The 12-foot, 6-inch Zodiac fitted with a 40 horsepower Yamaha engine is moored to a buoy just offshore at Queen’s Royal Park, where Paddle Niagara proprietor Tim Bala runs his summer camps and instructs novice paddleboarders on technique and water safety.
Unfortunately, some who head out on the water occasionally do so without the advantage of Bala’s lessons, and that’s where the Zodiac has come into play.
Back in July the Niagara-on-the-Lake native and his young Paddle Niagara staff watched a group of five pull up on the street, parking illegally. They unloaded their inflatable paddleboards, got their floating cooler and their portable Bluetooth speaker ready, and headed out on three boards.
“I told the boys to keep an eye on the water as soon as they launched,” Bala recalls. “They were just floating in front of Queen’s Royal Park. There was a southwest wind that day, and they weren’t paying attention to the current.”
Bala notes that it takes about as much time to get that perfect selfie as it does for a situation like this to become dangerous. And for novices on paddleboards, they don’t have the strength or the technique to safely return to shore against 30 kilometre per hour winds.
“You could tell, within half an hour, there were whitecaps out past Fort Mississauga,” he remembers. The paddleboarders, he continues, “were heading for the mile marker, and they weren’t going to make it back.”
Bala waded out to his boat and headed toward the mile marker. By the time he had reached the first couple, they had flagged him on toward the other couple who had drifted the furthest away from shore.
“It was two people on an inflatable board, they had passed the mile marker,” Bala says. “No life jackets, no leash, clutching their White Claw (hard seltzer can). They were extremely happy to see me.”
Bala pulled them into the boat, and also loaded up their board. He brought them back to shore and dropped them off at the Niagara-on-the-Lake Golf course.
“I headed back out and got the other couple,” he says. “The gentleman wouldn’t even look me in the eye, he was so embarrassed. And his wife asked ‘were we in danger? We shouldn’t have been out here, right?.’”
After dropping them off, he once again headed out to rescue the fifth member of the group, a male riding his board solo.
“He was on his knees now, in the chop out there, paddling back. You could tell he was not really making any headway. But he had his heavy metal playing on the Bluetooth speaker, he had his can in his koozie. And he was given’er. We threw him in the boat and brought him back. There were a whole bunch of thank yous, and away we went.”
With the Zodiac able to reach speeds of up to 50 km/h, the entire rescue took about 20 minutes. That group of five comprises about a quarter of the 20 or so people Bala and his team have rescued this summer alone. The boat was purchased specifically for such emergency purposes.
“The Zodiac is extremely stable,” he says. “I had an aluminum boat at home, but I just didn’t trust it for these situations. The Zodiac allows me to get up and move people around the boat, to pull people in or pull their boards up. I use the dock lines to tie their boards off. We’ve got a pretty good system down.”
As an experienced water sports enthusiast, Bala feels it is his obligation to help rescue people.
“With the amount of knowledge that we have, we can’t just sit back and watch someone go out there and do nothing,” he says. “I tell the boys and girls, ‘eyes on the river – if you see anyone going out on the water, keep an eye on them.’ We now have a VHF radio in the van. If it looks like they’re in distress, we can listen in to the American and Canadian Coast Guard.”
Bala will often approach apparent novices and offer them unsolicited advice on how to navigate the river safely. He also encourages his staff to be comfortable doing the same.
“It’s probably the same type of people who are going swimming up in the whirlpool,” Bala says of those who end up in distress on the water. “They just have no idea. They don’t think of it. They’re inexperienced and undereducated.”
One day Bala and his staff spotted a15-year-old unboxing his new inflatable paddle board at the beach. He pumped it up, then headed straight across the river toward the American side.
“Straight out of the box, no life jacket on,” says Bala. “I zipped across and warned him how difficult it would be with the winds to get back. I offered him a ride back and he accepted. I pulled the board to the boat and had him sit in the bow.”
On the way back to shore, Bala explained about the different currents, and how the boy could be more safe by staying in the shadows of the trees.
“He said ‘okay,’ then just took off again. The next week he came walking over with his father and thanked me. Even handed me a five dollar bill.”
He tells another story of a group of Americans who drifted over toward Queen’s Royal Park, not realizing they had illegally entered Canada.
Bala headed out with the Zodiac, pulled them in and returned them to Fort Niagara State Park. On his way back to NOTL, he was approached by the Coast Guard, who were wondering why he was entering Canadian waters. After telling them his reason for being there, he says they unofficially expressed gratitude.
When it comes to the rescues, Bala is happy to be another option on the river.
“When it comes to the Coast Guard, the Port Weller dispatch is easily a 20 minute ride to here,” he says. “A lot can happen in 20 minutes. If I have the opportunity to help somebody, you’re darn right I’m going to take it. It needs to be done.”
Most of the rescues have involved overconfident paddleboarders, but he’s also bailed out kayakers and people drifting on inflatables. He chuckles at remembering someone floating on an inflatable swan this summer that needed his help.
Bala points out that the pandemic has resulted in a boom for the paddlesports industry. Companies such as NRS, a manufacturer and distributor of inflatable paddle sports equipment, have reported a massive uptick in sales for all types of rafts, kayaks and paddleboards since March, 2020.
As an outdoor, naturally socially distanced endeavour, its popularity increased exponentially with COVID-19 in the picture.
The higher demand has meant more equipment on the water, but it hasn’t necessarily meant more people using the equipment correctly.
Paddle Niagara will not rent out its equipment to enthusiastic paddleboarders without the mandatory safety training.
“It involves 10 minutes on land, and 10 minutes in the water,”’ he says. “Just standing on the hill and looking at the surface of the water. All those different textures mean something different is happening with the currents. People understand it very quickly.”
And he doesn’t mind offering his safety advice to perfect strangers who haven’t asked for it. To Bala, that’s much better than a bunch of intrusive signs posted along the beach warning about the dangers.
Bala has spent his life on the water in one way or another, beginning in his pre-teen days enrolled in the junior sailing camp at the NOTL Sailing Club.
“One of the reasons why we started the kids camp,” he says, “is because I realized how important that camp was to me for learning water safety. There’s a new generation of kids in Niagara who are spending time down here using the waterfront. They need to be educated.”
Bala’s mission through his kids camps is to create a community of experienced and knowledgeable paddle sports enthusiasts who understand the currents and the dangers that the Niagara River poses to people.
With Paddle Niagara now in its ninth year in Niagara-on-the-Lake, that experienced community continues to grow in size, which can only lead to increased safety on NOTL’s waters.