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'If someone's in trouble, you help': First Nations coast guard auxiliary units fill critical response gaps

When boaters get into trouble in remote areas of B.C.’s coast, First Nations communities are usually the first to arrive and relay critical information, says the coast guard

The sinking of a large whale-watching vessel in 2015 that claimed the lives of five tourists near Tofino still weighs heavily on Kurt John.

A member of the Ahousaht First Nation, John said Ahousaht fishing boats were some of the first vessels on the scene as rescuers brought in 21 survivors and the dead.

John can’t help but think that if the same incident were to happen today, the results would be very different — given the nation’s new specialized rescue vessel and advanced communications and training as part of the Coastal Nations Coast Guard Auxiliary.

“We might have had 100% recovery,” John said. “We’ve always been the first to respond in our territory — it’s been that way for time immemorial.

“Now we’ve got good equipment and good training, so we can get there fast and know what to do.”

The Canadian Coast Guard’s First Nations auxiliary units — now up to eight on the Island and along the mainland coastline — are filling critical gaps in marine search and rescue operations.

The program was launched in 2017 under the Oceans Protections Plan, with the federal government providing $15.6 million in funding for 49 Indigenous communities to buy or repair boats and other equipment for marine search and rescue operations.

When boaters get into trouble in remote areas of B.C.’s coast, First Nations communities are usually the first to arrive and relay critical information to command centres, said Tyler Brand, superintendent of search and rescue for the Canadian Coast Guard western region.

Depending on the area, coast guard rescue craft could be an hour or more away — a gap that could make the difference between life and death, he said. “First Nations know their areas well and so they are well-positioned to respond, because a quick response time is the most critical part in a rescue ­operation and saving lives,” Brand said. “Having their involvement changes the landscape of search and rescue on the coast.”

During an on-water demonstration this past week at the James Bay coast guard base, John joined Harry Alfred of ‘Namgis First Nation and Kelly Conroy of the Quatsino First Nation in showing off some of their skills.

A group of observers from the International Maritime Rescue Federation was there to watch and listen to the live radio communications between coast guard command and First Nations responders and Royal Canadian Marine Search and Rescue, a volunteer group involved in search and rescue on the B.C. coast.

In the exercise, responders had to deal with a scenario involving a sinking 16-foot boat — literally full of water — with three people on board bailing, while sending out a mayday.

The First Nations auxiliary vessel was the first to respond, and rescued one of the people who “fell” off the boat and was drifting. The person was pulled aboard and “treated” for hypothermia, while the Royal Canadian volunteers from the Oak Bay station attended the others in the sinking boat.

Jacob Tas, head of the Netherlands’ national search and rescue operations, said he was impressed by what he saw. “We’re here to learn, of course, and I can see the value in

having volunteers like these considering all of the remote areas here,” said Tas.

The coast guard said emergency calls though the Esquimalt-based Joint Rescue Control Centre are increasing as more people get out on the water since the pandemic.

More than 800 calls have come in so far this year and the annual number of rescues has been ticking higher, to between 2,400 and 2,800 a year over the past four years.

It isn’t just pleasure boats getting into trouble, said Brand. “We’ve responded to standup paddleboarders, windsurfers, kayakers,” he said. “Often they go out ill-prepared. They go without emergency supplies or proper communications.

“They find it’s not easy to get back into a kayak [after it tips].”

Conroy, who is based in Coal Harbour, said Quatsino First Nation volunteers took possession of a new rescue vessel last year and do regular patrols off their territory on the North Island. He’s noticed increased activity with tourists and fishers, recreational boaters and commercial maritime traffic.

A few weeks ago, Conroy said, a man fell off a large gravel barge. He wasn’t wearing a life jacket. While other boaters and a tug searched the area where the man fell in, Conroy said his volunteers knew the tides and currents in the area and went farther north, where they found him about three nautical miles away on a beach.

“He was 72 years ago and still had his gumboots on … he made it to shore and we got him on board and gave him medical attention,” said Conroy. “I think he would have been there a long time because nobody was looking for him there.”

Coastal Nations auxiliary members on the Island do regular training at the Bamfield coast guard station over several weeks a year, working on boating skills, first aid and radio communications, among other topics.

Alfred, who is part of the ‘Namgis coast guard auxiliary at Alert Bay, said the community will be receiving a new rescue boat in the coming months and has been using a landing craft to help with emergency calls, often involving boats that have broken down.

“If someone’s in trouble, you help,” he said. “I grew up on seine boats and we know our areas really well, and have always looked out for one another on the water.

“What we do is fill the gap. If a call goes to Port Hardy, it could be an hour just to get a boat out. But we’re here, an hour ahead, and can save lives with that time difference,” said Alfred.

The ‘Namgis volunteers are using a temporary vessel to assist mariners, but are expected to receive a 27-foot specialized rescue boat this year.

The Coastal Nations Coast Guard Auxiliary is also operating with its own trained volunteers in the Heiltsuk, Gitxaala, Nisga’a, Kitasoo and Kyuquot/Cheklesahht First Nations.

In addition to search and rescue, the units promote water safety and conduct coastal safety patrols.

Bill Riggs, chief executive of the Royal Canadian Marine Search and Rescue, said the First Nations volunteers are an essential part of search and rescue operations on the coast as the waterways have become busier.

RCMSAR, which receives hundreds of callouts a year, is also a volunteer-based coast guard auxiliary organization. It operates 31 marine rescue stations with more than 900 volunteers and 45 boats.

Locally, it has stations at Brentwood Bay, Sooke, Oak Bay, Victoria and Sidney.

Riggs said boaters and those using kayaks and paddleboards should be aware of local weather and water conditions, have a trip plan and be equipped with satellite messenger devices.

“If a rescuer knows where you are, that’s half the battle,” said Riggs.

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