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#GetOutside: Rescue At Sea

This week's instalment of #GetOutside takes place in remote Kyuquot Sound on the northwestern coast of Vancouver Island, where I was fishing for prawns with my uncle in May, 2010.

Most of the time, life as a prawn fisherman is nothing like The Deadliest Catch. The hours are shorter and the waters are calm. In general, the days are largely devoid of drama. Not always, though. This particular day started like the last twenty-odd before it. The alarm in the wheelhouse went off at five and we climbed up from the fo'c'sle blinking and yawning in the predawn. Three of us went down into the freezer to stack product for an hour while the skipper made muffins in the wheelhouse.

Then we ate breakfast and listened to the radio for a few minutes before hoisting the anchor and motoring out of our little overnight cove. For whatever reason we had an hour-long run to the first of our six strings of traps, and we sat around the table in the galley watching the trees and the mountains pass by outside.

Earl took a nap in the corner of the galley and I remember watching him and feeling more tired than usual myself. It was overcast outside and the season was wearing; we'd been at the same routine for weeks and there were still weeks to go.

A few minutes away from the gear and we pulled on our boots and our overalls and tromped out on deck to get ready for the day. The skipper slowed the boat and turned up the music and Earl reached over the side of the boat with the pike pole and pulled up the big orange balloon on the end of the string. He fed the line into the hauler and we started pulling gear. There are fifty traps per string of gear, and that morning it probably took about an hour to pull the string. It was a good haul for the end of May; about seventy kilograms of prawns all told, and we boxed them and weighed them and then I ducked down into the freezer and stacked them on the trays that would flash freeze the product as the day went on. I was just climbing the ladder out of the hold when I felt the boat lurch over and the engine start to roar. I poked my head back above the hold and saw Chad had his head poked in the wheelhouse as the boat picked up speed away from the gear. I climbed out on deck and glanced at Earl as I dusted the snow from my hat. Earl raised an eyebrow at me. "We picked up a distress call." I stared at him. "Who?" Chad turned back from the wheelhouse. "Some sporty's in trouble out by Rugged Point," he said. "We're going to see if we can help." Then he disappeared inside. The engine howled and the wheel turned up a tremendous wash as the boat sped across the inlet.

I ducked into the wheelhouse, where Chad and my uncle stood at the wheel, figuring out our course on the laptop and listening as a rival prawn boat communicated with the Coast Guard down the island in Tofino.

The reception was awful, but from what we could pick up a charter fishing boat had started taking on water in the open ocean on the other end of the inlet.

They were sinking, they said, and were sending off flares and mayday signals. We had the pedal to the proverbial metal, but the boat could only make about nine knots, putting us about two hours away from the sinking charter boat's position.

Two rival fishing boats were closer, as was the village of Kyuquot, but we weren't about to fish while somebody was sinking, so we monitored the radio and powered over in the sinking boat's direction. We peeled out of our wet weather gear and hung out in the wheelhouse, listening to the radio traffic between the prawn boat and the Coast Guard.

The charter boat, a thirty-footer with dual outboards and small cabin, was now attempting to speed back toward the boat launch at Fair Harbour, about midway between our location and theirs. They told the prawn boat that they believed if they stopped moving they would sink in minutes. We altered course for Fair Harbour and kept listening to the radio. A speedboat was setting out from Kyuquot with a hand pump and would beat us to the scene. The rival prawn boat stood by, but they didn't have a pump and so the distressed vessel sped past them toward the harbour, though they were still eight or nine miles away.

As we sailed we passed the Bastion, another prawn boat, as they hurriedly set out their gear before turning to follow us toward the sinking boat. The Bastion didn't have a pump, either. As luck would have it, we did. A few days before we'd set out from Victoria our skipper had installed a new deck hose setup behind the wheelhouse. It was powered by a spanking new hydraulic pump, and it had been nothing but a nuisance so far in the season.

The inflow hose had to be jury-rigged and re-rigged weekly to pick up water and the fire hose outflow hose was about five feet too short. The pump was spectacularly loud and could only be accessed by flipping a valve hidden about a foot off of deck level. We'd cursed the damn pump repeatedly thus far, but today it would prove its worth. We came up the inlet toward the harbour and came abeam of the channel to Rugged Point, and we pulled on our wet weather gear again and went out on deck to get ready to meet the sinking boat. Chad fiddled with the pump to reverse the inflow and outflow hoses while I wrangled some tie-up lines and installed them along the port side of the boat. Then the charter boat came into the channel and I stopped and stared. It seemed to glide over the water in silence, and from a distance it appeared as though nothing was wrong.

As the boat came closer, however, it was clear that the people onboard had a problem. The big Grady-White was cruising along at maybe ten or eleven knots, its hull pointed skyward on what must have been a sixty-degree plane. The two outboards were almost entirely submerged, leaving only an inch or two out of the water. A call came over the radio. "We've lost an engine. If we lose the other we'll sink." We squinted across the water at the crippled boat. There were four men aboard, scrambling around the cabin in flimsy lifejackets. As we watched, the speedboat from Kyuquot came alongside and tossed over a hand pump.

The men onboard grabbed for it and struggled with it, and as the boat sped closer to ours it became clear that they weren't having any luck. They clustered at the stern, frantically bailing out the engine compartment. Our skipper got on the radio. "We have a pump," he said. "Come alongside and we'll pump you out."

"We can't slow down," the sporties replied. But they slowed down regardless and I climbed up alongside the wheelhouse with a tie-up line and got ready to meet the other boat.

As I watched, one of the men climbed onto the Kyuquot speedboat with the pump and the bucket and then tossed the bucket back to his friends. Then the crippled Grady-White turned in our direction. They came alongside and after a couple attempts managed to throw me a line. I threw out a couple of balloons and tied their line to our guardrail and Earl tied up the stern. Chad chucked over the inflow end of the hose and the men grabbed it and shoved it into their engine compartment.

Then Chad turned on that loud, nasty pump, and immediately the engine compartment water spewed out across our deck and harmlessly back into the ocean. The skipper turned our boats toward the channel into Fair Harbour and as we pumped out their engine compartment the men onboard thanked us profusely and told us their story. The owner of the boat ran a charter business, and was taking his brother and his nephew and friend out for a preseason adventure when everything went wrong. They had no idea what had happened, they said.

They'd been offshore fishing for halibut when they'd noticed the boat reacting sluggishly. By the time they realized what was happening the engine compartment was flooded and they were sending out a mayday. The owner got everyone into their life jackets and then reached for the flares. We limped into Fair Harbour with the charter boat lashed up alongside us and the pump howling as it cleaned out their engine compartment. The boat gradually leveled and wasn't taking on any more water, meaning there wasn't a breach in the hull or anything so disastrous. In fact, we decided, the men seemed largely unconcerned at the state of their vessel as we guided them up to the fuel dock in the harbour. A couple of them pulled out their cameras and snapped pictures of our boat and our crew, while the other bemoaned the fact that his nephew had panicked and chucked his car keys overboard in the hustle to bail out the stern. We tied the boat up to the fuel dock and then retreated to the government wharf to tie up ourselves. By the time we made it back around to the fuel dock the men had disappeared up into the parking lot, where they'd huddled around the charter company's truck, trying to figure out if they could break in and hotwire it. "I owe you guys," said the owner. "Come by anytime and I'll owe you a whiskey."

We left him there in the parking lot, contemplating a call to a locksmith in Port Hardy, four hours away. We milled about in Fair Harbour for another few minutes and then we set back out again to eat an early lunch and try to salvage our day. As we ate, we talked about the rescue and the crew's seeming disinterest in diagnosing the cause of their peril. "They must have made a mistake," said our skipper. "They left a sea-cock open or the toilet or something, and they were too embarrassed to let on that they knew." We never got a chance to find out, anyway, or to take them up on their whiskey. The charter company packed up its boat and its truck and its camp in Fair Harbour and disappeared a few days later, and we didn't see them for the rest of the summer. We managed to salvage an okay day of fishing out of the deal, though that dastardly pump got the last laugh: the sinking charter boat had a rag in its engine compartment, and said rag was sucked up and mangled inside the pump as we tried to drain the compartment of water.

For the rest of the day we were picking out pieces of rag from the hose, and at the end of the day Chad had to take the pump apart and clean every component of fiber. It was kind of worth it, though, for the chance for some thrills and an unusual story. Nobody was injured in our little rescue attempt, thankfully. A couple months later, however, four men in a similar boat went out into heavy seas and capsized just north of our fishing grounds. The boat was found overturned and abandoned; all four men drowned.

A tragedy, and a sobering reminder of just how deadly the ocean can be.

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