Sending Out An S.O.S.

The other day I was sitting at the kitchen table thinking about writing yet another little story about making edible food products from excess garden produce. As usual I had the VHF (very high frequency) marine radio turned on, monitoring channel 16, the emergency Coast Guard channel. I thought the following story was more important than the question of what to do with all the green tomatoes sitting on the back porch.

It was around 2 pm when I heard the radio come to life with a man’s voice calling from the fishing vessel, the Proud Canadian. He was hailing the Victoria Coast Guard radio station. The vessel was not far from here, a seine boat I think, that may have been fishing for chum salmon or was perhaps on its way to deliver its load down south.

I listened in alarm while the caller calmly told the Coast Guard that a member of the crew, one of five on board, had just been hit in the head by a tow line and was now lying, unconscious, on the stern deck of the seine boat. As the minutes passed, I heard the caller mention that the injured man was coming to. The radio dispatcher replied. Would a medical evacuation be required? Did the seine boat have a telephone? They had two, a cell phone and a satellite telephone, but there was no signal for the cell phone to work, and later when the Coast Guard tried to call the seiner back they said they could not get through on the satellite phone either. So the call continued on the VHF radio phone.

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VHF radio phone

I listened carefully to the real life drama through the receiver of my own marine radio telephone, located on the shelf above the kitchen sink. As I did, many thoughts raced through my mind. I have lived and worked on or near the water in remote locations for a large part of my life, and I understand how important good communication systems and protocol are in emergency situations like this. They can be a matter of life and death. This is a fact.

Within about half an hour the Coast Guard radio dispatcher in Victoria, about 300 kilometers to the south, had mobilized the Coast Guard Cormorant helicopter (which I understand is stationed at the Comox air force base). At the same time the crew of the seiner was told to prepare their deck for a possible long line evacuation. Closer to home, one of the Coast Guard vessels, the Vector, had also responded to the call and was launching its fast boat, a smaller inflatable, to travel at speed to the scene. The crew of the inflatable boat stated that they expected to be onsite in about forty minute’s time.

I could just imagine the horror and the panic that the stricken man’s crew mates were experiencing, as they no doubt went to his aid, possibly beginning to administer some form of first aid, as well as to stop whatever work they had been doing and at the same time keep control of the vessel. Luckily it was a calm day, one of the only calm days in between a long series of stormy ones.

Within about an hour of the initial call, I could hear the helicopter crew attempting to hail the Proud Canadian, but the radio was too scratchy for the radio operator of the seine boat to hear. Luckily the Coast Guard vessels could hear both sides of the conversation on their VHF radios and were able to relay further communications. Once the Cormorant, with its pair of paramedics on board, had identified the Proud Canadian far below on the sea, the radio fell silent for a time. I can imagine the scene as the helicopter crew, circling around overhead, assessed the situation.

Soon, I could hear the Victoria Coast Guard radio dispatcher as he relayed further instructions to the crew of both the Coast Guard inflatable and that of the Proud Canadian. The patient, now on a stretcher, along with the two paramedics who must have been set down on the seiner’s deck with a line from the Cormorant, would have to be transferred from the deck of the seine boat to the inflatable and shuttled to some place along the shore, a broad bit of beach perhaps, where the Cormorant might be able to land in order to pick all three of them up. It seemed that a lift rescue from the deck of the seiner was not possible, possibly due to the state of the patient’s injuries.

Bloody hell, I thought, seems a bit sketchy, doesn’t it? For the most part, the shore around here is practically vertical, rising straight up out of the sea in a solid wall of granite and topped off by thick forest that grows close to the edge of the sea. There are a few spots with enough open and level space on the beach where, at a low tide only, one might be able to land a helicopter the size of a small school bus, but they are far and few between. This medical evacuation was going to require some clever helicopter piloting.

Fortunately the Proud Canadian happened to be near one of those places when this accident occurred. A log sorting area at a nearby logging camp became the helicopter’s landing pad. There was more silence as I imagined the injured man being expertly loaded into the large Cormorant aircraft by his attending paramedics, to be lifted up and whisked away by the big, orange chopper to hospital, possibly all the way to Victoria or Vancouver. Less than an hour and a half had passed, which seemed pretty fast considering the logistics involved.

I have heard hair-raising stories like these unfolding, play by play, over the years that I have lived on the coast, and long ago when I worked on commercial fishing vessels out at sea, while standing by on the VHF marine radio. There are books filled with similar stories, and the professionalism of the Coast Guard is not to be denied. Thank goodness they are there when needed in emergency situations like these.

When I arrived here in 1992, my friend C.H. had already been living on this remote, off the grid island for close to two decades. It was not until 1999, when we had arrived at the brink of the 21st century that we finally got The Telephone.  Until that time the only form of telecommunication with our neighbours and the rest of the world, was with the VHF marine radio telephone.

That was the old fashioned telephone system, where one could raise an actual, human telephone operator, on a number of channels. Depending on one’s geographic location on the hundreds of miles of B.C.’s coastline of islands, inlets, and fiords, one could tune the marine radio to a certain channel and hail a radio operator who would patch a call through to anywhere in the world. The telephone company at the time, B.C. Tel, would issue a long distance calling card that one could use to charge the call, paying later when the bill arrived in the post. It was an expensive way to make a phone call. The system seems archaic now, but it actually worked very well, and when one was feeling all alone in the middle of nowhere on the B.C. coast, either on some fishing vessel out on the high seas, or tucked up in a lonely little cabin somewhere along the coast, the connection to the outer world provided a huge sense of security. Those telephone operators are gone now, the marine radio channels no longer exist, and the VHF radio is used solely to communicate between vessels, or outlying coastal homes, and for emergencies, in order to contact the Canadian Coast Guard.

Fast forward, to the era of the cellular telephone and the computer age beyond that. I have mentioned that we purchased our first real telephone in 1999. It was an analogue bag phone and looked like something out of the 1940’s. A fairly heavy, black leatherette-encased piece of equipment that was all battery pack along with a fairly large hand set with a button key pad, attached to the battery pack by a length of stretchy cord. Imagine something that looked like a cross between a briefcase and a man purse. This was our new telephone!

Unfortunately, there was no cell signal at our place and we could not make or receive a call at home. In fact there is no such thing as a cell signal in many areas of the province, let alone the northern half of Vancouver Island. The landscape on our coast is very mountainous. These islands really are the tops of mountains that rise up from the ocean floor, and cellular telephone signals cannot pass through solid rock, nor can they meander their way between the islands following the turns and curves of the channels in between the high, rocky masses. We have been told by representatives of the telephone company that there are just not enough inhabitants to warrant the placement of more cell towers in remote locations like ours.

To make a call we had to get in our skiff and motor down the channel for about twenty minutes in order to be in a place, floating around in the boat, where one could actually pick up a signal from the only cell tower in our area, at the southern end of one of the neighbouring islands. Several times a week, rain or shine, snow or sleet, whenever anyone went anywhere by boat, we would find that sweet spot, shut down the outboard engine, check our messages, and make any calls we might need to.

Keep in mind that back then this was often done with small children in tow who would have to be bundled up first for the boat ride; followed by the bundling up of oneself. The dog, young and bouncy in those days, would no doubt be along for the ride as well. Off we would go, often in the driving rain, to conduct our telephone business. Cell phones of any sort do not like to get wet. Did I mention that this was all be happening in a small open boat? The rain gets in.

Then there is the tidal current, moving one way or the other depending on the time of the tide, and taking the boat along with it as one drifted around chatting on the telephone, making dentist appointments, placing Sears catalogue mail orders, whatever. Of course, a bit too far one way or the other, and the cell signal would be lost, the phone call terminated. One would have to start the engine and motor around a bit until the signal had been regained, and then start all over again. Kids and dog bouncing around all over the place.

This went on for about five years! That was when technology made our old bag phone obsolete and we were forced to buy a new flip phone. Still no signal at home on the island though, so down the channel we would go to use our floating telephone booth. I’ve lost track now of the timeline and the precise details, but eventually some more complicated, not to mention expensive, equipment became available. Although the telephone company was oblivious to this equipment, we have a forward thinking dealer in the nearest town, who saw a niche for this specialized technical phone equipment, and so we began to spend more and more money on a series of external and internal telephone antennae, cellular signal power boosters, yards upon yards of heavy duty plastic coated wire designed to be impervious to the elements, and a whole lot of fancy stainless steel connectors of various sizes. On and on it went, as time and technology passed by in a whirl of digital waves, leaving behind boxes full of obsolete, dust-collecting equipment in its wake and bringing us to where we are today.

That is: each with a cell phone of one’s own, Smart or not, so that when one of us goes off to town and takes their cell phone with them, the person left at home still has a way to communicate with the outside world. After years of trial and error, and multiple equipment upgrades, we now have a Yagi directional antenna mounted to the top of an old aluminum trolling poll salvaged from our old fishing boat. This pole is lashed to a convenient fir tree that grows in front of our house at the edge of the sea. The antenna is aimed at a bit of a gap in the hills on the neighbouring island across the channel from our place. Sometimes a high wind will cause the poll to turn slightly and then all will be lost until one of us goes outside, again often in the driving rain, to correct the direction of the antenna. Sometimes the atmospheric conditions alone are enough to cause the signal to disappear altogether for a time.

There is a long piece of cable that runs from the antenna, about twenty feet in the air above the front garden, held up along the way by zap straps screwed to a couple of trees, and into the house through a gap in the living room window where the other end of that cable is attached to a small metal box that is the power booster. This box, placed on a small side table, is also plugged into the wall socket and it is the electricity (more about electricity another time!) that magically boosts the cell signal that has been picked up by the Yagi antenna as the signal is bounced back and forth and all around the mountainous islands in our area.

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Power Booster on side table

 

Finally, the power booster is connected by a short length of cable to an interior antenna, a piece of white plastic that looks like some sort of food storage container. This is, for want of a better place, screwed to a beam that runs across the living room ceiling; a very attractive addition to our interior décor, I have to say.

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Indoor antenna on beam

 

The current telephone arrangement took months, maybe years, to figure out. Many unfruitful days were spent moving the entire contraption around the house, both inside and out. For a while we even set the whole rig up on the next point of land, higher up and across the bay just along the shore from the house, using a portable 12 volt car battery for power, just to try and get a glimmer of a signal. Sometimes we would strike it rich and a signal would appear. We would make a successful call while standing under a dripping tree or on top of the roof, perhaps in a full blown gale and then just as promptly it would stop working, never to happen again. It drove us crazy. It is still driving many of my neighbours crazy, who like us have spent thousands of dollars trying to get their phone systems to function. These are people who run successful businesses and who require a working telephone service to do so.

We are very lucky that the cell signal and telephones now work most of the time at our house. The signal still comes and goes, but most of the time for the past year or so we have been able to make a telephone call as needed, unlike the neighbours. The signal is still not strong enough to allow us to access the Internet via the telephone company though. For that we had to sign up with a different company that deals in satellite Internet service. This also came at a price. It has taken decades to reach this stage in the communications department, and it is what allows us to participate somewhat in the modern world without having to leave the comfort of our home every time we wish to do so.

The thing is: if all these modern contraptions fail, or refuse to work for one reason or another there is always the VHF marine radio. There used to be three main Coast Guard radio stations on the coast of British Columbia. There was one in Victoria, one in Comox, about half way up Vancouver Island, and another far away on the north coast at Prince Rupert. The Comox Coast Guard radio station had been operating, helpfully and thankfully, for more than 100 years, coming to the aid of countless mariners and otherwise isolated and emergency-stricken coastal folk during that time, no doubt helping to save hundreds of people’s lives in the process.

Our former Prime Minister, Mr. Stephen Harper and his cabinet, in their infinite wisdom, lol, decided, among other things, that the Coast Guard radio station at Comox, B.C. should be closed. They also closed one of the busiest Coast Guard lifeboat stations at Kitsilano in the city of Vancouver. To his credit our likeable new Prime Minister, Mr. Justin Trudeau, decided to reverse that decision and since shortly after the election, the Kitsilano station has been reopened.

Despite that, the Comox Coast Guard radio station on Vancouver Island was closed in early May of this year, as decided in a vote by the former Conservative government’s Members of Parliament. Most of these MPs lived away from the coast and in the middle bits of this vast country where the word Coast Guard radio station meant absolutely nothing. Since the last election the people of northern Vancouver Island are represented in federal parliament by a young woman who is not of the same political party as the majority government, and our Coast Guard radio station remains closed. A former sailor I know commented that perhaps the ones who made the decision to close the radio station at Comox should have been put into a small boat and shoved out to sea for a while, so they could experience for themselves the bleak despair of not having the Comox Coast Guard radio station available to take their call.

Some of the dispatchers were retired from the Coast Guard, a few others moved to Victoria to join the operators there, and many of the old familiar voices were no longer heard over the airwaves in times of trouble. Now the Victoria station is responsible for the entire southern coast from Port Renfrew in the south to Cape Caution half way up the coast and all the many islands and fiords in between, a total distance of many hundreds of miles. The station at Prince Rupert covers the rest of the north coast up to the Alaskan border. In this day and age, this should not be a problem as transmitters and repeaters strategically placed up and down the coast allow for signals to be transferred for many miles. But there are problems.

What I hear as I listen to the VHF radio in my remote kitchen, is not as good as it once was nor as it should be. There are fewer people to answer a larger number of calls and often the response is delayed. On occasion during the busier summer months when more boaters take to the waters, calls have even gone unanswered. The Victoria operators, about a hundred miles to the south, are not familiar with the waters in this area, or with the regular mariners who frequently transit the area and who are often the ones to arrive first on the scene in an emergency situation. The more urban Victoria marine radio operators do not seem to understand that in most places along this coast there is absolutely no cell signal available, ever, and that telephones, cellular or otherwise are not an option for communication purposes.

Often callers in the more remote places cannot be heard by the operators at the Victoria station, and one hears other mariners, or local residents who happen to be listening, jumping in to relay the conversations. This puts a lot of the responsibility onto the backs of citizens who happen to be standing by on the VHF radio. It is important that these people are there, listening, and relaying when necessary to help others in need, but it should really be up to the professionals to answer these emergency calls.

The Marine Weather channels, of which there are two on my marine radio, used to be updated several times each day, by one of the humans at the Comox station ( I could recognize their voices). These voices have been replaced by some sort of vocal robot, whose computerized voice often mispronounces coastal place names, and who frequently cannot be heard above the static that has suddenly become commonplace on these channels. The weather channels are vital to safe boat travel on the coast, and are used by all manner of marine traffic from large commercial vessels to mere locals trying to plan their small boat journeys so as to avoid inclement weather conditions and possible danger.

This entire coastline lies along one of the world’s best known geological fault lines, and we are constantly being reminded to be prepared for The Big One. With all the talk these days about emergency preparedness, and the ever present possibility of a catastrophic earthquake taking place one day, somewhere in the vicinity, it seems crazy to me for all the eggs to be put in one basket, so to speak, with the Victoria Coast Guard radio station. If an event such as a tsunami were to happen, causing the Victoria station to be shut down, it would make sense for the old Comox Coast Guard radio station, which is relatively close to the major city centres in the south, to be available for communication purposes.

I’m planning to call my local political representative about this issue, if I can get through on the cell phone!

Over and out!

 

Copyright © 2016 Claudia Lake, claudlakeblog, Island Time
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3 thoughts on “Sending Out An S.O.S.”

  1. Bravo Claud! Terrific post. A bit long on detail, but that way you see how everything’s connected – your long phone saga, the Proud Canadian rescue, and the real-life effect of distant political decisions. Laughed at your cellphone-on-the-water tactics, v.amusing if one is not out there, frustrated & freezing to death! Loved the way you gave the ongoing rescue drama in intallments ‘as it happened.’ Did you happen to hear anything more abt the injured guy? (I searched for a rescue report on the Coast Guard & other sites, but found nothing.) Good luck with your local MP, even if she has no influence in Ottawa, she could at least publicize the situation – kudos for her and possibly stir up some local re-action..? Altogether love your blog, pictures are great, and of course, you ARE a writer!
    Love,
    ML

    Like

    1. Thanks ML, glad you enjoyed it. I know it was way too long, but as you said, the idea was to connect the dots in the whole remote communications story. I did not hear what happened to the fellow on the Proud Canadian, but hope he has made a speedy recovery. All the best, CL XX

      Like

  2. So glad to read about the wet West Coast from your point of view, Claud. All the action and none of the cold and rain!
    : ) Rosie

    Like

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