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Long underwear and lot of luck: SAR saves man in Sechelt Inlet

'Not the outcome I was anticipating': Elated rescuers find man who spent the night on Poise Island after swimming to shore from his swamped boat. He was hypothermic, but alive.

Dressing for conditions, a coordinated search and rescue response and a lot of luck saved the life of a man who spent a sea-soaked night on Sechelt Inlet’s Poise Island after his boat was swamped Sunday evening.

Missing boat operator

Mike Pearson and Kelly Cousins were in a crewboat on their way to a job site when they spotted a 12-foot aluminum boat partially submerged in the southern Porpoise Bay area Monday morning. As they approached, they saw no one in the boat or floating nearby. 

"Upon closer inspection...the boat was nearly full of water...but also contained many personal items that don't normally get left in a boat," Pearson told Coast Reporter in an email. "The most interesting find was a new model iPhone...on the floor of the boat, underwater. The outboard motor was down in the running position also."

They called a nearby tug boat captain and owner of MacKenzie’s Marina on Sechelt Inlet, Don Mackenzie, for advice, who then instructed them to call 911. The two men connected with the RCMP and towed the boat to a nearby dock.

RCM SAR Station 12 (Halfmoon Bay) was tasked to conduct a search at about 8:30 a.m., along with the Royal Canadian Air Force Transport and Rescue Squadron 442 Cormorant helicopter based out of Comox, Halfmoon Bay RCM SAR station leader Adam Hoult told Coast Reporter.

Through cellphone tracking, the RCMP had the last-known location details for the boat’s occupant, so they knew he had been in the area, rather than the boat washing to where it was found.

It was the helicopter crew who spotted something among the rocks on the north side of Poise Island. The RCM SAR crew on the water headed over and found the extremely hypothermic, but alive, man and transported him back to the government wharf where Emergency Health Services and the RCMP met him to get treated. All was said and done by about 11 a.m.

“I'll be honest, not the outcome I was anticipating,” said Hoult. It was poor weather last night and the water is very, very cold. “He was incredibly hypothermic, but he'll be fine.”

Storm swamps boat

It was about 6 p.m. Sunday evening and the man, who is from the lower mainland, was coming back from fishing up Sechelt inlet, he told rescuers. He’d been all the way up to the Egmont area and back, apparently, and was transiting through Porpoise Bay when a storm kicked up.

“One moment he was commuting back to the wharf,” Hoult explained. “And the next thing he knew he was swimming, he said.”

The man managed to make it to the steep and isolated north shore of the island, but as he had no warning his boat was about to be swamped, he had no time to grab equipment. There was no fire and no shelter when the rescuers found him: the man spent the night soaked and exposed to the elements.

What saved his life, was the way he dressed, Hoult said: a PFD, a heavier coat, long underwear (merino wool or the sort) next to his skin that provided insulation despite being wet. “He was dressed for conditions,” said Hoult. “If he had just been out in pair of jeans or something last night, I don't think we'd be having such a fortunate conversation.”

“He was still very wet,” said Hoult. “He would have been cold for a very long time. [The clothes] kept them alive. They definitely didn't keep them comfortable."

 The man's ability to move once rescuers reached him was very limited, Hoult said. "He probably would have experienced that mobility degradation early on.

"You start to lose that ability to use your body about 10 minutes after going into that cold water."

Pleasure craft operators take note

The event is an eye-opener for pleasure craft operators in the inlet, said Hoult. The swamping took place in an area people think is pretty safe and protected. “We come to treat this like a lake and kind of expect lake-like conditions. But the ocean conditions change very, very quickly out there. And they can be pretty brutal at times, but we don't see it a lot in the inlet, so it catches people off.”

Don MacKenzie, who had instructed Pearson and Cousins to call 911, has been at sea for most of his 87 years of life. His advice for people going out on the water is “Just use a lot of common sense.” As for the outcome of this incident, MacKenzie said, “Everybody — the search and rescue people, air sea rescue, RCMP — everybody ought to be pretty happy. It went like clockwork, in my opinion.”

SAR recruit’s first call-out

Hoult commended the rescuers. “It was incredible inter-agency cooperation with the RCMP, 442 Cormorant and our station to have a positive outcome,” said Hoult.“The technology and also the training of the crew on the 442 helicopter, part of our search and rescue military arm, they're top end and they really are incredible operators.”

Hoult wanted to recognize in particular the crew from Halfmoon Bay RCM SAR on-board the rescue boat. There was coxswain on-board John Howcroft, Michael Metcalfe and Duncan Smith. Smith is a new recruit and this was his first tasking, Hoult said. “And he undoubtedly saved somebody’s life today.

“I'm really proud of these guys right now.”

– With files from Keili Bartlett