One year ago on Nov. 15, 2021, a crew from the Ladysmith branch of the Royal Canadian Marine Search and Rescue made a heroic rescue in the Strait of Georgia of two people from a sinking fishing boat.
For their efforts in the rescue, the crew members were awarded Canadian Coast Guard Auxiliary Operational Merit Medals. They were also cited by the Joint Rescue Coordination Centre for recognition in the RCMSAR’s annual top three missions during the annual general meeting at the end of September.
Crew members included: coxswain Phil Kelsey of Chemainus, Ladysmith’s Ross Hayes and John Oakes and North Oyster’s Susan Wisely.
“The whole crew is extremely experienced,” said Kelsey.
He estimated the combined experience of all four at more than 2,000 hours of sea time.
Kelsey remembers the day well. The crew had just returned to the Ladysmith harbour entrance from another call near Gabriola Island and “we heard the mayday on the radio,” he noted.
A fishing boat, the Darla R, had lost power and was taking on water three kilometres southeast of Thrasher Rock and east of Valdes Island. The rescue boat turned around and headed back out.
“It was fairly windy, 20-25 knots,” observed Kelsey.
When the crew located the vessel, there were two people on board who were heading from Alaska to Anacortes, Washington. In heavy rolling seas, a swinging boom had broken the fuel line from the reserve tank that killed the engine. The boat was dead in the water, lying broadside to the waves.
“It’s now rolling really heavily,” pointed out Kelsey. “They were taking on water.”
The conditions were extremely dangerous and the crew hurried to get the two men off the boat.
“They weren’t wearing lifejackets but had survival suits on deck and we instructed them to put those on,” Kelsey indicated. “One by one, the crew pulled them off the back of the boat. They got into our boat only with what they were wearing.”
A nearby Jones Marine tug out of Chemainus, the Titan, had also arrived by this time and positioned itself upwind to provide some shelter from the wind and waves. There was precious little time when the crew arrived to get the men off the boat.
“It sank very quickly,” said Kelsey. “If we’d been 10 minutes later, those guys would have gone down with the boat. They wouldn’t have had their survival suits on.”
The water temperature at this time of year is less than 10C.
If they hadn’t already been out on the water, Kelsey figures it would have been another 20-30 minutes before the RCMSAR crew could have reached the men and by then it probably would’ve been too late.
But all’s well that ends well. “They were fine,” said Kelsey. “They were cold and wet, a little bit shocked.”
Kelsey has been involved as a search and rescue volunteer for a little more than four years, but has many years experience on the water.
“I’ve been racing on sailboats since I was a kid,” he pointed out.
Joining the Ladysmith Marine Search and Rescue team has been a rewarding experience for Kelsey.
“When I retired, I wanted to use my boating skills to give back to the community. We’re out there to save lives.”
Many people aren’t aware it’s a completely volunteer organization and “there is a fairly high turnover,” Kelsey added. “It’s a slow turnover, but there is a constant turnover.”
It’s a big commitment for crew members who must live within 15 minutes of the station and attend extensive classroom and on-the-water training sessions.
There are 30 RCMSAR stations along the B.C. coast and the coverage areas for most are substantial.
“We cover from Gabriola (Island) in the north to Crofton in the south, out to the Strait of Georgia and all the islands in between,” Kelsey explained. “We overlap with RCMSAR stations in Nanaimo in the north and Salt Spring to the south.”
Marine search and rescue teams fill in the gaps between Canadian Coast Guard stations on B.C.’s coast.
Emergency calls are received at the Joint Rescue Coordination Centre in Esquimalt and Coast Guard personnel determine the appropriate response whether Coast Guard, RCMSAR or even RCAF aircraft. Sometimes multiple resources are required. If paged by JRCC, an RCMSAR crew reports to its boat, gears up and heads to the vessel in distress at up to 40 knots (80 kph) depending on conditions.
“Boaters should be aware it can be half an hour to an hour before anybody can get to a particular location,” Kelsey pointed out.
Volunteer crews are on call 24/7, year-round, ready to respond to marine emergencies in any weather, often the worst.
“Although four of us rescued the crew from a sinking fishing vessel last November, crews from the 20+ member Ladysmith station perform similar missions on a regular basis all year round,” Kelsey elaborated. “While a portion of our fuel costs are covered by the Canadian Coast Guard, we are all unpaid volunteers who raise our own funding through the Ladysmith & District Marine Rescue Society for operations, vessels and equipment through donations, grants and contributions from organizations and individuals in our local communities.”