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Man rescued from cliff after taking own boat to avoid BC Ferries travel

A Squamish resident's boat sank while he tried to avoid travelling aboard BC Ferries.
A volunteer and the boater look up at a cliff on Gambier Island where a Squamish man was stranded. The signal fires were on the upper most part of the cliff (left).

A man trying to avoid taking the ferry to the Sunshine Coast has been rescued from Gambier Island after his boat sank in Howe Sound.

A small cliffside area called Mariners’ Rest is a provincially designated site for burying ashes at sea, but on Sunday, April 24, it was where a man from Squamish signalled for help.

The boater was attempting to cross Howe Sound from Britannia Beach when he became stranded on the small outcrop on the west coast of Gambier Island. He told rescuers a tugboat and barge swamped his 17-foot boat with an outboard engine, coxswain Neil Ripley of RCMSAR Gibsons Station 14 (SAR14) told Coast Reporter. 

When his boat went down around 2 or 3 p.m. on Sunday, the man swam approximately 100 yards to reach the island, scrambled up the cliff face, and tried to summon help. With only his truck keys and a lighter, the man was able to start a few signal fires.

Reports from the Port Mellon area reached the SAR14 volunteers through the Rescue Coordination Centre. The SAR14 crew was able to confirm the signal fire with an RCMP constable who was positioned in the Twin Creeks area and was able to see someone waving their arms and calling for help with her binoculars. 

Four volunteers took the SAR14 emergency response vessel and located the individual on a cliff overlooking Mariners’ Rest around 5 p.m. 

“He was a little shaken up, but not physically in any difficulty. He was a little bit cold and tired, but had no injuries,” Ripley said. 

The man reported that he’d lost everything on board – including his wallet and I.D., his cellphone and a motorcycle – and had been passed by several commercial and recreational vessels since becoming stranded, but nobody had noticed him.

The boater was able to climb down the cliff to the search and rescue vessel, where volunteers brought him aboard, and gave him blankets and shelter. The crew retrieved floating items from the sunken boat, including a jerry can, two jugs of oil, and various items of clothing, Ripley said. 

SAR14 crew also reported a slick on the water about 100 feet long by 5 feet wide of oil or fuel to the Coast Guard. The slick is presumed to be from the sunken vessel.

Two of the volunteers went ashore to extinguish the signal fires, which were still burning. Then they took the man back to Britannia Beach, where his truck and a family member were waiting. 

“He mentioned during my conversation with him that he had come over on his own boat because the ferries were so clogged recently that he thought this was just a way to bypass all that trouble and be a master of his own destiny,” Ripley said. “But I think he doesn't have a choice right now – his boat’s at the bottom of the ocean.”

While Ripley has never seen a signal fire used to attract attention in his time with SAR14, he said it’s a well recognized signal known by mariners. His advice to boaters is to carry a "go bag," a dry bag with essential survival materials and a flare, tell people where you’re going and when you’re expected to be there, and to wear a personal floatation device.

“He was fortunate that he was able to save himself and attract attention,” Ripley said of the boater.