats to leave Tod Inlet. They tucked their power boat in behind a flotilla of 21 kayaks and started making their way home.

Earl and Brent stood at the front of their boat, on the lookout for paddlers without lights coming across their bow. Then Anne heard a boat start and knew right away it was going too fast.

Brent looked back, then turned to his father, saying: “There’s a boat coming on your left and it’s coming fast.”

Earl nodded.

“And then I heard this noise,” Anne says. “I thought I should recognize this noise. I realized it was water going around the hull.

“I started to turn my head. I didn’t get to my shoulder before they hit us.”

When she came to, Anne checked to see if could move her head and legs. She could. She was holding her arm. She knew it was badly broken.

“I tried to look around and realized I was on top of Earl and he was face down unconscious in the back of the boat with his head in the engine well.”

Brent had been slammed over the seat into the back of the boat. He reached over to pull her up, but she told him not to touch her painful right arm.

Anne faded in and out of consciousness. She thought she heard the other boat reversing off their boat and tried to say: “Don’t let him go. Don’t let him go.”

She’s not sure she said the words aloud.

Then she heard a voice: “Ma’am, I’m a kayaker and I’m here to help you. Ma’am, I’m coming on your boat to help you.”

Brent started to yell. The boat was sinking. The water was rising.

Their rescue is a blur. Anne doesn’t remember how she and her family were brought ashore and taken to hospital.

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On Wednesday, Central Saanich boater Michael Gettle was convicted of three counts of dangerous operation of a motor vessel causing bodily harm to Earl, Anne and Brent Henderson.

During Gettle’s trial in B.C. Supreme Court, Kent Lindahl, owner and operator of a 48-foot fishing trawler, testified that he and his friends saw the collision.

They raced over in the rescue boat to pull everyone from both boats to safety.

“We believe we’re lucky we’re alive,” Earl says. “If any of us had gone into the water, we wouldn’t have been able to save ourselves. All I remember is waking up moaning. I felt paralyzed. I couldn’t move anything — my fingers, my toes. If I’d gone into the water, I don’t think I’d be here today.”

“I know I couldn’t have saved myself,” Anne says.

At the hospital, doctors found she had 17 broken ribs, a punctured lung and a shattered right elbow. “The surgeon told me he only found one piece of bone big enough to give me an elbow,” she says.

Earl suffered trauma to his neck and a broken shoulder.

Brent, who is an RCMP officer on the Lower Mainland, had five fractures in his back. “He’s had major trouble and he’s still suffering,” Earl says.

The Hendersons, who call themselves fitness nuts, believe their good physical conditioning at the time saved their lives.

Anne, who was going to compete at the Canadian badminton championships, has been forced to adjust her game. She lost grip strength in her shattered arm and can’t even accept change in the grocery store in her right hand without the change falling to the floor. She can’t open pill bottles or jars. Friends help her in and out of coats.

“She’s got some great shots because nobody knows where it’s going,” Earl says with a laugh.

“Sometimes my racket isn’t even facing the right direction,” Anne says.

Anne believes her health has been compromised by the collision. Her liver was damaged. She’s had bronchitis every year since. Her left lung filled with fluid.

“They had to put a needle in my back and stick a straw through all the broken ribs and drain it. And they had to do it twice and it was so awful,” she says.

“I feel I’ve lost 2 1/2 years completely of my life trying to rehab so I can pick up the pieces of our life. I can’t go back to cycling or kayaking. And I’m terrified of falling, because which part of your body do you want to hit the ground?”

The trauma has made them more emotional, Earl says.

“I’ve been on pins and needles since this happened. It doesn’t take much to make us burst out. This morning, I knocked a metal tube of gel in the sink,” he says. “We have a startle response. I can’t even imagine what soldiers coming back day after day from this stuff go through. It’s got to be so brutal. I got the tiniest hint of what they’ve gone through. It’s amazing how much it affects you.”

Their 20-year-old boat, which was like new, was a writeoff. They’ve spent $30,000 to replace it. They’ve also spent $7,000 on life-jackets, paddles, fire extinguishers and safety equipment, as well as on extra medical, physiotherapy and psychology appointments. On board their new boat, Anne always wears a new life-jacket that inflates when it hits the water.

The Hendersons want people to know that Gettle had no liability insurance.

“I’m not really sure that people realize when they go out on a boat, they’re really taking their lives in their hands. It’s the Wild West out there,” Anne says.

“I believe everybody should have a decal on their boat that says you have at least liability insurance. … It’s not a right to own a boat, it’s a privilege, and you need to be responsible.”

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Victoria lawyer Darren Williams is a marine accident expert, retained by other law firms to provide marine law advice.

He thinks Anne Henderson’s comment about the Wild West is pretty fair, especially compared with the automobile insurance industry.

He says buying boat insurance is the responsible thing and strongly advises boaters to buy at least liability-only coverage.

“The federal government regulates boating safety and it has never stepped in and made marine insurance mandatory for recreational vessels,” Williams says. “And a lot of people don’t like the costs of the premiums. They think about insurance as a means of protecting their own property from loss or damage, and they don’t consider the effect it will have on other people who might be injured and need insurance to compensate.”

Marine insurance is like home insurance, he says. People buy home insurance to protect the value of their property in case it burns down. But it typically also includes at least $1 million in liability coverage if people are sued for doing something stupid.

“I had a friend who was riding his bike down the road and knocked an older fellow off his feet. He faced a $400,000 judgment that would have bankrupted him, but his home insurance kicked in,” Williams says.

“A lot of people think: ‘My boat’s not worth much money. Why would I spend $1,200 a year to insure it when the boat’s only worth $5,000?’

“What they don’t appreciate is the liability portion of the insurance that protects them from being sued and — more importantly — gives other people who have been wrongfully injured somewhere to get compensation.”

It may not be economical to insure a $2,000 boat, but you can still do a lot of harm with a $2,000 boat, he says. In these cases, he recommends buying liability-only insurance because it gives boaters coverage in case they are sued.

“I really encourage people not to think about it in terms of ‘Well, it will protect me,’ but rather that it provides somebody else the protection if my mistakes hurt them.”

The Marine Liability Act, which is a federal law, states that in the case of collisions, groundings, capsizings and fires, there’s a legal presumption that the boat owner is negligent.

“So that’s kind of like half your case already won,” Williams says.

For vessels under 300 tonnes, which includes almost all pleasure vessels, there’s a $1-million limit of liability on the owner and the operator. If one person is injured, all that person can collect is $1 million. If five people are injured, they can collect $1 million in total.

“That is one of the reasons that marine insurance is more affordable than other insurance because there’s a legislated cap on the damages,” Williams says. “But it’s an unfortunate cap for people who are injured.”

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When Derren Lench, deputy chief of Central Saanich police, arrived in the municipality at the end of August 2015, he started taming the Wild West show out on the water.

“There was a definite gap in our presence on the water, specifically Brentwood Bay, and that gave me some real discomfort,” Lench says. “This horrific boating accident allowed us to shine a lens on the greater issue of safety on the water. We took proactive steps to eliminate future boating accidents.”

Lench and a team of officers came up with a marine safety plan in the fall of 2015 for use in the summer of 2016. Central Saanich police partnered with the RCMP South Island Integrated Marine Unit.

“I met with the corporal in charge of the unit and said: ‘I’d love to get a boat on the water every Saturday night in the summer to deal with the traffic related to the fireworks.’ ”

The department approved the overtime, sending an officer out on the boat with the RCMP to patrol Brentwood Bay on Saturdays, from late afternoon until the Butchart Gardens fireworks end.

“We were out every Saturday night,” Lench says. “We shared it around to whichever officers were available. It gave them the opportunity to get out on the water. They learned about the Canada Shipping Act, small vessel regulations or individuals drinking on the boat.”

A Central Saanich officer also goes out on the RCMP boat every second Thursday to patrol Brentwood Bay, he says. “We’re showing the citizens we are out there partnering with the RCMP, getting to know the marine part of our area.”

The stepped-up enforcement has been successful, he says. The Saturday night patrols gave out violation tickets for various offences. Officers check to make sure boat operators have proper lighting, life-jackets and a bailer. Two boaters have been charged with impaired operation of a vessel.

“We’ve received positive feedback from the public in the Brentwood Bay area,” Lench says. “They’ve noticed our presence. The waters are safer. Boats are more respectful of the law.”


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