A History of the Canadian Coast Guard and Marine Services
by Thomas E. Appleton

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Offshore Rescue

The history of Canadian shipping, particularly the fishing schooners of the Atlantic coast, is punctuated by tragedy. In the days of sail there was little which could be done to aid a vessel in distress, unless by chance another arrived to make the attempt, and the heavy casualties of the period can be seen in the fishermen chapel at Lunenburg where the names of drowned men and lost ships are recorded in a simple and moving memorial.

Seamen were then cynical about safety procedures which are nowadays considered appropriate and very few of them could swim; a man washed off the bowsprit of a schooner while shortening sail, clad as he was in stiff oilskins and heavy boots, was likely to see his ship driven off to leeward in a flurry of foaming crests with little chance of his recovery. In situations such as this, men felt that death was merciful. If the ship herself went down, hope lay in the working dories which, in the hands of skilled fisher-men, might yet save all. Other than this there was nothing. So it was in other walks of Canadian life where the farmer and the miner and the trapper, confronted with comparable emergencies, faced them with whatever resources lay to hand. Today all this has changed and, except in the most remote places, people living ashore benefit from communications and emergency help. In the word of shipping, as in other walks of life, it is no longer accepted as inevitable that men should lose their lives; search and rescue services are now regarded as a necessary and normal support for an industry which is always exposed to the dangers of nature.

The demise of the salt banker and the dory has greatly reduced marine casualties but, even under modern conditions, ships continue to be overwhelmed in some circumstances and fire, collision, ice and stranding remain as hazards which all must face. The advent of a new approach to these hazards demanded more than the coverage provided by the inshore lifesaving stations and, in 1963, five 95-foot search and rescue cutters were built in Canada and put into service throughout the country. These "R" Class cutters are based on a United States Coast Guard design which was adapted to meet Canadian conditions. They carry a complement of 12 and have a range of 1500 miles at a sea speed of 17 knots. Three of them are stationed on the Atlantic coast in winter, one being transferred to the Great Lakes in summer; two are permanently based on the Pacific coast. A smaller type of rescue cutter, the "S" Class, augments the 95-foot cutter on the Lakes in summer, and is 69 feet in length with a crew of four.

Although all the foregoing cutters take part in offshore work according to needs and capability, they are too small for extended search and rescue in the open Atlantic and a much larger deep-sea cutter is now (1967) under construction at Lauzon. Intended for long range operation under the worst conditions, the new vessel is 220 feet long and has diesel electric machinery giving a speed of 17 knots. Fitted with a flight deck and hangar, this vessel will carry a ship borne helicopter to extend the range of search.

In addition to the special purpose search and rescue cutters, other Coast Guard ships, such as icebreakers and buoy tenders, are often dispatched to take a leading part when casualties occur and all ships, regardless of nationally or type, may be called on for assistance when they are in a position to aid a vessel in distress. Three rescue centres are maintained, at Halifax, Trenton and Vancouver, where Coast Guard rescue officers keep constant watch in the operations room of the Canadian Armed Forces. These three rescue centres are arranged to cover the entire country and to co-ordinate and plan the most effective use of whatever shipping may be available. This organization, with a superb system of communication, is a far cry from the old lifesaving stations and, in many cases, receipt of a telephone call from some remote locality has enabled the centre to dispatch help whose presence would not have been known in the area of the trouble. In the case of offshore rescue, the centre is in a position to send the nearest available ship to start the search; typical of this type of operation is the case of the French ship Douala.

In the week before Christmas 1963, shipping on the Atlantic coast was operating under difficulties and a number of vessels were in distress. Marine search and rescue was hampered because ships could make little headway in heavy seas and, to make matters worse, radio communication was below normal efficiency owing to the density of traffic occasioned by the various emergencies and by the heavy coat of ice which had accumulated on ships antennae. At 7:40 p.m. on December 20, the 2300 ton motor ship Douala of Marseilles sent a message indicating that she was shipping water continuously through a damaged hatch and that she would shortly be in danger of sinking. Her stated position placed her some thirty miles south of the island of Ramea off the south coast of Newfoundland where she was barely making headway in appalling weather. With winds gusting to hurricane force, the normal visibility of three or four miles was reduced to less than half a mile in snow flurries, the temperature was zero, and the sea and swell were logged officially as "phenomenal". Under these conditions the atmosphere is filled with frozen spray which renders human activity almost impossible in exposed situations. Conditions were as bad as they could possibly be in the face of the almost certain fact that the Douala would founder and that her crew would soon have to take to the boats.

Based on all the available information, it was decided by the rescue organization that the CCGS Sir Humphrey Gilbert was in the best position to assist the Douala and, at 8:20 p.m., she was instructed to commence searching for the stricken ship. The Sir Humphrey Gilbert, then under the command of Captain G. S. Burdock, is a modern diesel electric icebreaker and lighthouse supply vessel based on St. Johns, Newfoundland. The Gilbert had left St. Johns three days earlier to lay buoys, which were secured on deck as was a steel barge. Despite the weather she had laid buoys at Breton Harbour and was making for Bay d'Espoir when she was diverted to go to the aid of a fishing trawler in distress farther out in the Atlantic. The Gilbert had been plowing along on this mission for some eight hours when instructed to proceed to the French ship, which she commenced to do at best possible speed.

Photo: CCGS Sir Humphrey Gilbert

CCGS Sir Humphrey Gilbert, Captain G. S. Burdock, rescuing survivors of the French ship Douala, December 1963.

At ten to six in the morning, while the Gilbert was bucking to windward against the gale, the barge on the foredeck broke loose, stripping the tarpaulins off the main hatch as it slid across to crash into the port bulwarks. Both barge and ship were damaged and, with the vessel heavily iced up, it was four hours until the barge was again secured and the Gilbert was able to continue with the search.

Up till this time, the Douala had not declared a state of distress, her message of the previous night being in the nature of an alert which, because of its serious content and the prevailing conditions, was correctly assessed by the rescue centre as a portent of alarming events about to occur. At 7:50 a.m. on the 21st., a message from the French ship announced that she was in critical condition and required immediate help. Several other ships answered the distress call but, as the stricken vessel was uncertain of her position owing to a damaged antenna, neither the Gilbert, which was presumed to be near at hand, nor any of the other searchers was able to make contact. At 11:52 the Douala's final message was transmitted "abandoning ship".

While all this was going on, aircraft from Torbay, Argentia and Prince Edward Island searched the area at intervals as permitted by weather and an increased air search was arranged for the 22nd. At three that afternoon, a U.S. Coast Guard aircraft from Argentia sighted a lifeboat which the Sir Humphrey Gilbert was able to pick up half an hour later. Sixteen survivors were taken aboard under great difficulties but the Gilbert was unable to recover three bodies owing to the high winds and heavy seas, and one of the survivors died on passage to Newfoundland. At 6 p.m. a second lifeboat was sighted by an RCAF Argus and the fishing vessel Rodrique was able to take on board three of the Douala's crew and to recover two of the bodies from the first lifeboat; one of the surviving crew died on passage to St. Pierre. Seven missing men were drowned on abandoning ship and the master went down with the Douala.

The Gilbert landed her rescued men at Port aux Basques at 4:30 p.m.; later that evening she sailed for St. Jacques Island, where she arrived on the morning of the 23rd., to find both light keepers drowned, the light unattended, and the store demolished by force of weather. Relief keepers were landed with stores and radio and the light was re-established.

The case of the Douala illustrates how teamwork lies behind a workable search and rescue organization, the elements being ships, aircraft, communications and, above all, determined and resourceful personnel. In this particular incident, the Douala was unable to transmit on low or medium frequencies owing to icing problems, and no searching ship or aircraft was able to contact her directly, the messages being relayed by stations as far afield as New York and Puerto Rico. An efficient control and monitoring system was able to coordinate the efforts of all so that aircraft sightings were followed by ship recoveries. In addition to the immediate participants involved, several other ships answered the call of distress and took part in the search, some not recorded, but all of them prepared to seek to the limit of their endurance. Truly international in response, search and rescue evokes the best traditions of sea, air and radio.