By Mariah McCooey--Two people are lucky to be alive after a harrowing marine rescue in last Tuesday's 40-50-knot windstorm. Wayne and Linda Melney were on their way back to their home on Channel Island (in the Balch group, between Maude and Lina Islands)
late in the afternoon in their 14' catamaran-style dinghy when a large wave flipped the boat over and tossed the two into the stormy, cold waters. Although they're alright now, it could have turned out quite differently if it hadn't been for several factors on their side; most importantly, an attentive captain and experienced crew aboard the Kwuna.
Luckily also, the Melneys had a VHF radio with them, which they used to put out a Mayday call on channel 16. A Mayday, the highest distress call, was immediately repeated by Vancouver Coast Guard Radio, which asked any other vessels in the area to assist.
"It was 17:30 when we overheard the call on the VHF," said Fraser Earl at the Sandspit Coast Guard station. It took the Coast Guard crew there eight minutes to get their zodiac ready to go, and by that time, the Kwuna had already responded that they were available to help and already closer to the scene than the Coast Guard vessel. A tugboat with barge in tow also responded, saying that they would stand by, although the seas were too rough for them to perform any kind of rescue.
"It was heinous weather," said Mr. Earl. "It was very windy, with steep waves." The pair was recovered at 6:02 pm, after some "fantastic work" on behalf of the Kwuna crew, he said.
"Didn't look to bad"
Wayne Melney said he and his wife have been making that trip for almost twenty years. "It didn't look too bad," he said, until a 14-foot wave flipped them "ass over teakettle." Sometimes the combination of wind and tide does something strange, he added.
There's conflicting information on whether they were wearing lifejackets at the time, perhaps explained by the flotation jackets they were wearing, which look like regular coats, he said. "The Kwuna crew was just excellent," he said. Linda Melney said that she had "no comment" on the situation, adding that she doesn't like to talk to reporters.
Tricky to locate pair
Kwuna captain Al Grosvenor was on the Alliford Bay side of the Inlet when he heard the distress call. "They were very lucky to have had a good waterproof radio," he said, because the visibility was very poor. It was just about dark, he said, and 55-knot gusts combined with the two-metre seas made it very tricky to locate the two people bobbing around on the top of an overturned boat. Captain Grosvenor estimates that the couple was almost a mile offshore, between Queen Charlotte and Maude Island. And the strong south-westerly wind was blowing them further down the inlet, toward Skidegate. "Not very good conditions," he said. "That's the kind of excitement you don't need."
Nevertheless, they managed to locate the overturned boat and maneuver towards them, no small task for a ferry, especially in such rough conditions. The crew lowered the car ramp into the water, and used the boat hook to haul aboard both the soggy passengers and their boat. "It worked out well for them," he said, "it's no fun when you splash into the water unexpectedly like that." But all's well that ends well, he said, and they'll "probably be a little more careful next time."
Experienced crew important
Critically important, he said, was his very experienced crew, who all have deep-water rescue experience. They were cool-headed and very helpful, he said, one of them keeping his eyes fixed on the people in the water, and others prepared the ramp, while the captain steered the boat and monitored the radio. At the time of the rescue, the Melneys had been in the chilly water for over half an hour, and were starting to feel it.
"It was nice to see the community pull together like that," he said, "everybody was on the scene by the time we arrived in Skidegate, police, ambulanceÂ… even a few onlookers."
Mr. Grosvenor has been captain of the Kwuna for two and a half years, and this is not the only rescue that has happened on his watch. A few years ago, three boys flipped a canoe off of Skidegate, and none of them were wearing lifejackets. Luckily, all three were rescued by the Kwuna. "It's amazing how many people take that chance," he said, even though it's a relatively small investment to have some basic safety gear. "The weather here swings from one extreme to another," he said, and "a good radio and some flares" can make all the difference.
Back at the Coast Guard Station, Fraser Earl recommends that boaters take some basic safety precautions. "Make sure you have a flashlight," he said. If it had been just a little bit darker that night, it would have taken hours to locate them. In addition, make sure you listen to the weather reports and have a working VHF radio - which really made all the difference in this case.