Search and Rescue: A Night in the Life

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SAR Navigation

It’s a dark night, with the moon, the only trace of light in an otherwise overcast sky. Fortunately, at least for now, the lake is relatively calm offering up only a slight ripple of resistance as the vessel slices a slow and steady course through the waves. All seems oddly serene onboard with the dull engine rumble the only disturbance in an otherwise silent cabin. To an outsider this might seem unorthodox, almost disconcerting, but to this crew it’s the norm and in many ways it’s a welcoming reminder of their unspoken synergy. To the coxswain it’s a sign that the crew are focused on their own individual tasks, comfortable with the assignment in front of them. To the helm it’s confirmation of a steady hand. To navigation, it’s a time to refocus her attention on the charts and reaffirm the course prepping in advance for the next change in the pattern. To the radio operator a moment of on-air silence to jot down notes and collect her thoughts for the next communication. And to the lookouts, this is the time to double down their effort, straining their eyes to catch a glimpse of the small 26-foot green sailboat somewhere out there in the dark. A well-oiled machine in action, experienced at their posts and steadfastly motivated on finding a vessel they know is out there. They are aware of what is at stake tonight. Following their pre-departure briefing, they know they are looking for a sailboat, broken engine, and no mast to speak of, with a single person on board whom, despite the mid-summer date on the calendar, is slowly freezing out there, no phone, no radio and likely starting to lose hope of rescue.

This is the type of picture one could draw around the globe. It could be one of many professional search and rescue (SAR) crews whose living is to respond to that call for help but tonight it’s not. No tonight it’s a completely different type of crew. Of course no one on board is thinking about it in the moment but only 2 hours ago this crew were in a completely different mindset, a world apart from where they are right now. Some were finishing off a day in the office, others prepping for their night shift at the plant and others, who retired from the workforce years ago, were thinking about the weekend ahead. Yes this is a volunteer search and rescue crew and like many around the world the shift from regular citizen to SAR crew comes in an instant, a text message, a phone call, a beeper goes off and they spring into action. Regardless of the media, that signal invokes a mind shift one has to experience to fully understand.

So who are we? We are the Pickering Auxiliary Rescue Association (PARA) a not-for-profit charitable organization dedicated to the preservation of life on the water. As a founding member of the Canadian Coast Guard Auxiliary (CCGA) we have spent the last 50 years operating a marine search and rescue service to protect mariners and assist police, fire, and ambulance services in emergency situations. Our 50 member strong association, all volunteers, is on call 24 hours a day to respond to any emergency situation.

A few minutes later and the silence is broken by a steady purposeful voice from the navigation station.

“45 degrees to Port”, rings out as the Navigator changes the course.

“Roger, 45 degrees to Port”, confirms the helm.

“Roger”, confirms the Navigator as she finishes the full three-way communication cycle. In these situations accuracy and understanding are critical. It might seem repetitive but this cycle ensures the entire crew is aware of the change.

“Lookouts, how are you doing out there?”, the coxswain calls, taking advantage of the change to check on those outside. It’s critical he keeps an eye on his crew, their mindset and safety always a priority.

“All good on Port side”

“All good Starboard”

And then the silence returns but not for long. It’s been 10 minutes since the last situation report (sitrep) to Prescott Coast Guard radio and the operator knows that the skilled communications staff in the Marine Traffic and Communications Services (MTCS) centre will be waiting for their update. It’s important to keep them aware of any progress, changes in the environmental conditions and the overall status of the crew. As the final minutes wind down, she takes the time to confirm the situation with the coxswain, jots down the salient points for the call and re-checks the plotter for current GPS position and time. A final breathe to focus and begins the call.

“Prescott Coast Guard Radio, Prescott Coast Guard Radio, Prescott Coast Guard Radio this is PARU, PARU, PARU on 16 over”

A momentary pause then a familiar voice is heard in the headsets, “PARU this is Prescott, go channel 27”

“Roger 27” she replies then immediately spins the dial to channel 27. And just like that the call has been made and the update can begin. In a few seconds it’s over but its importance cannot be overlooked.

navigation

With the call complete she can turn her attention to what, at first glance looks like chicken scratch on the notepad where she jots down the latest information. Sure it might look like random scribbles right now but once they are back safely tied up to the dock she will translate those critical notes into the SAR log, an official record of what transpired this night both on the water and over the radio; those thoughts, however, are for a later time but in the here and now the search remains ongoing. The sitrep complete she reflects back on the cell number they were given prior to heading out, a lifeline to the sailor, at least at first but repeated calls have gone unanswered. A low battery or perhaps too cold to effectively press the buttons, she is not quite sure. Is it time for another call?

Out on the deck, the lookouts scan the horizon. Not a solid stare mind you, a rapid scan ensuring their vision remains concentrated but can cover as much surface area as possible. In calm waters like tonight it’s a little bit easier but the darkness and slowly dropping temperature keep them alert and on their toes. Spotting a vessel in the day time can sometimes be hard enough but at night it is almost a crap shoot. To the lookouts, however, even small odds are odds they are willing to accept to do what they can to bring this sailor and his sailboat home.

PARA is part of a network or search and rescue resources covering Canada on all three of our coasts. As a member of the Canadian Coast Guard Auxiliary Central and Arctic, we work not only with the Canadian Coast Guard but with local police forces and fire services, Royal Canadian Air Force personnel, and other auxiliary units to create an intertwined web of support for the boating community. Either from our home dock at Frenchman’s Bay Yacht Club or out of our forward base on the Pickering Harbour Company’s spit at the entrance to the channel, our little niche of Lake Ontario is in and around Durham Region covering from the mouth of the Rouge River to Whitby Harbour. Of course we don’t stop there; we go where our services are needed. To give you some perspective on numbers, at least over the last few years, this adds up to an average of 15 “taskings” or SARs a year with an average of 33 hours a year. In 2018, however we have seen a spike with 26 taskings to date for a total of 68 hours, a busy year. At first blush it might not seem like much but behind those simple numbers are more revealing stats that expose the real cost in time and effort of our small group of volunteers. In 2018 for example, behind every hour of tasking there was over 24 hours of training, over 5 hours of vessel maintenance and over 57 hours of patrol. Critical hours spent by our volunteers in classrooms, on the water and keeping our equipment fresh to ensure at that moment, when the call comes they are ready to go. And this doesn’t include the hours spent over computers supporting the organization or time spent at boat shows, local festivals and community events raising awareness and teaching boating safety to those, young and old, who might me cautiously approaching boating for the very first time.

At the helm, he stares outwardly, focused on his course, broken only by a periodic glance at the heads up display to keep an eye on heading and speed. There is a rhythm to his actions, a fine balance between the will to get there as soon as he can balanced against the critical need to follow the pattern. Search patterns, a simple mathematical course over time and distance and factoring in the conditions, are established to ensure the crew is able to cover the largest areas quickly as possible but at a speed that ensures not a single wave is missed by the lookouts. Attention to detail for all, but especially the helm, is critical and it’s a skill that has been engrained into him week after week, month after month, year after year. It’s as if the helm becomes a living breathing extension of his hands. Like a comfortable familiar companion on a dark night after a long day at work there is unspoken language that allows him to keep the ship on track. Tuned for the sound of the navigator’s voice, he maintains the current course heading, slow and steady as she goes.

Helm

Like clockwork the team presses on. Six people who on any given day in another world probably wouldn’t bat an eye as they passed on the street but here out on the lake they share a love, a dedication, a commitment to keep our waterways safe and assist those in need when all seems lost. Who keeps them ticking over? That’s the role of the coxswain. He is new in the role but his years of experience and his commitment to the position have given him the confidence, not only in himself but also in his crew. He doesn’t say much, he doesn’t need to. The machine runs smoothly so he knows, at least for now, his role is to let the crew do what they have been training to do.

“Time to next turn”, he asks the navigator. It’s an important point to check but it’s also chance to break the silence and, in case they are feeling a little tired, give the crew an extra little burst of energy by reminding them they are out here with a purpose.

“5 minutes to the next turn”

Historically for SAR crews, especially the volunteer ones like ourselves, a large majority of our ”taskings” are to assist boaters who are having engine or mechanical trouble and find themselves out on the lake with no means of returning safely to shore. These taskings often happen during the day and involve a tow of two, maybe three ours to the nearest safe haven to ensure the boat and its crew are safely ashore before the chill of night arrives. Over the last few years, however, there were a few “taskings” that fell out of the norm and introduced new challenges and learning opportunities to our crews. This included a power boat in real trouble which after hitting a deadhead right on its props was taking on a significant amount of water. After securing the vessel alongside for a hip tow, we were able to keep the pump running until the vessel was safely docked. Or the night four people in three kayaks were caught in rough water and had to be brought on board and, shivering from the cold, wrapped for warmth to ensure hypothermia was kept at bay. There was the two young gentlemen, poorly equipped and looking for a little night jaunt on the lake, found themselves pushed out well beyond their rowing capabilities and slowly drifting south across the lake. A cell phone, their only lifeline, allowed us to find them and bring them safely to shore. The sailboat we found empty along the northern shoreline of Lake Ontario which thankfully had a happy ending when its owner was rescued on the southern side of the lake by our Canadian Coast Guard colleagues. But for those that end well there are always those taskings which remind us just how cruel and unforgiving open water can be when a seemingly simple error in judgement or perhaps accidental misstep on deck can have tragic consequences. There have been too many of these over the last few years but as search and rescue volunteers we are always ready answer the call. As with most of our calls, the conditions will always dictate our experiences. In 2017 our season ended with a very bumpy ride well out of our normal range on route to investigate possible flares sighted off of Port Hope. Calls like these are often false alarms and on this night, in 12 foot waves the crew valiantly battled out only to be turned back still 2 hours from our target. Last but certainly not least is the one “tasking” described throughout this article. A cool July night when a lone sailor, in a broken down sailboat, found himself out on the lake and with conditions steadily worsening and temperatures dropping found himself in a precarious position. Each year, while we have a “regular” taskings, there are always two or three “new” SARs, one that introduce new experiences to many of the members, young and old. A chance to put our training to the test and demonstrate, if only to ourselves, that we do have the skills and the knowledge to keep our little slice of Lake Ontario safe for those who enjoy its beauty and all it has to offer.

And then it happens, “Faint light spotted at 2 o’clock” reverberates down the headsets. As if a switch has been flipped, the crew’s focus changes. As the spotter, keeping eyes firmly on the source, calmly walks up the deck, pointing as he goes, both the helm and the coxswain swing their heads to starboard to glance out the window. In the back the radio operator is capturing the time and position.

Arms pumping the lookout fixates on the position asking, “Do you have a visual?”

“Not yet”, the helm replies neck straining as if willing it into sight.

Slowly turning the vessel to starboard he finally catches a glimpse, “Got it!” He makes a note of the wind, ensuring he can approach in a safe manner and sets a course for the light.

Immediately the call goes out to Prescott with the update on what they have spotted, letting them know they are approaching to investigate and will call once confirmed. It’s time now for the coxswain to remind everyone of what happens next. It’s the moment when the adrenaline to run in needs to be tempered with the responsibility to his crew, the vessel and the sailor out there in the dark.

Taking a couple of breathes to level himself, he calmly reiterates the standard operating procedures they live and breathe, “Approach with caution and once we are 20 meters off our target, let’s stop and pause to discuss.” Stop, Access, Plan, Proceed (SAPP) the mantra drilled into the crew from day one; a chance to calm down, breathe and discuss the right approach. A final circle of the target to ensure its safe to approach and the crew is ready. It goes without saying that everyone wants to rush in but haste is the enemy, time and patience is key.

What seems like forever passes in only minutes and as the crew approach the vessel they are rewarded with the sight of an orange arm feebly waving to them from the sailboat. The relief is visible. Ruffled foreheads turn to grins as it dawns on them they have found him, a little worse for wear perhaps, but safe and bundled up in his floater suit. The formalities are completed and the vessel is secured for the tow back to a safe harbour. Sure the night is not over yet, they are a long way out, but with the boat safely tied up behind the crew know that at least tonight has been a good night and they have brought the lost and alone sailor home. It’s at a moment like this, tow secured and with helm pointing for home that the crew can take a moment to remember their wives, husbands, partners and children at home, no doubt waiting up, unable to sleep until they know the crew is on its way safely back to port, another successful mission.

For volunteer crews like ours, nights like these remind us that what we does matter. We know that instinctively of course but a visual reminder every so often gives us that little extra bump. We are an eclectic bunch of individuals who live distinct lives. Some of us live by the water and others far away. Some have spent a lifetime on the water and others have come to it later in life. We are young and we are old but the thread that ties us together is the water. It calls to us, drawing us in, reminding us that we love to feel the wind in our faces as we race across the lake or catch that first glimpse of a vessel struggling to stay afloat in the dark. Sure there is the adrenaline rush of the moment but to the crew that’s not the real pull. It’s that simple wave or beaming smile of a crew in distress that greets us as we pull up alongside with a friendly hello and the comfort of a towline to bring them safely home.

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