Disaster in Sooke and the state of Canadian Maritime Safety

On the 28th of September two kayakers went missing near Sooke basin. My thoughts go out to their families.

StormTide moored at Sidney IslandI spend as much time as I can sailing the pacific north-west aboard my Macgregor 26M 'StormTide' and have grown to have a very serious respect for the ocean around Vancouver Island. Sadly, I spend much of my marina time saying 'I can't believe they're headed out right now', or 'I cant believe they're letting their child pet a wild seal'.

The pacific north-west provides some of the most beautiful coast line in the world, and there's nothing else like watching the sunset on a mooring ball and retiring to sleep on the sea. But it also contains some extreme dangers -- from currents, wind, waves and underwater rocks as well as a poorly educated boaters who do not have the appropriate level of respect for the ocean.

Just a week or so ago I saw two people on Stand Up Paddleboards, no life-jackets, outside of the Oak Bay marina breakwater by Robson Reef. The currents in that area can reach 6KN even on a calm and sunny day and just a few minutes submerged in the waters there can be deadly. A darwin award was nearly won that day.

So how do we prevent these tragedies from occurring and what is wrong with the current safety systems?

First, if you're going to be in the Pacific, you need to have a VHF radio and learn how to use it. Get your Restricted Operators Certificate (ROC-M) and obatin a GPS enabled VHF-DSC radio and a Mobile Maritime Service Identity (MMSI) number. If you are on the water regularly, it will probably save your life one day. If I made the rules, a VHF radio would be a requirement for all vessels operating in the Ocean, including Kayakers and SUP paddlers.

Next, when possible, file a float plan. (I'll get back to this shortly)... A float plan is basically telling people where you're going to go, and checking in when you return. If you're in a Kayak and out for the day, that means drawing a nice little map of where you intend to be and what time you'll be back. If conditions change, update your float plan from the water -- in an emergency the latest info is really important.

Get a Pleasure Craft Operators Card. This course is required for most boaters, and while it can be cheated extremely easily, I strongly suggest that any boater read and understand the material and genuinely participate in the program. Its clear from my time on the water, that most boaters who get their PCOC do not understand the material and dont have the collision regulations sufficiently memorized. More importantly, its also where you will discover the safety equipment you need to have on board.

Beyond that, while its not a requirement yet, all boaters should wear a floatation device at all times when the boat is moving. Theres lots of nice inflation-type vests today that will not get in the way. You should also treat your boat like your car, and know that drinking and driving on the water is as bad an idea as it is on the road. I've often had guests on StormTide complain about my no-drinking and wear a lifejacket rules -- but when challenged, show passengers how hard it is to retrieve a life-jacket from the water with a man-overboard drill. If you cant reboard a tossed-over life jacket within 3 minutes, the pacific has probably won. The danger is from hypothermia, not drowning.

So once you've got those rules figured out, check the weather and make sure conditions are appropriate for your vessel, the tide, wind, currents, etc are all extremely important to your trip, and even more so if you're in a small boat or kayak.

So whats wrong with the safety systems today?

I dont think this government is taking Maritime Safety seriously enough. We've seen the cut-backs to lighthouse keepers, whom are not just sources of information, but local experts who know how their areas respond to specific sea conditions. If you have a VHF, you can call them to get their opinion on the projections. The move towards automated lighthouses completely does away with this extremely important local knowledge.

Next the CRTC erred when they allowed the VHF radiotelephone service (previously operated by Telus) to be removed from operation. Cell-phones reduced the use and commercial viability of radiotelephone, but they do not provide GMDSS equivilent service levels. Because of this terrible decision (CRTC Telecom Order 2010-377) boaters on cruising trips can now no longer properly file float plans and close them when they arrive at their destination -- instead, they must now file a 'will try to check in if theres cell service' float plan, or contact the Coast Guard Rescue Co-ordination Center (RCC) via VHF to call off a rescue attempt initiated by concerned family members. This makes everyone less safe on the water and simply should not be the status-quo in this modern era. The government should subsidize and return the radiotelephone service to operation on safety grounds.

I would also recommend that 3g-over-water coverage be improved so that boaters can have their GPS systems report their progress to the web. During our last cruise around the southern gulf islands we regularly uploaded KML tracks recorded by our smartphones to facebook, which allowed our relatives to keep track of our progress and had their been any issue, to send help to the right place.

The government weather office is also terrible at predicting accurately. A local site BigWaveDave.ca has now become the defacto-standard in accurate weather prediction. This sad state of affairs means that when many boaters see the official warnings posted and glassy water outside, that they simply ignore the warnings as inaccurate and proceed with their boating activities, and sometimes get caught out in the storm. Accurate predictions are important for people to put trust in the system, but our government is not doing a good job predicting weather reliably. The office should hire more local staff in order to maintain more granular prediction networks, and help boaters make educated decisions about when to hit the water -- posting a Wind 15-25 warning more days than not will not achieve that goal and boaters will simply ignore the predictions.

In all, there is much that needs improvement with the safety of our pacific ocean despite our having an amazing Coast Guard and auxiliaries only moments away and ready to assist when boaters make bad choices. Hopefully it doesn't take too many more incidents like the events in Sooke for the government to start taking maritime safety more seriously.

Oh and P.S., parents, seals aren't friendly.