Two miles out from the boats and sunbathers at Bluffer’s Park, a radio on the Pickering Auxiliary Rescue Association rescue boat crackles with a message from the yellow helicopter roaring in from CFB Trenton.
“Roger that,” answers communications officer Colin Thomson. “Five souls on board.”
Today’s exercise is a drill, and Lake Ontario is calm. With its twin engines throttled back, the 34-foot PARA boat rocks gently on the water, its Coast Guard Auxiliary burgee waving on a light breeze.
But in the cabin, the five volunteers on crew are working fast. This is a rare chance to train with the pros, and dropping two fully geared marine rescue technicians out of a helicopter is always serious business – even when the only one in immediate danger is Oscar, a First Aid mannequin the crew just threw overboard.
Before the Griffon helicopter is in sight, Michael Leahy, a 30-year sailor and PARA coxswain in training, orders everyone to strap helmets on and clear the deck. Among other dangers is the chance of a shock from the huge static charge built up by the Griffon’s thundering blades.
Watching him is deputy unit leader and coxswain Derek Cartier, a Beach resident who joined PARA in 1997 and who led PARA teams to top finishes at the 2003 and 2007 SAR contests in Toronto and St. John’s, Newfoundland.
Outside, the helicopter circles twice, then flies in slow off the stern until it is metres away from the mannequin. When its bay door opens, Master Corporal Jonathan Pothier gets ready to jump, flippers dangling in the air.
After he splashes into the lake and swims a safe distance, Pothier gives the thumbs-up to Phil Friolet, team leader with the 424 Transport and Rescue squadron.
Minutes later, the two are loading Oscar the mannequin safely onto the deck and getting handshakes from all five members on the PARA crew.
“Thanks,” says Pothier, taking a bottle of water. It’s July 13, five days after a storm dropped 123 mm of rain on Toronto and flooded its combined sewer system.
“Now I can wash the E coli out of my mouth.”
The SAR techs have little time for jokes. Soon after they board, Friolet gets a message that that they have a real rescue to do – a canoeist stranded with neck injures along a portage out of Elk Lake, some 200 km north of North Bay.
Soon they are back in the water, then hoisted up one by one into the Griffon for what could well be an all-night mission.
As the PARA crew heads back to Bluffer’s Park and their regular patrol, Leahy says that his friends in the Canadian Forces all agree – SAR techs are among the best trained.
“They can fly, they can swim, they can dive, they can hike,” he said. “Those guys are in better shape than Superman – and they have to stay that way.”
While PARA members are not trained to the level of their professional colleagues, collectively, the 45-member group logs a heroic 3,600 volunteer hours per year. Since 1967, the group has saved some 270 lives.
Cartier says he hardly knew a thing about boating when he started. But he was inspired to sign up after helping his wife study for her citizenship exam, where for the first time he read about Canadians’ duty to volunteer.
In the last month, PARA crews have done everything from clearing 20-foot trees and lost docks from Scarborough beaches to escorting the Sorlandet, the world’s oldest rigged ship, on its way to the Tall Ships festival in the Toronto Harbour.
Cartier said of all his time on board the PARA rescue boat, the only time he really felt nervous was when his crew was guarding a perimeter around the Canadian International Air Show two years ago.
A thick fog blanked the Toronto Harbour that day, but it didn’t stop some boaters from motoring above 25 or 30 knots with no signals on.
“I had a whole boatload of people, bow to stern, coming in at full speed,” he said. “I thought they were going to hit us, and not one had a life jacket except the two kids.”
For PARA, boaters with no life jackets are a familiar sight. Under Ontario law, only children are required to actually wear them, although boats must be equipped with enough for everyone on board.
“People think the idea of making sure kids have a life jacket on is good,” said Cartier, a father of two. “But most people aren’t aware how dangerous just being in this water is.”
In cold water rescues, the Canadian Coast Guard uses a “one-ten-one” rule. A person overboard has one minute to get their breathing under control, 10 minutes of fine motor control in their fingers and one hour to survive hypothermia.
But many of the people who drown don’t get that hour, said Michael Leahy. In their surprise, people who go overboard can gulp a litre of water in seconds.
According to the Canadian Coast Guard, 90 per cent of recreational boaters who drown are not wearing a life jacket or other floatation device.
Boating skill is another issue. Cartier remembers one call when a someone stranded with an engine fire was asked for his location and told the Coast Guard he was “on Lake Ontario.”
In a 311 km-long lake, the boat could have been anywhere on its 19,000 square kilometre area.
“Luckily we had a bead on the column of smoke,” he said. “But we do get a fair amount of situations where people don’t know how to use a radio properly.”
Such dangers seemed a long ways off on a sunny day.
Cruising past the Scarborough bluffs, Leahy stopped to watch a line of cormorants flying toward the Toronto islands.
“That’s beautiful,” he said, taking a break from rescue questions.
“I love the Great Lakes. I’ve sailed them for 30 years and the lakes are healthier now than they’ve ever been in my lifetime.
“You see amazing things everywhere.”
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