Quick response saves canoeists

Nanoose Bay, Vancouver Island. Photo credit: Russell McNeil

Nanoose Bay, Vancouver Island. Photo credit: Russell McNeil

Peter Mallett, Staff Writer ~

Two canoeists are grateful for the life-saving efforts of three Queen’s Harbour Master Detachment employees attached to Canadian Forces Maritime Experimental Test Range (CFMETR) at Nanoose Bay.

The adult male and female had paddled a kilometre offshore on Oct. 29 when they encountered choppy seas and high winds that resulted in their canoe capsizing. The pair were not wearing life jackets. After a few minutes in the cold water, both began to suffer from hypothermia. 

A witness spotted the pair struggling in the water and called 9-1-1. A mayday call was issued by the Canadian Coast Guard over radio channels monitored by Queen’s Harbour Master at CFMETR.

That’s when Petty Officer First Class (Retired) Steve White, Derrick Viggers, and Nathan Reed, all civilian employees of Port Operations and Emergency Services Branch, sprang into action.

White and Viggers jumped aboard Sea Truck YFU-101, a landing craft, and raced towards the canoeists, while Reed set up a command post and provided communications between the coast guard and emergency health services.   

“We immediately saw the capsized canoe in the water but were uncertain if they had made it to shore safely,” said White. “We raced in their direction and then learned from the coast guard radio and Nathan’s dispatches the pair had made it out of the water and were on a nearby beach.”

White, a former Boatswain in the Royal Canadian Navy, says he recognized the signs of hypothermia in the two victims when he arrived onshore, and that both would need immediate medical attention.

White said the male was suffering from more severe hypothermia symptoms than his female counterpart, who he had managed to hoist out of the water and on to the top of the canoe; but she was still showing signs of hypothermia including shivering and slurred speech likely because of the exertion, said White.

The male canoeist was suffering from more serious signs of hypothermia including a lack of mobility and speech functioning and was losing his ability to shiver.

“Without immediate medical attention I don’t want to think about what the outcome might have been,” said White. “I am certain my past medical training in the military I received throughout my career with the Department of National Defence played a huge role in a happy ending to this story.”

The canoeists were wrapped in blankets by White and Viggers and then transported across the harbour in the sea truck. There they were treated by paramedics and then rushed to a local hospital.

In reacting to the handling of the incident by his staff, Captain Edward Dahlgren, Detachment Superintendent with QHM Nanoose Bay, praised his employees for their “quick thinking.” 

“I was both pleased and proud our team responded in a timely professional manner to a short-notice emergency as it truly represented the best tradition of sea farers,” said Capt Dahlgren. “We have a tradition in our profession that we proceed with all the speed and diligence to assist those in peril, and their efforts fully embodied this.”

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