Frustrated fishermen relay rescuer’s message to Coast Guard

Tofino — 

Fishermen in Tofino listening to the distress call to the Coast Guard became frustrated as Ahousaht rescuer Clarence Smith tried to make himself understood about the situation before him Oct. 25, with a capsized Leviathan II and the lives of its passengers in his hands.

The Georgia Prince had just returned from harvesting geoduck, had tied up in Tofino and unloaded the catch when they were alerted by the call.

It was a Native fellow, said crewman Tony Cook, explaining he could hear the emotion in the man’s voice. It seemed to take a while for the Coast Guard to “clue in”, Cook said. After the Coast Guard asked the caller to repeat himself “half a dozen” times, asking questions over and over, finally Georgia Prince skipper Rob Barton broke into the call.

“Break, message relay,” he said. “He’s telling you there are people in the water, people on the rocks,” Cook heard Barton say, and the skipper confirmed this to Ha-Shilth-Sa.

Barton, Cook and another crew member prepared to cut loose and head out to the scene, but their boat is a slow one and would have taken more than an hour to get there, so when a 25-ft speed boat came to the dock, Barton and the other crewman jumped aboard and “bombed out.” In 20 minutes they could be there to help.

First responder Clarence Smith remembers that he turned the radio to channel 16 to reach the Coast Guard. He tried to explain where he was and that all that could be seen of the whale watching boat was the bow, but the Coast Guard told him they weren’t receiving him.

After failing to connect with the Coast Guard, Smith decided he wasn’t going to waste any more precious time. He turned the radio to Channel 68, the frequency the Ahousaht’s use.

He talked with Alec Dick and said “We need help here”, and that’s when the White Star water taxi turned his way and the G.I. Charles and other boats that responded to his call. He knew the Ahousahts would know exactly where he was and get there “right now.”

He was glad to be told by Ha-Shilth-Sa that someone had heard him call Tofino and relayed the message to the Coast Guard, but Smith knew that by calling out to Ahousaht it would get people moving “right now.”

Ha-Shilth-Sa read Tony Cook a couple of lines from a National Post article published Oct. 27.

“By the time the federal search and rescue group out of Canadian Forces Base Comox arrived on the scene, the boats of Ahousaht… had already scooped up the 21 survivors and started to race them off to waiting ambulances in nearby Tofino,” reported the Post. “Even as the little coast guard vessel stationed in Tofino arrived on the scene, the Ahousahts already had the survivors out of the water and were administering to their needs.”

“This is normal… the way it is,” said Cook, not only on the West Coast of Vancouver Island but all over. He remembered when the Queen of the North went down. He said the Native village at Hartley Bay had everyone ashore before the Coast Guard arrived.

He says, typically, the Coast Guard would put out a pan-pan to get others to go to the emergency first. (A pan-pan signifies in radio communications an urgent situation when life is not endangered.)

Cook said there would have been a lot more fatalities if it hadn’t been for those Ahousaht fishermen and the help that arrived to the capsized Leviathan II. “They saved so many.” Cook said it is dangerous water out there with sea lions. The survivors would have had only minutes in the swell.

Cook said Canada should put money towards good boats and equipment for the Native coastal communities, because “they’re the ones saving us anyway.”

Cook said the Coast Guard response would have been inadequate. “Did they save anybody?” he asked.

He said it was “fate” that Clarence Smith and his fishing partner Kenny Brown were in the area and saw the flare.

In a press statement on Oct. 26, Nuu-chah-nulth Tribal Council President Debra Foxcroft called on the federal and provincial governments to improve the search and rescue capacity of Nuu-chah-nulth coastal communities through the supply of specialized training and equipment.

Foxcroft called on newly-elected Prime Minister Justin Trudeau “to reverse a decade of decline in marine search and rescue under the Harper government and invest in life-saving equipment in our First Nations communities.”

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