A local artist who survived five hours in the frigid waters of the Salish Sea in late October and the rescuers who gave her a second chance at life were both struck with emotion as they met again in Ladysmith on Sunday.
“They were absolutely amazing and so compassionate and it was just such a beautiful meeting - I totally remembered the faces of the two guys that pulled me out of the water,” said Mya DeRyan, who moved to Ladysmith in late 2016 and is self-taught in the ancient Japanese art form known as Gyotaku, or fish rubbing.
“This was an extraordinary circumstance because they were looking for someone who didn’t want to be found.”
The 52-year-old jumped from the third car deck of BC Ferries’ Queen of Cowichan vessel travelling from Horseshoe Bay to Departure Bay on Oct. 30.
DeRyan had been suffering from a terminal illness and all last spring the dark blue curtains of her gallery on Esplanade Avenue beside city hall where drawn closed more often than not.
However, according to doctors that treated her following the rescue for hypothermia and resulting complications, DeRyan had been misdiagnosed with an illness she prefers to keep private.
“For as sick as I was, it was not a misdiagnosis. That was clear to anybody who was close to me or around me - the illness was very real,” she said.
Over the weekend, DeRyan, at her request, met with four members of the West Vancouver RCMSAR who found her drifting with a life ring approximately four nautical miles from where she took the plunge into the ocean.
The large-scale search also involved members of Department of National Defence, Canadian Coast Guard as well as BC Ferries.
On the day of the ordeal, DeRyan remembers being extremely mindful and void of all mental chatter.
“I felt like I couldn’t have gone another day,” she said of her condition.
She spent the afternoon in the park at Horseshoe Bay, sipping a coffee and eating onion rings, before boarding the ferry.
On the car deck she left a note sticking out of her purse indicating she was very sick, drank a bottle of Prosecco, and then when she felt like she was out of sight, disrobed, got up onto the railing and jumped.
“When I hit the water it was just an elated feeling of ‘finally.’ I felt so free. I felt so liberated and I felt like I was just on the threshold to relief and the next address, the next place,” she said.
However, back on the Queen of Cowichan, Christopher Wood saw DeRyan hit the water and instinctively pulled the alarm to let BC Ferries staff know someone had gone overboard.
DeRyan said at no point does she remember the water feeling cold and the sensation that surprised her the most was the wake from the ferry that reminded her of the sparkling wine she drank only moments earlier.
“I wanted to be alone in the water. I wanted to be in an emotional and mental state to just peacefully pass and go down with the sun,” she said.
The large-scale search involving authorities both in the air and on the water included West Vancouver RCMSAR’s Rob Alexander, Bruce Falkins, Rebecca Hathaway and Ian Grantham, who all met with DeRyan over the weekend.
Director of Operations, Jason van der Valk was also in attendance and said “it was a great opportunity to sit down face-to-face with Mya and get a bit more insight into what she saw, what she felt, and vice versa.”
“It’s not too often the volunteers get to see again the people we’ve assisted or helped, let alone find out how they’re doing, so it’s good closure for them,” he said. “It definitely was emotional. It was less about the operational ‘what ifs’…it was a chance to sit there and listen to Mya and understand how she is doing.”
Alone in the ocean, DeRyan swam and tread water for the better part of almost five hours altogether, trying to breath calmly and concentrating while the search went on around her.
“To have that intense energy of the search going on and all that activity…I didn’t want what was going on in the water to be the water I went down in. I needed to wait out the search,” she said, joking how she sang the Cops theme song Bad Boys as the helicopter circled overhead. “I wanted to die on my own terms.”
Losing concentration as the cold water pained her body to the point of nearly rendering her immobile, DeRyan remembers calling out for anything to grab onto and seeing the life ring originally tossed from the ferry by Wood drifting toward her.
“I open my eyes and I see something orange and glowing moving towards me. It’s not just floating on the wave like it’s in the current, it almost seemed like it was purposefully coming to me,” she said. “It floated directly to me. I just picked it up and put it over my head. It just came right to me and then I just balled.”
Using a series of calculations based off of that original floating ring with an attached beacon as a marker, authorities had mapped a series of quadrants across the search area.
Rescuers eventually found DeRyan fully conscious and clinging to the ring but with a body temperature dangerously in the range of 27 C.
Van der Valk could only describe DeRyan’s survival given the frigid conditions that day and her ability to find the energy to stay afloat as “an anomaly.”
The 33 RCMSAR stations, which also includes a Ladysmith detachment, handles upwards of 800 tasks annually, but only a small handful are for personal watercraft, or in this case only an individual.
“One of the members has been volunteering for marine SAR for 40 years and he’s not aware of a case like this that he’s been on and so it was very unique,” said van der Valk said.
Following DeRyan’s decision to go public last week with her story, many on social media expressed frustration with her putting rescuers own lives on the line.
DeRyan said she understands their point-of-view and that it was never part of her plan to bring attention upon herself.
“I felt so guilty about tying up both ferries and delaying everybody and just imagining what they must being going through emotionally, or judgmentally,” she said. “I’d left a note that said I had jumped and was very sick not because I was sad, and they were supposed to find it upon arriving in Nanaimo, not after I jumped.”
Now, she plans to close up her gallery in Ladysmith within the next week and move to Vancouver to be closer to her son to start a new chapter.
“I feel like I’ve made some new friends. They’ve invited me to come visit them at the station,” she said. “It certainly brought me closure and just having an opportunity to just really convey my gratitude.”
DeRyan said she’s no longer suffering any side effects related the illness but is still coming to grips with just how she beat the odds in more ways than one.
She’ll continue pursuing art but feel there’s life beyond the walls of the little gallery in Ladysmith that is adorned with fish rubbings from around the world.
“It’s very easy for me to have the reality set in that my body spontaneously healed. Not just the illness but everything,” she said.“It’s going to take me longer to grapple with the water. There’s so much that happened out there. There’s so much that I’m still putting into perspective. I don’t know how to tell that story, to articulate what that was.”