It’s a call that Masset Marine Rescue will answer day or night, any time of year:
“All I can hear is crashing waves and I have no idea where I am.”
Volunteers with the northern Haida Gwaii search-and-rescue unit received a call like that the night before a joint training exercise in Masset Inlet.
A crew dropped everything and set out in the NorthWard, a red rigid-hulled Zodiac with a 40-knot top speed.
They found a boater lost in fog with failing navigation lights, and led him the way home.
The next day, some of the same volunteers met after work for an hours-long towing exercise.
Towing broken-down boats is their most common mission and it can be a long one — the longest so far involved a halibut vessel they found dragging anchor in big seas 12 miles west of Langara.
It took until 3 a.m. and the halibut boat dwarfed the NorthWard, but nine hours later they had the ship in dock — a whole day ahead of the nearest Coast Guard ship.
“It’s definitely not a drag for us to go out at two in the morning and tow a boat. That’s why we all volunteer, because we want to help.”
Since they received the NorthWard 10 years ago, Masset Marine Rescue has saved six people’s lives and provided critical help to another 79, from stranded sport fishers to windblown surfers and sinking boaters firing flares.
Chris Ashurst, a former unit leader and president of the non-profit society that supports the unit, said he joined 12 years ago thanks to a persuasive surfing buddy, Bart DeFreitas, who also led the push for the NorthWard.
Many people still confuse Masset Marine Rescue with the Coast Guard, said Ashurst, and don’t always realize the crew is unpaid.
People also tend to call on them for things they are not prepared for, such as fuel-spill cleanups or enforcing laws.
“Our mandate is saving lives at sea, and that’s what we do,” said Ashurst.
Like all new recruits, Ashurst received free First Aid, radio, and pleasure craft operations training, and later took more advances courses thanks to the Royal Canadian Marine SAR, a small federal agency with an office in Victoria and a training centre in Sooke.
The free training is a big perk, one that has helped several members in their careers, Ashurst added.
But while he and others enjoy putting that response training to use, Masset Marine Rescue Society also needs people best at fundraising and organizing.
“You don’t need to be the person who gets up in the middle of the night in a howling southeaster to go rescue people,” said Ashurst.
“There are lots of other jobs.”
The society has two big jobs coming up on the horizon — a new base, and a new rescue boat.
Housed in a former base office owned by the Greater Masset Development Corporation, which is selling its properties, Masset Marine Rescue will need to find a new location in the next few years.
“The base is a big one, and it will take a couple years, but we need that,” said Ashurst.
While GwaiiTrust has been a big supporter in the past — it helped Masset Marine Rescue buy the NorthWard — the society would like the B.C. or federal government to help fund the new base, given that Masset Marine Rescue not only helps local people but also tourists, fishers and anyone else passing through northern Haida Gwaii waters.
“It’s not only about Masset,” said Ashurst, or even Masset, Old Massett and Port Clements.
“It’s a regional thing.”
With its twin 150-horsepower engines, and a design well-suited for moving people from boat to boat, the NorthWard has served the unit well.
But the boat is limited by its open deck, which leaves everyone onboard exposed to weather, and its navigation and rescue gear could both be improved.
“We are dealing with some of the most treacherous waters in British Columbia,” said Meredith Adams, an experienced mariner, who for 10 years piloted small Greenpeace boats in different places around the world.
“The Hecate Strait and Dixon Entrance can be pretty ferocious in winter.”
Of their dozen missions this year, Adams said one of the most surprising came in summer, and right in Masset Inlet.
After landing on windy, choppy waters — the pilot had to make two attempts — the plane’s rudder broke and the pilot was unable to turn out of the wind and into the harbour.
The Masset RCMP managed to tow in the plane, escorted by local fishers, but the NorthWard was the only boat designed to safely disembark the passengers.
“We learned a lot about working together, and the limitations we had working together with different emergency services,” said Adams, adding that the incident is one reason why they joined local RCMP and DFO officers for a joint towing exercise in June.
But whatever boat they are running, Adams said the best thing about Masset Marine Rescue is the people on board — among the 25 members are several professional mariners, lifelong boaters and three paramedics.
“Considering our population base, I think we’ve got really impressive search and rescue teams on Haida Gwaii.”
To volunteer with Masset Marine Rescue, call Meredith Adams at 250-626-7737 or Chris Ashurst at 250-626-9463.
Members train on the first and 15th of each month, and have so far responded to anywhere from six to 20 call-outs a year.
Donations to the Masset Marine Rescue Society can be made by cheque, or by direct deposit at Northern Savings.