News

A glimpse into Search and Rescue

By Harley Davidson, Standard Staff

A buoy is dropped from a 7.5-metre Zodiac Hurricane into the waters off the coast of Lake Ontario. It represents a person who needs to be rescued.

It’s a foggy day but the water is relatively calm.

As the boat pulls slowly away from the buoy, rescue specialist Brad Lavantis starts to count seconds.

In less than 40, the buoy disappears into a cloud of mist above the water.

By the minute mark, it’s completely gone from sight.

Now to go find it.

Without knowing its location, it’s nearly impossible, according to members of Port Weller’s Search and Rescue unit of the Canadian Coast Guard.

This is the reality they face regularly when searching for a person on the lake.

Even a calm day, it can be like finding a needle in a haystack, says Clint Thompson, a rescue specialist with Port Weller SAR.

And that’s just one of the calls they get, according to captain Scott Parker.

Parker and his three-man crew work two-week shifts, staying in a house near the mouth of the Welland Canal.

When there isn’t a call, the place is serene.

They joke, referring to the house — set on 2.5 acres of forested land — as the cottage, drinking coffee and enjoying a summer day.

They sleep there, they eat there and live there, always ready to jump on a call.

But the crew says even with the range of tools at their disposal — like night vision, heat vision, bright lights and radar — locating an overdue person takes a fine tooth comb and the help of several search units.

An overdue person is somebody who hasn’t returned by the time they were expected to.

Thompson says other calls can be to boats that have mechanical issues or have run out of gas; people who get caught in the strong currents of the Niagara River and swept out too far; and sometimes people are simply frightened by a sudden change in weather conditions.

All in all, the job is demanding. The crew needs to stay alert and ready to deploy at all times, typically going out on the water during conditions too dangerous for boaters.

As engineer Constantin Vasile puts it, “Basically, when everybody else comes in, we’re going out.”

The crew operates two rescue vessels, the Zodiac, called Port Weller 7.54 and a larger vessel, the CCGS Cape Storm.

Watching them prepare for a ride-along, it’s not hard to see these guys know their stuff. They don’t waste time and they take all of the proper safety precautions.

Between the group of four, they have more than 80 years of experience, so when they get calls they are quick to react.

The team says they have an “off wall” average of six minutes, meaning that’s all the time it takes them to gear up and be on their way to a call.

The key, Parker says, is to get in the mindset that it’s your own family you’re trying to rescue.

Lake Ontario can be unforgiving and conditions can change quickly, says the crew.

Parker says recently a call was phoned in from shore after the caller witnessed a boat tip on its side for nearly 45 seconds in rough water.

That’s why they are warning boaters it’s important to plan for emergencies, especially in the midst of dangerously high water levels.

The number one thing boaters can do to, according Parker, is wear a lifejacket.

Not to mention it’s law in Canada that there must be a personal floatation device for each person aboard a watercraft.

Parker says lifejackets don’t only keep you afloat, but their bright colours also make wearers easier to spot in emergency situations — which can make the difference between life and death in hypothermic conditions.

Lavantis says even at 15 degrees the body will start to develop hypothermia quickly.

Just this month a man succumbed to hypothermia in Lake Ontario after his small boat capsized, according to the SAR crew.

Another precaution boaters should take is to let someone know when they’re going out and when they’ll be back.

The same man who recently died from hypothermia had not reported going out, so he wasn’t reported missing until the next day.

Boaters should also familiarize themselves with emergency procedures for their specific vessel and make sure to have the proper safety equipment on board.

Parker recommends flashlights, whistles, lasers and flare guns as a few items every boater should carry.

The crew also says people should not rely on their cellphones for emergency situations on the lake, warning signals are often unreliable and batteries die frequently.

Instead, they say boaters should have a VHF (very high frequency) radio.

Thompson says a major benefit to a VHF radio is that they can use it to pinpoint the location of a vessel. They cannot pinpoint a cellphone signal.

Parker says typically, there are more happy endings that sad ones, but that the best way to help ensure a safe and fun boating experience is to prepare for the worst.

He reminds boaters to carry a pleasure craft operators card, which helps provide knowledge of marine environments.

Being caught without an operators card will land boaters a $300 fine.

All of the staff recommend anyone planning to go out on the water should read Transport Canada’s Safe Boating Guide, which you can find at, www.tc.gc.ca/media/documents/marinesafety/TP-511e.pdf

hdavidson@postmedia.com

@Harley_Standard