A couple in their seventies borrows a friend’s sailboat to tour the North Coast, but neither knows Hecate Strait.
Midway across, their eight-metre boat loses power.
By the time the Canadian Coast Guard ship Tanu arrives, the gentleman has gone through 18 hours of high winds and swell without food.
Crew from the Tanu sailed the boat to give the couple a rest, then towed it through an overnight fog close to the mainland.
Much longer and a helicopter would have had to medevac the couple, leaving the boat behind.
“Life is always our first priority,” said Captain Jeff Nemrava, who gave the Observer a tour while the Tanu docked in Masset last month.
Protecting the environment — not property — is next, said Capt. Nemrava, and assisting science is close behind.
It was the Coast Guard ship Gordon Reid that managed to hold off a drifting Russian cargo ship, the MV Simushir, when it came dangerously close to Haida Gwaii’s west coast in 2014.
It was from the Arrow Post that whale researchers near Haida Gwaii studied an extremely rare North Pacific right whale the year before.
Named for the Haida village of Tanu (Sea-grass Town), the 52-metre patrol ship was originally launched to oversee fisheries back in 1968.
Nicknamed the ‘Grey Ghost,’ it was painted DFO grey rather than Maple Leaf red and white, and on foggy days it could slip out and surprise fishers by trolling in with its quiet, rudder-mounted propeller.
Today, the Tanu and its 15-member crew are mainly tasked with search-and-rescue.
Before heading to Queen Charlotte and fixing up beacons in southern Haida Gwaii, the Tanu held public tours and a joint training exercise with Masset Marine Rescue — a chance for the volunteer SAR group to board a much larger ship while underway.
Like Masset Marine Rescue, the Tanu has a small, rigid-hull Zodiac on board that can zip around at 45 knots.
In a rescue, the Zodiac and the patient(s) are hoisted up to deck level by boom cranes, making for an easy transfer to the small clinic on the ship.
If it’s a boat fire they respond to, the crew has chainsaws, saws for metal doors, and a full set of firefighting gear ready to go.
Now closing in on his 37th year with the Coast Guard, Capt. Nemrava has led all kinds of missions, but says search-and-rescue is a highlight.
“It’s a great feeling to help somebody out when they’re in trouble,” he said.
“If you’re going to be in public service, I think this is one of the better ways to do it.”
Captain Jeff Nevrama stands on board the CCGS Tanu while docked in Masset on Aug. 20. In his nearly 37-year career, Nevrama has served on all kinds of search-and-rescue, environmental response, and science taskings. “I can’t think of a better public service job,” he said. “But I’m a little biased.”
To make sure a larger ship is never more than about 8 to 12 hours away, the Pacific Coast Guard keeps at least one ship the size of the Tanu or the Gordon Reid along the north and the south coast.
Onshore Coast Guard stations such as those at Sandspit, Prince Rupert, Bella Bella, Tofino, Bamfield, and Port Hardy also have a 14-metre motor lifeboat with a three-or- four-person crew.
While the lifeboats can go 25 knots compared with the Tanu’s 14, they have limited range.
“They’re a much more rapid response, but they’re more of a dash and grab — they don’t have the endurance to stay out,” said Nemrava.
Even with the Coast Guard’s patrol ships and stations, in B.C.’s most heavily-trafficked waters, many SAR calls are handled by commercial outfits.
And across the country, about a third of all marine SAR calls are fielded by volunteers.
“We rely a lot on local knowledge,” said Nemrava, adding that local SAR groups, fishers, and First Nations will always know more about the waters they live by.
“It’s big for us, because we can’t be everywhere at the same time.”
While large freighters are less likely than smaller vessels to hit serious trouble, given their professional crews and maintenance, Nemrava said that low risk is matched by far higher consequences.
“That’s what we have to plan for,” he said.
The Tanu carries some spill-response gear, and the Coast Guard has onshore caches such as the small one on the Masset wharf or the three main clean-up caches in Prince Rupert, Victoria, and Vancouver.
But while the Coast Guard may be first responders, much of the clean-up for a major spill falls to the company responsible — if they don’t follow the law and hire the help they need, Transport Canada will do it for them and send the bill.
One issue the Simushir incident shone a light on was how long it can take the nearest contractor to arrive.
While it might be first on scene, a ship like the Tanu lacks the horsepower to tow something like the 134-metre Simushir, whose name means ‘small island’ in Ainu (a western Japanese dialect).
For help, the company backing the Simushir contracted the Barbara Foss, a large tug that happened to be in Prince Rupert, but it took a day-and-a-half to arrive.
Luckily, the Gordon Reid got there in 14 hours and after snapping two tow lines the crew used tie-ups to hold the Simushir and its 473 tonnes of bunker fuel for the better-equipped tug.
“These aren’t towboats,” Nemrava said.
“We could hold them off, like the Gordon Reid did, but we don’t have the capability to tow them all the way into Prince Rupert.”
Incidents will happen, but Nemrava said the Coast Guard’s main focus, to begin with, is to try to prevent spills.
Last week, the Tanu worked on beacons in southern Haida Gwaii, and other ships are tasked with maintaining buoys or updating charts with high-resolution surveys of the ocean floor.
Using a radio tower on Mount Hays, the Coast Guards’ marine traffic office in Prince Rupert helps to route ships along the North Coast and keep them well separated for safety.
“They can see virtually everything that has an AIS transponder, coast-wide,” said Nemrava, referring to the automated transponders all ships are required to have.
Turning to an AIS monitor on the bridge, Nemrava selected a ship north of McIntyre Bay and up came its name, course, speed, and destination.
While the Tanu is equipped with the latest communications gear, including satellite internet, it is still powered by its original 1968 engines — a pair of opposed-piston Fairbanks-Morse engines that have mainly been used on submarines, even trains.
With no cylinder heads or valves, and a power stroke each and every stroke, they are still efficient compared to more conventional designs, said Andrew Weaver, the Tanu’s chief engineer.
While they take a few minutes to start up, if the captain needs power right away, Weaver has an electric back-up — a highly maneuverable, rudder-mounted propellor that is more common in Norwegian fishing boats than any ship built in North America.
“That’s where the ship is really unique,” said Weaver.
“We have a lot of different and older technology that’s still well-proven and well-supported.”
Andrew Weaver, Chief Engineer of the CCGS Tanu, stands between the 1968 Fairbanks-Morse engines that still power the ship even after several life-extending renovations and regular engine overhauls.
Weaver became an engineer after doing a four-year program at BCIT in North Vancouver.
Two more colleges have a similar program, and the Coast Guard’s own college in Sidney, Nova Scotia offers students a Bachelor of Nautical Science plus free room, board, and a small allowance in return for agreeing to serve with the Coast Guard for some years after graduating.
“I’d encourage anybody to apply,” said Capt. Nemrava, who grew up in Vancouver and has worked the Pacific coast his whole 37-year career, including several on the now-retired Arrow Post that was often tasked with research and conservation missions off Haida Gwaii.
“This is one of the most beautiful areas,” he said, adding that if the Arrow Post hadn’t been retired, he would still be on it today.
“They’d have to carry me off,” he said.