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Boat Safety / September 17, 2019

The role of search and rescue to assist boaters

Boating accidents happen and it is not a matter of if, but when a boater will encounter an emergency out on the water. All search and rescue services (SAR) have a focus on education, as that is the best way to avoid an emergency. But even the best laid plans could lead to a catastrophic situation. Orange Force Marine operates out of the great lakes and takes a role of search and rescue to assist pleasure boat operators.
Derek Niles, Orange Force Marine

Interview with Derek Niles on search & rescue operations

We caught up with Derek Niles, Founder & President of Orange Force Marine. Based in Ontario, Canada and is a  marine service company that provides marine scientific research and ocean technology, training, security, underwater operations, salvage and environmental response services. The company also plays a role in search and rescue for pleasure boat operators.

Q. You worked with the Canadian Coast Guard as Maritime Search & Rescue Coordinator.  Tell us the role that the Canadian Coast Guard plays regarding the safety of pleasure craft boaters?

A.The Canadian Coast Guard (CCG) has many mandates, but one of the more significant ones is in the realm of Search and Rescue (SAR). Their goal is to save 100% of lives at risk or in distress at sea in Canada’s assigned Search and Rescue Regions. This mandate not only extends to commercial vessels but all pleasure craft and recreational boaters alike.  If people end up in trouble on the water, it’s the Canadian Coast Guard who is responsible for taking action to render assistance (in whichever form available) in the hopes of saving lives.

Q. In your opinion are most pleasure craft boaters prepared in the case of an emergency?

A. In general, no, most pleasure craft boaters are not prepared in the event of an emergency on the water.

 In a car, if you run into trouble on the side of the road, generally there will be help close at hand in a short period of time (passing motorist, tow truck, etc), you’re in an area of good cell phone reception for communications and calling for help, and there is generally a means of taking shelter in the event of bad weather (inside your car or nearby homes, etc).  And emergency medical services are usually within 20 minutes.

I find that most pleasure craft operators tend to operate their boat like they would their car.  They tend not to consider the remoteness & isolation of being on the water, the challenges in communications, the time it may take for help to arrive, the potentially worsening weather conditions and the safe navigation and seamanship hazards that come with activities on the water.

While Transport Canada mandates what the minimum amount of safety equipment they must have onboard, often the knowledge of how to best use that equipment is lacking.  I find that most pleasure craft boaters often fail to consider, plan and prepare for the “worst case” while on the water.  This preparedness can often make the difference between just a challenging experience to talk with friends about later or a potentially fatal day on the water.

Don’t get me wrong, there are many pleasure craft boaters who are quite experienced, prepared and knowledgeable. These are the ones who respect the power of the water, understand & prepare for the risks, operate their boat safely, rarely have need of Coast Guard assistance and often have many enjoyable days on the lake! Even these experienced boaters can play a role in search and rescue for other pleasure craft operators.

Know how to make the marine call to save your life

Q. In your SAR career what are some of the best outcomes you have seen when a boater has to call for a May Day? In other words, what is the smartest thing a captain (boater) did to help facilitate a successful rescue?

A.The marine environment is an unforgiving beast and we operate fallible machines (boats) in the face of this harsh environment. It’s not IF you’ll have a problem of some sort, it’s WHEN. Even the smartest, most knowledgeable, most experienced boater can run into a mechanical problem on the water that is totally out of their control and could not have been prevented. This is going to happen at some point and knowing how to handle it is what will make for a good outcome.

One of the best outcomes I experienced as a SAR Controller was when I took a phone call from a boater who had broken down on Lake Ontario. His engine stopped working due to an unexpected and non-preventable failure to his ignition system.

First and foremost, he had reliable means of communication onboard. He had a charged cell phone and a Marine VHF radio.  

Secondly, he knew who to call and had that information handy.  (VHF Channel 16 or *16 on his cell phone or the Joint Rescue Coordination Center Trenton (in the Great Lakes) at 1-800-267-7270).

The caller knew his vessel well enough to identify that he had a problem that he couldn’t fix on the the lake and he took steps to ensure that his vessel wasn’t going to end up in further danger. In addition, he had put out an anchor to stop/slow down his drifting and stabilize his boat in the wind.

Most importantly, he knew exactly where he was and could relay that information to me. He either had a GPS Chartplotter onboard or he knew how to get his Latitude and Longitude position from his Cell phone.  (See your COMPASS app on i-Phones). Telling the Rescue Center exactly where you are takes the “Search” out of things and speeds up the dispatch of help to your location!

The call went like this: 

“Hi, my name is John Doe, my cell number is 613-XXX-XXXX and I’ve got a bit of a problem.  I left from Port Hope earlier this morning on my way to Cobourg, but I’ve broken down (my ignition coil failed and I can’t run my engine.)  My vessel is a 30ft white powerboat with a blue stripe and I’ve got 3 people onboard.  I’ve put out my anchor and I’m in position XX degrees XX.XX minutes North, XXX degrees XX.XX minutes West.  I have 75% battery left on my cell phone but I also have a working marine VHF radio.  We are not in immediate danger, there are no injuries onboard, we all have life jackets on and I know that it’s going to take some time to get to me. Would you be able to send someone to help us?”

 This is a perfect call, from a knowledgeable, experienced boater that knew how to best help himself and keep his passengers safe. This case had a fantastic outcome as we were able to send a rescue vessel directly to him and he was towed into harbour in a short period of time.

Common mistakes that lead to marine search and rescue calls

Q. We all learn from mistakes, and in boating no one wants to learn from a mistake, but in your career what are the three common mistakes boaters make that lead to emergencies?

A. I’m going to give you a few more than 3, but these are all common causes of maritime distress:

1)    Lack of Knowledge or Training – it’s pretty easy to do the online Pleasure Craft Operator’s Certificate (PCOC) course and then go and buy a boat and the equipment you must have onboard.  While this makes you “legal” it’s doesn’t make you proficient, knowledgeable or safe.  This lack of knowledge or experience or training is what causes boaters to make mistakes on the water that can get them into life threatening danger.  Education and training is critical to safe boating.

Safe Harbour Insurance recommends every boater to take at least a three-day operators course that includes time on the water with an experienced captain. This investment will be the catalyst to knowing how to save your life in a boating emergency.

2)    Maintenance and Vessel Condition – just because it runs, doesn’t mean that it’s safe to take out on the water.  As mentioned before, the marine environment is harsh on machines and the power of the water can break things easily. While maintenance isn’t fun and isn’t cheap, it’s better than being stranded offshore or breaking down in bad weather. Do the maintenance and get to know your boat inside and out. If you’re not handy or don’t have time to do it yourself, hire your local marina or marine service company. The boat is the only thing preventing you from going in the water – make sure it’s in good condition before trusting your life to it.

3)    Pre-Sail Checks – before you go out, check the boat over, make sure everything is working, you have all supplies and there is sufficient fuel (1/3 for way out, 1/3 for way back, 1/3 for safety) and supplies.

4)    Weather – Yes, it’s nice out now, but the storm coming in two hours could be dangerous for your small boat.  Check the weather forecast and plan accordingly.  (See point 1…)

 5)    Equipment Onboard – Ensure you have a reliable means of communication, you have the flares, whistle, flashlight, throw line, mooring lines, etc. required.  Bring an anchor.  Not having the necessary equipment you need is a very common mistake pleasure boaters make.  Yes, these items can get expensive, but losing your boat or a life is much more expensive!

 6)    File a Sail Plan – Telling someone that you’re out on the water, what general area you’ll be in and when you expect to be back is critical for your safety.  As mentioned, due to the remoteness of the water, sometimes nobody will see you or notice you are in distress.  If nobody notices you’re in trouble and nobody knows you’re out on the water, it will be a long time before help arrives…  (I once had to search the entire Western Basin of Lake Erie for an overdue sailboat who didn’t tell family where he was headed…)

Q.  What would be your top 5 recommendations to novice/intermediate please craft boaters to stay safe on the water.

A 1)    Take some form of training.  Canada Power and Sail Squadrons offers courses frequently in many marinas across Canada. There are many online course providers and many firms (including Orange Force Marine Ltd.) that will provide coaching, mentoring and safety training to help you develop the skills needed for safety on the water – and help you not damage your boat!

Boaters may qualify for insurance discounts if they have Canada Power and Sail Squadrons courses or similar. Ask our Safe Harbour Broker how you can reduce your insurance premium.

2)    Operate your vessel with safety in mind and within your skills and limitations. Be prudent, thoughtful and considerate to other boaters. Yes, boats are fun, but keep “Safe Speed” in mind as opposed to “how fast can this boat go!” Also knowing boat navigation rules is crucial to safe boating.

3)    Always take a means of communication with you – and have a back-up. Cell coverage is not guaranteed, so invest in a marine radio.  This way you can always call for help.

4)    Make sure your vessel is well equipped and maintained – enough said on this topic already!

5)    Consider the “What ifs” and the worst case. Having a contingency plan for how you will deal with issues that arise ahead of time, will ensure your safety and the safety of all onboard. Thinking through your response before the emergency happens makes it easier and effective for you to execute your plan under stress and duress.

Q.  Do you think that Canada has sufficient licensing, training and insurance requirements for boaters on both ocean and lakes?

A.  I believe that Canada could do a bit more regarding licensing and training.  To drive a car, you must take exams, gain real life driving experience and then challenge a practical test to prove that you can safely operate a motor vehicle.  A boat should be no different.

Pleasure boaters should have to demonstrate their knowledge, skills and proficiency on the water, not just on a written test.  Obviously, this would require a large organizational endeavour to implement, but it would improve safety of life at sea significantly.

In addition to new boater evaluation, there is opportunity for further practical training that is currently offered.  This will help new boaters develop the competency needed to not only ensure their safety, but also reduce the amount of damages they may do to their rather expensive boat.  Think of it as “Driver’s Ed for Boats.”  I believe the training, certification and insurance protocols present in the motor vehicle industry would cross-over to the recreational boating industry quite well.

Q. After you left the Coast Guard you started Orange Force Marine – tell us about your company and how you help when there are emergencies on the water.

A.From my vast marine operations experience with the Navy and Coast Guard, I really enjoy working on the water. It is a challenging and dynamic environment and through my 20 years of sea-going experience, I’ve come to realize and respect the power of the water and how fragile humans are in the face of it. Even a little bit of knowledge and experience on the water can make a significant impact in safety at sea.

Knowing what I know about the water (which has come from international experience on the world’s oceans and includes experiencing 35 ft high seas at over 100 nautical miles offshore) and I’ve realized that there is value in bringing my skill sets to bear in assisting our clients with safely and effectively performing their marine related activities.  While Orange Force Marine Ltd. (OFM) can be engaged to conduct commercial hydrographic survey or marine science work, we are just as capable of responding to environmental emergencies or in assisting boaters in difficulty and distress or conducting salvage work.

True to my Coast Guard roots, we still use our primary vessel “Orange Apex” to act as an auxiliary SAR vessel in Central Lake Erie. Should you break down and need a tow back in, or should you run aground and need to be pulled free or should you run into some sort of emergency on the water in our area, we’ll be willing and available to assist.

 As outlined on our website, “The goal of Orange Force Marine is to provide safe, professional, cost effective & efficient commercial vessel services while improving mariner competency, reducing risk and enhancing safety of life at sea through education & training.”

While our forte is providing practical support offshore, we would rather meet you at your dock to help with preventing you from having an emergency while on the water.

 We do this by providing mentoring on boating best practices, practical coaching on boat handling, safety & equipment inspections, and generating maintenance recommendations.  As distributors for many common marine products, we can also help you in choosing the right equipment and supply you with the items you need to keep you safe – teach you how to use them – and ensure you have an enjoyable time on the water. This helps to minimize the active role of search and rescue with boaters.

A big thanks to Derek from Orange Force Marince for taking the time to impart his years of experience and knowledge on search and rescue to assist boaters.

Resources for the role of search and rescue to assist boaters:

Canadian Coast Guard

Canadian Power and Sail Squadrons

BC Search and Rescue 

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