[Video of our rescue from the life raft]
Just about everyone in Digby, Cornwallis, and Victoria Beach saw the bright yellow helicopter and the Hercules aircraft overhead, many saw the Coast Guard Cutter and the Rigid Hull Inflatable Boat (RIB) zipping in and out of the Gut and around the Basin, they may have even noticed three fishing boats travelling in unison.
But very few would have seen the life raft bobbing around Goat Island, the yellow mannequins floating in the Bay of Fundy, the pile of three PFDs or the swimmer floating in the Gut.
Tiny dots of yellow, red or orange in a vast sea of blue and grey – what the Coast Guard calls search targets.
I was one of those search targets, part of a large-scale multi-agency training exercise led by the Canadian Coast Guard on the Annapolis Basin on Tuesday, Aug. 26.
The three goals of the exercise were to practice co-operation between the Coast Guard, the Coast Guard Auxiliary and the Air Force; to practice communication between the three groups; and to give the auxiliary practice in running search patterns and bringing search targets aboard.
Sailing vessel missing with six POBs
I played one of six POBs (persons on board) from the fictitious Krista Roy, a 36-foot sailing vessel, that had left Digby at 1 p.m. the day before and failed to turn up as expected at 10 p.m.
In reality, I started my day at the Lifesaving Station on the Bay View shore, watching a skilled and confident Coast Guard driver back a trailer full of gear down that narrow steep driveway and set up the exercise control headquarters on the cobble beach.
Job one was rigging up a generator, inflating the life raft and suiting up search targets for a day in the water.
Three of the POBs, played by mannequins, were already dead but the live ones were played by me and two Inshore Rescue Boat deckhands – students hired on for the summer to operate rescue boats in Shediac, Charlottetown, Pictou, Saint John, Mahone Bay and Halifax.
Patrick LeClair, Anik Guay and I put on dry suits and PFDs, grabbed dry bags with flares and a radio and then went out onto the water.
The Cutter Westport dropped LeClair and me and a mannequin off in the life raft tied to a channel marker just west of Goat Island about 9:30 a.m.
And then we waited.
It was a calm day and despite the 50 litres of water that had spilled into the raft when we launched it, it was hot under the low orange roof.
It was more comfortable to sit with my head sticking out and watch for planes, rescue boats or fish jumping.
We did see the Cormorant helicopter about 9:45 a.m. but in the scenario at least, they didn’t see us.
The Hercules also flew over us without stopping about 10:10 a.m.
And so we waited.
The aircraft had proceeded out to the Gut where the Westport was organizing the search with three fishing boats.
The auxiliary vessels were the Guardian 2014 with Trent and Tony Bohaker and Stacey Denton and Gordon Stanton aboard; the Brantelle with Vance and Reg Hazelton aboard and the Bay Drifter, with Ian Robertson and Austin Denton, director of the auxiliary for the eastern end of the Bay of Fundy.
These men are members of the Canadian Coast Guard Auxiliary, volunteers ready to help if there’s an emergency in the waters around Digby.
The Coast Guard wanted to start the search in the area where the Krista Roy was known to sail – at the mouth of the Gut—not in the Basin where we were waiting and chatting.
“This is the best summer job in the world,” said LeClair, who recently graduated from St. FX.
The Coast Guard has him working in Charlottetown where he says he’s had a pretty quiet summer.
He did help one man whose sailing boat had flipped over and was drifting out into the harbour.
He’s happy to spend the morning in the life raft, because he says during training, the one he was supposed to climb into failed to inflate.
IRB deckhands spend about two weeks learning how to handle the boats, to navigate, to carry out search and rescue operations.
He’s also never been to Digby before and in this short morning he’s seen Point Prim, Digby Gut and most of the Annapolis Basin.
Occasionally we could see one of the aircraft above North Mountain as they circled and worked the search out there.
For something to do and to test the dry suit, I jumped in the water, took some pictures of the life raft and was surprised how strong the current was in the Basin.
If you were afloat in that water, with no rope to hang on to, you’d have no choice but to go where the currents sent you.
My next big surprise was just how hard it is to climb into one of those rafts. LeClair had to pull on my PFD to help me in.
IRB deckhand Guay meanwhile was floating around at the mouth of the Gut waiting to be found with no life raft to climb into.
The crew of the Hercules dropped an SRK or search and rescue kit with a pump and rope which the auxiliary could use to pump out a vessel in distress.
The Hercules marked its location with smoke bombs and the Brantelle and Bay Drifter picked that up.
The crew of the Cormorant practiced lowering and hoisting a search and rescue technician onto and off the deck of the Guardian 2014.
Then the boats set to looking for the search targets – the crews went up on top of the wheelhouses or into the rigging to look and the Guardian 2014 and the Brantelle picked up a mannequin and a load of PFDs from the Gut.
And then the Guardian 2014 found Guay and hauled her aboard with a lifering.
Then last, and maybe least, the Cormorant came looking for us – which is when things got really interesting.
As the bright yellow ‘copter approached, LeClair set off a hand held signal flare.
The helicopter wash quickly changed a warm and sunny day into a cold and windy rainstorm.
The SAR techs were lowered down twice near us, once about 60 metres away and then again right over top.
From 60 metres away the helicopter wash drove water right at us and into the life raft, waves were all of a sudden crashing against us and we were blowing around, like, well, a beach toy.
When the SAR tech came down right on top of us, the wash was much less intense but by then the cold had shut my iPhone down and I missed some good up close shots of our rescuer.
He didn’t actually communicate with us but soon flew off and the seas calmed back down.
By now a light wind had come up with the changing of the tide and it was cold in our little battered life raft.
For over two hours we had been bobbing around in the water and we were both starting to wonder about lunch.
A scallop boat soon approached and we assumed it was a member of the auxiliary come to save us.
Imagine our disappointment when they steamed right by, waving politely but not slowing a hair.
The Cormorant and the Hercules were long gone, we could see no other boats and we seriously began to wonder if the others had gone home and forgotten about the expendable deckhand and the journalist.
About 12:15 we saw two more boats headed our way and hoped they were coming for us.
I was shivering a little before the crew of the Guardian 2014 pulled us aboard and we headed for home.
I know we had it easy – most incidents in southwestern Nova Scotia happen in the winter, many in the dark, not on a calm sunny August day.
We were only in the water for three hours, and we had all the right gear – a life raft, dry suits and a flare to signal our location – but it gave me an idea of what it’s like to be a search target, of the fears and challenges people face while they wait to be rescued.
Check this slideshow for more photos by John McCrossan, who caught the action from his home in Victoria Beach.