A Typical Night SAR Launch

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A moment’s panic as the shrill of the phone breaks the silence. Like a jolt of electricity illuminating the night sky, one’s senses are immediately on overload. What is it? What’s wrong? Where am I? As with any unanticipated wake up call, your initial response, as senses tingle with the anticipation, is to try and build a simple sense of current reality. Normally you might have a few seconds, maybe minutes. But on a call like this, time is a luxury you often do not have. And without knowing who is in need of help and how desperate the situation might be, the response needs to be instantaneous. For PARU, this first call is to all of our coxswains from our regional fire dispatchers. They relay to us possible taskings from the Joint Rescue Coordination Centre (JRCC) in Trenton, who make that initial determination of which are the appropriate resources to send out.

When the call is answered, one is immediately connected to the fire services dispatcher. They in turn pass on the request from JRCC and as much information as they have available at the time. Often this initial call contains only a few details and, in this moment, its less important as this is just the initial call, specifics can follow later. What matters right now is getting a crew to the boat and out on the water as quickly as possible. Information collected from the dispatcher, the coxswains as a group identify who can head to the boat and who will manage the call out for a crew. One coxswain usually takes overall charge of this call and that is critical. With so many talented coxswains, its important at this time to ensure we focus on the task at hand, getting the boat launched. As you would expect, for this veteran group that is never an issue. Roles confirmed, the call is quickly closed and those tasked turn their attention to the tasking at hand.

“Go Bag” collected, one coxswain is already on the way to PARU. Their role, to begin prepping the boat for the arrival of the emergency crew. Another coxswain turns their attention to our volunteer rescue call out system to initiate a call out for crew. It’s a real handy system that allows our emergency crew members the option of selecting how they want to be tasked. So, for those more comfortable with technology maybe it’s a text or an email and for those less so, a phone call can suffice. No matter how they have chosen to communicate, the system quickly begins the call out. Its no surprise, despite our membership being volunteers, many with work the next day, that within a matter of minutes a crew is quickly identified. In fact, its often the case we end up “standing down” a member or two in order to avoid vessel over-crowding.
You are probably asking yourself, what’s the magic number? Well, it can vary from task to task but as often is the case in late night taskings, with limited information, we want to be as ready as we can for all possible situations. With PARU, a solid crew is five members, thus allowing for coxswain, helm, communications, navigation and a deckhand. For search situations, six or seven is likely a better number. The additional numbers provide more deckhands to ast as spotters, and a dedicated navigation resource. Of course, when someone calls for help at 2:00 am, getting to them as quickly as possible takes a higher priority than ensuring the perfect crew, so the call out “coordinator” needs to ensure they walk a fine balance. Identify a crew necessary to launch but do so safely both for those on our vessel and those out on the lake in need of assistance.

It’s an art more than a science, especially since our system allows members to indicate how long until they get to PARU. As we all know time, like so many things, is subjective. Five minutes to one person might be fifteen to another. Time to the vessel can often “shrink” in the mind of one so passionate about what we do and focused on helping others. The call out “coordinator” must balance this idea with the goal of getting PARU out as quickly as possible. Under a target depart time of 30 minutes, time is precious and those members closer to the club, as expected, have a distinct advantage. Managing this time balance is not an easy job, one must be firm and be clear to those en route that once a crew is on board, PARU leaves the dock whether you are on board or not. But, to be fair, our membership gets it, and accepts the reality of the situation. They too share the priority of launching PARU and personal disappointment aside, the SAR launch is the key.

While all of this is going on, at FBYC, the crew is gathering. A few of the locals arrive quickly while some of the more distant members take a few extra minutes before their headlights pierce the club gates. For that time of night, its generally a quiet arrival, with crew finally awake and focused solely on the task at hand they simply gather their belongings and head quickly to the slip. In fact, the only real noise is the clatter of steel-toed footsteps streaming towards PARU. Given the lateness of the hour it is likely this unexpected interruption rouses a few sleeping sailors safely ensconced within their own bunks, but the arriving crew don’t notice and certainly no grumbles are heard in response to our arrival. The crew’s focus, after all, is just getting the boat ready for launch. For some this is their 20th or 30th tasking, while for others it might only be their 1st or 2nd. Regardless of the number, a tasking is always a unique experience as you never know what to expect and often what you think you know is not in fact what you discover. A sailboat on arrival quickly turns into a power boat and 2 on board suddenly morphs into 6 on board. In a stressful situation people panic and out on the lake, with no power and no idea of how you will make it safely to shore will often result in factual anomalies, a somewhat distorted reality. While clearly a wrinkle in our plans, its not a significant issue as we expect them and thus train our crews to both understand the situation all while taking what we know with “a grain of salt” and complete the gaps once we arrive on scene. The ability to adapt is critical in ten-foot swells on a dark and stormy night when your reality is often flipped on its head.

The crew now on board and with checklists complete, the duty coxswain goes over what they know. By now they have called JRCC to get some additional details, perhaps a “lat” and “long” (latitude and longitude of the vessel in question), maybe a cellphone number, or an owner’s name – any little morsel of data which helps guide the search. This information they pass on to the crew, as each one settles into their respective roles. There is the helm, who will steer PARU safely to the vessel in distress and then safely home. The “comms” who will coordinate all communications with Canadian Coast Guard staff at Prescott CG Radio on channel 16, the vessel owner and with other possible resources JRCC has engaged in the tasking (RCAF 424 Squadron, other CCGA units, and local police marine units) and the “nav” who will chart out the quickest and safest route for the helm to follow to get them to right location and then, if required, manage the complexities of any necessary search patterns. Then there are the deckhands, often more junior members, but ones with considerable responsibility. Not only do they need to conduct the actual search, often for just a vague glimmer of hope, all while on a rolling sea and in a darkened night time sky but they also need to manage the tow once engaged and, if necessary, participate in a person-in-the-water recovery. It’s a role that requires a lot of focus and patience, both skills that at 3:00 am might seem in short supply. And at the core of all this is the coxswain. The captain of the vessel, its final decision maker, its where the “buck” stops. But a good coxswain ultimately needs to know all of the skills they have at their fingertips. Its easy to dictate an order but that only gets you so far. On a vessel like PARU, with the experience we have, diplomacy and firm control are a fine balance along a very thin knife edge. Too far one way and frustration erupts, while too far the other way and there is chaos. The coxswain is in charge, of that there is no doubt, but like any good leader, juggling the two is a skill many try but few master.

No job on the vessel is easy, and yet each member slips into their role as if sliding on a pair of well worn jeans. Once in the seat, experience and training take over and they are in the zone. It’s as if a magical threshold has been passed. The “real” world around dissolves, the struggles and frustrations of everyday life melt away, the meeting at work in four hours seems somehow downright frivolous and the task at hand becomes everything. The engines rev in to life, comms completes their necessary check-ins and the entire crew slips on their headsets. The coxswain confirms helm is ready and helm, in turn, acknowledges they are good to go. The deckhands slip the lines and just like that PARU slips from the dock. Its official now, this crew is tasked and is out on the water. No matter what happens now, a stand down, a simple tow, or even, sadly, an unsuccessful search, this crew now has the snapshot of a memory that no one else can ever share. They might be back at the dock in ten minutes, three hours or, unimaginably, some may not make it back at all but in this very moment its as if a snapshot of the crew has been taken and a picture saved for posterity. They are now a search and rescue tasking crew, regardless of their day job and the challenges of tomorrow, and no matter what the outcome they can confidently say that when the call came they did all they could to help that person in the water. It’s a scene that takes place around the world day in and day out. One that is often lost in the immediacy of the modern world. One that should never be forgotten. All volunteers they head off into the unknown, willing to tackle challenges they likely have never experienced.

But at the end of the day, isn’t that why we do what we do….

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