On January 16, 1998 at 4:59 NST, twenty seconds meant a great deal to the crew of the MV Flare/P3GL2. Twenty seconds was the approximate duration of the communications between the distress vessel Flare and Stephenville MCTS Centre.
The fragmented call was received via a VHF peripheral site located at Ramea Island on the southwest coast of Newfoundland. Easily discernible were the words: "Somebody help us - MAYDAY." The sheer panic of the transmission left no doubt as to the urgency of the situation. Taking into account the transmission received on this peripheral site was broken and the fact that other MCTS Centres' areas of responsibility were closer, I believed another centre must have received this cry for help.
Certain that another station must have received this distress call I called Placentia and Sydney MCTS Centres to inquire as to what they copied - NIL. Where could this vessel be on the south/southwest coast of Newfoundland that neither Newfoundland nor Maritime Centres could communicate with her? The Flare was located approximately 63 miles from Stephenville's VHF peripheral site located at Ramea Island, a site with a 40 mile radius. The events that ensured after were a result of training; action - reaction.
Teamwork played a great role as the work between MRSC SAR controller Mervin Wiseman and MCTSOs at Stephenville MCTS Centre were carried out. The three hours passed quickly as resources were tasked and dictaphone tapes were monitored for every detail.
My shift finished only three hours after having received the distress call but I would later discover the magnitude of the event.....25 lives! Of course the rest is as they say history. Four survivors would relate the actual events of this tragedy.
On May 15, 1998 at 1451Z, MCTSO Don Fillmore overheard a very weak and intermittent transmission on 2182Khz. The information coming in was from the S/V MEGA PRI PRI / DH7022. The vessel was a 12 metre sloop from Bermuda bound for The Azores, but was tossed and damaged by 5 to 6 metre seas and force 5 winds. She had only a 2182khz emergency transceiver operational, and had lost parts of her standing rigging, and was without navigation aids, other than a magnetic compass.
The crew of 2 were delivering the vessel to its owner in Germany, and had no navigational charts or experience of the North American east coast Don immediately requested all the essential information, and recognizing the possibility of dead batteries and loss of radio communications, arranged for 2-hourly radio schedules.
For the next 3 days, MCTSOs at Saint John handled radio communications, until the vessel was eventually assisted into Nantucket, Mass. Radio conditions were QSA1 QRK 0-1 throughout the ordeal, but even then, one could detect the worry in the crew's voice, and eventually their relief in having someone ashore keeping a lookout for them.
To give the reader a flavour of the situation, here are a few quotes taken from the audio log:
May 15 15:00 "Only 2 wires holding mast, it is about to come down and then we are in great danger."
May 15 15:40 "Only pump for engine room is working", "have water, food, but hard to cook, only fruits".
May 15 16:40 "Waves like mountains, have little piece of mainsail left".
May 15 21:03 "Wind 36 knots, seas 5 metres...may lose mast overboard, only 2, 3 wires holding now"
May 15 23:00 / May 16 12:45 Vessel attempted communications, but signal QRK 0
May 16 12:45 "Engine went out last night but started again now, heading toward Norfolk hopefully"
May 16 17:10 "Waves 2 metres wind force 3 to 4, engine running, speed 4.7knots."
May 17 11:20 " Foggy wind 15 knots, light seas, wonderful weather, starboard stay broken but under sail and will shutoff engine. Saving fuel for when I get close to coast - maybe New York, but depends on where wind takes me. I have a problem because I have no charts of coast. Thank you for your wonderful assistance."
May 17 During the night a USCG aircraft was able to locate the vessel, drop equipment and establish VHF radio contact.
May 18 21:36 "S/V MEGA PRI PRI now in Nantucket Harbour and would like to thank all the staff at your station for their assistance and good work, it was really appreciated."
The following provides the "Tofino MCTS Centre" eye's view of the arrival of a refugee ship in Nootka Sound. Some of the information was obtained through personal involvement, but most was gleaned from the logs and my colleagues on duty.
At 8:45 p.m. on Monday, July 19th, the vessel Toucan called from Nootka Sound to report what he called a "suspicious vessel" west of Bligh Island. Toucan tracked the vessel at 8 knots, and described it as being military blue in colour, with no markings and no flags. The vessel "just look(ed) mysterious", and the Toucan felt a call to the Coast Guard, in reference to the RCMP Coastal Watch program, would be in order. After taking the information, Tofino MCTS called the RCMP Courtenay Dispatch for further action.
A second call to the Toucan determined the suspect vessel was 125-150 feet in length and appeared to be heading up Kendrick Inlet to Tahsis. Tofino Traffic determined that the only participating vessel of that length in the area was the yacht Montigne. Information obtained from another vessel affirmed that the Montigne was standard white and, therefore, not possibly the mystery ship. When questioned, the Nootka Lighthouse was not able to provide any information as the lightkeeper did not have a view of the area. A voice patch was set up between Courtenay Dispatch and the Toucan, and Dispatch relayed information to the Ucluelet RCMP, who called us and then contacted Gold River RCMP. No further contact with the RCMP that evening.
Seems like the midnight shift gets the most action in the last hour or two when the MCTSOs are most tired, and Tuesday, July 20th was no exception. The Centre responded to calls around 7:30 a.m. from Critter Cove Resort and the vessels Boys from Beaufort and Double Header, reporting some rather bizarre happenings near Strange Island at Eliza Passage. The Boys from Beaufort, two off-duty Snohomish County officers, had come across two Asians on a home-made raft made out of 45-gallon drums. Using a Chinese-English dictionary for translation, the Asians indicated they were looking for a telephone. Critter Cove Resort and Double Header reported the raft as well as the mystery ship, describing the ship as an eighty-foot antique freighter with a slight starboard list. Additionally, three or four Asians stood on her deck, waving American dollars, a situation the Snohomish County Officers described as "extremely suspicious".
Rescue Centre Victoria tasked the Tanu to investigate and her FRC, Tanu 1, was on scene within fifteen minutes. Events of the next few hours included:
At 10:47 a.m. Rescue Centre Victoria, confident that the ship's occupants were refugees, advised Tofino MCTS Centre that the Tanu's tasking was handed over to the Regional Operations Centre. During the next several hours, immigration, RCMP, and health and welfare officials arrived on scene. The Tanu continued to assist and later accompanied the vessel as it was towed to Gold River, the refugees still on board. Eventually, the refugees transferred to school buses and proceeded to CFB Esquimalt. Information released to the press over the next few days revealed that the ship's 123 occupants had travelled 39 days from the Fujian Province in China.
"Halifax Traffic ... we have an emergency!" then silence.
This quick, single call for help came on Channel 16 VHF. Nothing was heard further after attempts were made by Halifax MCTS Officers to solicit additional information.
It was a cold day on January 29, 2000 and a vessel was in trouble.
These among others are the many questions constantly faced by a MCTSO when an emergency arises.
A subsequent report, received from a citizen, indicated 2 persons in a small grey boat appeared to be in trouble off Pier 21 in Halifax Harbour. This narrowed down the scenario. The Halifax pilot boat was immediately tasked and the two persons were rescued. The vessel was a rigid hull inflatable operated by the Canadian Navy. The engine had caught fire and spread quickly, destroying all electronics... hence the silence. The two-crew members in this case were saved as the result of a quick response...but it could have been worse. We have seen this scenario in the past with vessels such as the sinking of the M/V Flair off Newfoundland.