Friday morning dawned cold and drizzly. Whitecaps painted the wave tips in Fishermen’s Harbour frothy white against a dull grey sky and surly sea.
The Port Alberni Royal Canadian Marine Search and Rescue vessel was a bright red and yellow slash across the monochrome day. And think about it: most marine rescues you read about in the news never happen under blue skies and calm seas.
This was the kind of day that greeted volunteers from RCM-SAR Station 39 at Harbour Quay on Friday.
The 10 volunteers huddled on the deck of the rescue vessel alongside one of the wharf fingers of Centennial Pier and listened closely as coxswain Ted McGill explained and then demonstrated how to rescue someone who has fallen overboard.
“Brace your knee here and then pull up here,” McGill explained, before stepping back and letting SAR volunteer Maggi Slassor try.
Slassor’s been with marine search and rescue for 28 years, split between Nanoose Bay and Port Alberni.
“I was a sailing instructor and it just sort of fit what I loved to do,” she said.
Having been with SAR for so long, it’s been rewarding for Slassor to watch the Port Alberni station grown over the years.
“This unit started with just a small rigid hull inflatable boat and over the years has built up into one of the best boats available with every piece of equipment onboard,” she said. The station now has a state-of-the-art 34’ Falkins Class II Fast Response Craft.
The changes have meant that members have had to keep up to date as technology has advanced.
“You’re always honing your skills.”
For Slassor, the benefits of modern technology outweigh the extra training needed.
“It’s made it easier, it’s made it safer for the crew.”
But while the technology keeps changing, the basics stay the same.
“The basic search and rescue stuff doesn’t change,” she said.
The core work of the group has remained the same. Station 39 is the unit in the Royal Canadian Marine Search and Rescue network (formerly Coast Guard Auxiliary) that focuses on the Alberni Inlet until the halfway point between Port Alberni and Bamfield, where the Coast Guard takes over.
The national RCM-SAR left the Coast Guard network and became a private organization in May 2012 to underscore the fact it is non-profit and run by volunteers.
The Port Alberni station is now funded by gaming grants and fundraising rather than federal money—something that makes equipment upgrades more difficult, McGill said.
Because the station is run by volunteers, they do not staff the station regularly.
“We’re on a pager system, so if someone’s in distress then we react. Whatever the call is, the volunteers get together and we’re usually on the water in about 20 minutes,” McGill said, adding that the SAR station is an integral part of the Port Alberni community. “We risk our lives for the safety of others.”
While the land and marine search and rescue units are separate, they work together when the mission has both a land and sea component.
Last year, for example, a person went missing on an island in the Barkley Sound. “There were people injured and lost on an island and we worked side by side with land search and rescue where we transported their personnel out to Bamfield, put them on the island and they did their search and we brought them back.”
Ian Arklie, station leader, has been with RCM-SAR since 1990.
“I’ve got a love of the ocean, a love of the water… any opportunity I have I want to be out on the water,” Arklie said.
But while he enjoys the time spent out at sea, the fulfillment comes from helping others.
“Helping people in any type of situation on the water is quite rewarding for me,” Arklie said.
Slassor feels the same.
“It’s supremely rewarding. When we go out on a search and we actually save a life…you can’t equal that in any other way.”
A rescue that stands out in her mind happened a couple of summers ago when the Port Alberni station went out on a mission in conjunction with the Bamfield Coast Guard and the Cormorant helicopter from 442 Search and Rescue Squadron at CFB Comox.
“We were called to a search for an elderly man who had gone out fishing in his own boat from China Creek.”
By the time Station 39 was on the move, the man had been missing for 31 hours.
“It was getting to be dusk and as we went past a cleft in the rock, a very small cleft, we saw something orange on the rocks.”
The volunteer rescuers went in to investigate.
“It was the elderly gentleman. Fortunately, he still had his orange cruiser suit on. If he had taken it off, we never would have seen him.”
Friday’s training session was a round robin training exercise where the volunteers were parbuckling—learning how to rescue people from the water via rotation-— as well as practicing radio operations.
While many of the volunteers have a history of being out on the water, McGill said anyone can join, as long as they’re willing to put in the time and the effort.
The RCM-SAR organization pays for all of the training, from a commercial boating licence to marine first aid and Transport Canada navigation courses.
The SAR volunteers typically head out on the boat for two training days every second week, which includes everything from theory to throwing a willing volunteer into the water.
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On Friday, that volunteer was Gord Baines, who, when not moonlighting as a SAR practice dummy, is a lawyer with the Port Alberni Crown Counsel office.
Baines started with SAR in September after being convinced by McGill.
“He’s a neighbour of mine and he came in and talked to me about it.”
Despite having a full-time job, Baines hasn’t had trouble fitting in SAR practices.
“It’s all about finding a balance,” Baines said. “This hasn’t been an interference at all with work because a lot of the meeting and training can be in the evening or on weekends.”
Much like Slassor and Arklie, Baines’ love of being out on the water made marine search and rescue a perfect fit.
“I’ve been windsurfing for a long time so I love doing anything on the water. It seemed like a really good fit for me,” Baines said.
Though he’s only been a member for seven months, Baines said he’s already gained a lot from joining.
“It’s amazing to see how knowledgeable the members of this unit are. I have learned a tremendous amount with respect to navigation, piloting a boat…I started from the ground up so it’s been a really steep learning curve.”
Luckily, Baines said, the more senior members are more than happy to share their knowledge.
“What’s really impressed me is how enthusiastic everybody is in this unit and how they’re really wanting to share their knowledge,” no matter which role a newcomer is interested in.
“You can get on the helm of this boat or you can be on the electronics and there’s somebody there who has a tremendous amount of experience who’s willing to share that with you.”
But off the water, Station 39’s biggest challenge is fundraising. While they’ve upgraded their boat several times, they’re in need of a boathouse.
“Presently, the Port Alberni Marine Rescue Society has the opportunity to acquire a relatively new boathouse from a donator in Maple Bay,” Arklie said. Towing the boathouse from the Duncan area to the Alberni Valley would cost the society approximately $30,000-$35,000, while buying a new one would cost upwards of $160,000.
“It’s a fully integrated boathouse, we’ll be able to put a training room into it.”
Right now the boat sits outside at the end of a dock at Clutesi Haven Marina. They haven’t decided where they would like to put the new boathouse, Arklie said.
The society will be fundraising and approaching local businesses, service groups and the port authority in hopes of securing the funding.
Whether it’s donating, joining or just learning more about marine search and rescue, anyone interested can visit www.portalbernicoastguard auxiliary.ca, find them on Facebook at “Royal Canadian Marine Search and Rescue – Station 39 Port Alberni” or call 250-720-5477 or 250-720-1158.
“Come out and try it,” Baines adds. “You never know if it might be a good fit.”