Coast Guard crews effect a dramatic rescue in the Southern Straits Race

The Southern Strait Classic Regatta is an annual event held by West Vancouver Yacht Club which tests the seaworthiness of even the most experienced sailors and their yachts. During the 2010 yacht race however, the race not only proved the metal of the race participants, but also the Coast Guard crews who went out to rescue them.

As the 2010 Southern Strait Yacht race commenced on schedule from Dunderave Pier in West Vancouver race organizers made efforts to educate race participants on pending weather conditions. An Environment Canada Meteorologist made a presentation during the pre-race briefing.

Sailboat Astral Plane
Video taken from the sailboat Astral Plane during the race shows an unidentified racing sailboat tackling the heavy swell. Courtesy of YouTube. Photo credit: YouTube

Sailboat Astral Plane
A screenshot from the same video shows the wind speed indicator of the sailboat Astral Plane register 55.5 knots. Courtesy of YouTube. Photo credit: YouTube

Weather reports for the early April weather indicated strong but largely manageable winds from the South East. But contrary to weather reports which indicated less severe winds in the afternoon, the weather began to deteriorate further. Of the 65 race entrants, 15 didn’t start the race, and within the first hour only 10% of the boats attempted to continue the race.

Among the remaining yachts that continued to stay in the race, the skipper of the yacht Incisor made the decision to remain out in the rough waters of Georgia Strait. As winds up awards of 55.5-60knots with six metre swells, the Marine Communications and Traffic Services Centre (MCTS) in Victoria and Joint Rescue Coordination Centre (JRCC) were flooded with calls from boaters in the area.

Where normally only a handful of cases are encountered, Coordinators at the JRCC would receive over 900 phone calls and conduct over 43 SAR Coordination cases during that 24 hr period. In addition, MCTS Victoria staff assisted the JRCC in handling the higher than normal call volume for their area during that same period.

The crew from Coast Guard Base Sea Island were already in the area responding to a distress call from the yacht Radiance which was demasted and dead in the water with its crew helpless off Entrance Island (near Nanaimo).

Ten miles away a breaking wave slammed into the stern of the 30ft custom yacht Incisor pitchpolling the yacht 360 degrees. Its crew of 6 didn’t even have time to send out a distress call. A crewmember down below with the main hatch open had to swim out without weather gear or a life jacket as the vessel downflooded.

In the distance, the crew of the sailboat Radiant Heat saw the mast on a strange angle and proceeded over. Once it approached the crew of Radiant Heat sent out a mayday call on behalf of the Incisor.

For Coast Guard Captain Susan Pickrell, who piloted the hovercraft during the rescue of the Incisor crew, in what was the hovercraft’s 3rd mission of the day, the storm presented some of the worst seas in the Strait of Georgia that she had seen in her 24 years of service.

While Coast Guard Hovercraft Penac is designed to be very maneuverable and capable for a high-speed response, the heavy swells were well beyond the worst conditions intended for the craft. To make matters worse, damage sustained to the heavy rubber skirt of the craft and made navigation a significant challenge.

Trailing a horsecollar lifering the Radiant Heat started her engines and attempted a pass close downwind of the Incisor. One crewmember swam for the ring, followed by another crewmember on a second pass.

With its engine temperature light lit, the Radiant Heat was not able to proceed up wind and was forced to watch the remaining four crewmembers still in the water doing their best to hang onto the submerged sailboat.

The nearby BC Ferry Coastal Renaissance was tasked to proceed downwind of the swamped vessel in case crew members were swept off the vessel. Two Coast Guard rescue divers took to the water with tethering lines to save the remaining four crewmembers that were in the water awaiting rescue.

The divers commenced ferrying victims back and forth to the hovercraft to get them to safety, but just as Coast Guard diver Derek Thody approached the craft with a victim, a 15-foot wave picked up the hovercraft and shifted it on top of him and his survivor.

“Luckily I took enough air in before we were swept under,” said Derek. “It was pitch black and I could feel the skirt against my head but I still had the victim in my arms.” In an instant another massive wave lifted the hovercraft away. With a great deal of swimming Derek was able to get the victim to safety.

“Rescue diving is very high risk and we train to a very high level of water confidence training, without air and in zero visibility,” recalled Derek. “Our training is based on quick thinking and relying on our bodies.”

In all the four remaining crewmembers from the Incisor were plucked from the water suffering from significant hypothermia. The four were transported by Hovercraft to the Canadian Forces Nanoose Military base, where a B.C. ambulance met the craft. Due to concerns about the overheated engine of the Radiant Heat, the RCMP escorted the vessel into Nanaimo where the two recovered survivors were rushed to Nanaimo General Hospital.

Unfortunately the damage sustained to the hovercraft from the significant conditions prevented the craft from returning back across Georgia Strait. To conduct emergency repairs was moved to the helicopter pad at the Canadian Forces Nanoose Base, where with the assistance of the Base Fire Engine, the craft maneuvered onto the pad.

The next morning the engineering crew from Sea Island made it to the Base and began to assess the damage. Without their extraordinary determination and considerable effort to go into the field and work all the next day, the engineers had to rely on portable generators and borrowed lifting gear to make the needed repairs to the significant damage from the incident. In the end, the engineers ended up replacing 83 of the 120 fingers (flexible rubber skirt extensions) on the craft.

Coast Guard Hovercraft Penac
Before engineers could begin work on the Penac, the machine had to be shifted onto the helicopter pad at Nanoose Bay. With the help of the base fire truck, the craft was maneuvered into place. Photo credit: CCG Station Sea Island

The dramatic rescue of the crew from the Incisor netted praise from several groups.

In a ceremony at the Institute of Ocean Sciences soon after the incident, the Coast Guard crew received recognition for their bravery and determination in the rescue by Maritime Forces Pacific Commander Rear Admiral Tyrone Pile. “Risking a life to save a life doesn’t happen automatically, said RAdm Pile. “These folks stepped beyond the call of duty to make us very proud to be Canadians. They have made life safer for people in our province.”

In a recent ceremony at Canadian Coast Guard Station Sea Island, Coast Guard Assistant Commissioner Vija Poruks presented a Canadian Coast Guard Distinction Awards to; Captain Susan Pickrell, 1st Officer Tom Moxey, Rescue Specialist David Schur, Leading Seaman/Diver Michael Hawley, Seaman/Diver Mike Lydiatt, Seaman/Diver Derek Thody, Seaman/Diver Travis Kramer were recognized for their excellence in Service Delivery.

Crew members
Following presentation of Canadian Coast Guard Distinction Awards, each of the crew members involved in the incident, Assistant Commissioner Vija Poruks, A/RD Fleet Joanne McNish, and Officer in Charge Brian Wootton pose for a photograph in front of CCGH Penac. Photo credit: Dan Bate

The engineering crew of Mike Wright and Donald Ma were also presented with Canadian Coast Guard Distinction Awards for their exceptional performance in very different and challenging working conditions.

“During the course of this difficult mission, the crew demonstrated conspicuous courage and perseverance,” said Assistant Commissioner Vija Poruks. “Today we recognize the extraordinary teamwork and commitment to excellence exemplified by the members of the Hovercraft Unit who responded to the Incisor incident.”

The crew was also recognized at the ninth Annual Richmond Chamber of Commerce 911 Awards which was recently held put on by the City of Richmond and the Richmond Chamber of Commerce.

Learning from the invaluable lessons of the previous year, organizers of 2011 Southern Strait Classic Regatta incorporated new training and changes to the race to enhance safety.