A mariner’s cry for help ignored

by Linda Owens

Saturday, September 8, 2012 off the mouth of the Big Qualicum River was another spectacular summer evening to angle for chinook. Afforded a clear view of the prime fishing grounds, the Captain and I launched our 12 foot Lund from Qualicum Bay and soon joined the hodgepodge flotilla. We were surrounded by every size of vessel from rowboats to 26’ cruisers. After all, who can be a landlubber on such a fine night?

The breeze blew warm on tanned skin and turned the sea’s mirror surface to a kaleidoscope of static. Heavy gusts patterned the sea and kept us attentive to the tiller. The Qualicum Wind, that’s what the locals call it. It comes fast from the southwest and blows hard into an offshore breeze such that only substantial horsepower and a stable boat can contest.

Caught once in an old rowboat I barely made it to shore as my heart thudded from exertion and the gunnels strained to hold the oar lock. I barely made headway and any pause caused me to lose more ground than I could make up. The Qualicum Wind gives no warning but an overly warm breeze which only serves as a greater enticement to be out on the water.

On this night we watched the water build from glass to whitecaps in merely 20 minutes. The waves started to build, and worse, break. The Captain and I had decided to head for shore as it’s no fun to try to net a salmon in a rockin’ and rollin’ small boat.

Now folks, here is where the story becomes interesting. I heard yells, strained to the max, maybe “Help!, Help!, Help!”. Unsure, I looked around, nothing… and then a fellow waving a paddle in the air. I pointed out the oddity to my partner and paused. Perhaps he was waving to a friend. Six large boats were closer to him than we were so I must have misheard. Again a yell and wave. My Captain suggested waving a hi-vi life jacket at him to let him know he had been seen. He reacted fast. Something was wrong. We cut right in front of a boat and waved the lifejacket at them and shouted to let them know someone was in trouble. No reaction. Perhaps puzzlement? What was going on? We passed another boat and yelled that someone was in trouble. I couldn’t hear what they said but they kept going. We watched a boat overtake the fellow and keep going. A fourth boat.

All of these boats were white 20-22 foot deep-V cruiser style and flying bridges with all the power and hulls to make these waves a mere inconvenience. Many more boats of the same size were within visual and auditory distance to see that someone was in distress and needed help.

I frantically pulled in rods and deep lines while the Captain motored to what turned out to be a man in a canoe with an electric motor and all the paddle power he could muster to try to keep from capsizing in the waves. He was being pushed further and further off shore as he was unable to bring his bow into the wind. The electric motor did not have the power to make way into the oncoming wind which was the only way to shore.

Overwhelmed and underpowered this man needed a tow to escape the Qualicum Wind. No one came to help him.

It was two women in a 12 foot Lund that hauled in lines, cleared the gear from the gunnel and braced the boats while the gentleman leapt with skill and agility into our boat. It was a darn good thing that he was skilled as a clumsy boarding could have endangered us all. He was mighty grateful as it wouldn’t have taken much to dump that canoe and Lasqueti was not his preferred destination. There could have been a widow made in Qualicum Bay that night.

He actually refrained from cursing the fellow mariners that did not come to his aid. I did not. I cussed the air blue the whole slow trip to shore as I tried to understand why no one came to help.

I ask you all, why did no one come to help a lone man bucketing about in a canoe in sudden rough water? Why did no one come to help two women in a small boat that were attempting a risky rescue? Even if unsure of what was happening couldn’t they have trolled by just to check that everything was okay? Was it too much bother to bring up their lines? Was my standing up in our boat, shouting and waving a orange life vest not clear enough? By the way, a recognized HELP signal is “waving your hands above your body”.

Boaters must have the Pleasure Craft Operator Card to run a motorized vessel in Canada. To receive this you undergo training and are tested on practical and legal matters of boating. Although I know you can’t legislate common sense or simple courtesy here is some key information: Rendering Assistance - Always keep a look out for other boaters signalling distress and/or needing assistance. If you have witnessed a distress signal or an emergency situation, you are required by law to help other boaters as long as it is safe to do so.

Back on shore tonight the wind is howling around the cottage. I hope you folks who enjoyed fishing off the Big Qualicum River this evening are disquieted in your beds. Perhaps you misunderstood a cry for help. Next time you’ll help…won’t you?




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