Sometimes the simplest solutions are the best, as turned out to be the case with a boat rescue last week.
Last Wednesday evening, a couple aboard their sailboat were heading from Toronto to Smuggler’s Cove Boat Club, planning to dock for a few days and spend some time in Niagara-on-the-Lake.
It was a trip they’d made before, but before they could reach their destination, their engine lost power, and there was no wind to help them complete their journey. It didn’t seem like a huge problem at the time, said John, who asked that his last name not be used. “It started off seeming to be an inconvenience we could deal with,” he said.
He and his wife, members of the Aquatic Park Sailing Club in Toronto’s outer harbour, in Tommy Thompson Park, are long-time, experienced sailors. It had been a rough trip from Toronto, and they were exhausted, so they decided to anchor, have some dinner, and with a bit of a rest and a clear head, decide what to do. A couple of small boats had stopped by, with some conflicting advice, and weighing what they were told and the conditions at the time, they felt it was a safe decision, he said.
But that quickly changed. In no time a north wind went from zero to 20 miles an hour, and they found themselves being dragged toward shore, and then grounded amidst sand and rocks.
“It was quite terrifying,” said John, as the situation became “a real problem, and we were overwhelmed, without the resources to deal with it.”
The good news, as they were pushed closer to shore, was that they felt their position close to shore was safer for them, but the devastating news was that their boat was at a greater risk, with nothing they could do to save it. A small, manageable problem suddenly seemed insurmountable for the seasoned sailors, who decided to call the Coast Guard.
Both Canadian and American Coast Guards, the Niagara Regional Police and the St. Catharines and Niagara-on-the-Lake fire departments ended up being called to the rescue.
NOTL Fire Chief Nick Ruller said he got the call Thursday morning, just after 1 a.m., and with an automatic aid agreement for water rescues, the St. Catharines department arrived as well, towing two Zodiac rescue boats, which could have been launched from the NOTL Sailing Club.
At that point, said Ruller, although there were discussions about how to proceed, the decision was made to focus on getting the couple off the boat, and because of the weather conditions and the shallow water, the coast guard couldn’t help.
Long-time waterfront resident Terry Boulton, who has been sailing since he was a child, was out watching the rescue efforts. He said he and his wife had witnessed a rescue in a similar situation more than 20 years ago, and he mentioned to emergency personnel the easiest and safest way was to walk out, help the couple off the boat and walk them to shore.
Ruller says it helped that he and some of the NOTL volunteer firefighters are also familiar with the water off Queen’s Royal, and some of the challenges it can present.
Ruller had been paddle boarding in that location with his kids just the week before, and was able to pull up some pictures on his phone that helped confirm the depth of the water, he said.
Two of the firefighters walked out, and were able to get the couple into their own inflatable boat, and walk it back to shore, he said.
“Everyone was focused on getting us off,” said John. “We had no idea at that time what would happen to the boat.”
As disturbing as it was leaving their sailboat, not knowing how it would be affected left sitting in a combination of rocks and sand, “the important thing was we were safe, thanks to the good works of the fire department and coast guard and everyone who helped. They all took great care of us,” John told The Local Saturday.
Once he and his wife were safe, and the boat “relatively safe” as a side benefit, John said he felt a huge relief, knowing how much worse their situation could have been.
It wasn’t until Friday that they were able to figure out how to rescue the boat, and that was difficult, “not knowing who to turn to,” he said.
“A bunch of people from the local boat club came out and tried to help,” he said, and although they had the right idea, their boats weren’t strong enough, and C-Tow, a professional marine service that helps boaters across Canada, was able to trailer boats from Barrie to help free their beached Casa Libre, a 16,000-pound Hunter 37.5 fibreglass sailboat. It was after 10 p.m. Friday when the boat was towed to the NOTL Sailing Club.
Matt Phillips, a local Bed and Breakfast owner who is also an experienced sailor, spoke with the boat owners, and watched the rescue attempts throughout the day.
C-Tow crews, aboard two tow vessels, didn’t arrive on the scene until 7 p.m. Phillips describes these last two summers as a hectic time for boat rescues — another result of the pandemic, as people who have never owned or piloted boats have decided to purchase all manner of watercraft, and find themselves in trouble due to their lack of experience.
Once the crew arrived and assessed the situation, says Phillips, it took a three-hour effort “to kedge the stricken vessel off.”
Phillips described the operation the locals tried earlier in the day first, which was also a kedging effort. With a rope from the top of the mast to one boat, off to the side of the sailboat, it is tipped to one side to try to lift the keel from the sand, as another boat, tied to the bow and a distance out in front, tried to pull it out.
Unfortunately the two boats trying to help were not strong enough and the thrust wasn’t sufficient for the task, says Phillips.
A family on shore and their kids had also waded out in their clothes, wanting to help, as had Tim Bala from Paddle Niagara, and along with the two boats from the sailing club “they were all giving it everything they could. As a lifetime sailor myself,” says Phillips, “I could feel the owners’ pain and wanted them to know that if they needed any shore support, I was there for them. I like to think fellow sailors look after each other in times of distress. I’ve only ever seen this kind of grounding in pictures or video, but never in person,” he added. “It was indeed a sad sight to see their poor boat, through no fault of its own, now beached.”
When the C-Tow crew were in the water, they followed roughly the same principle with larger boats, and after a number of “methodical, try this and try that,” its crew was successful, with a cheer sounded by a ghost tour crowd from the gazebo on shore celebrating “that Casa Libre was finally ‘libre,’ floating freely once again,” says Phillips.
“C-Tow understood the angles and exactly where and how to pull,” says John. “They were professionals, and knew how to do it. And we had so many offers of help from locals, lots of people reaching out. I can’t thank the community enough.”
He and his wife were offered all kinds of assistance, including a place to stay, but having visited the town before they had a local hotel in mind where they were able to stay, until some friends arrived with equipment John wanted for his boat, and to take them home.
Although it was too soon to know on Saturday, and a detailed inspection would be required, it seemed the hull was intact, he said. He suspected some damage to the keel, and his boat, he said, will likely spend the winter in NOTL at the sailing club, and be repaired here.
Ruller said the fire department gets an average of two calls a year for water rescues, and sometimes will receive calls from people who believe there is an emergency rescue required, such as when people tubing look like they’re in trouble, but when the fire department arrives they discover that’s not the case.
The automatic aid agreement with St. Catharines is great for the town, he added, with the larger city department having more training and more practise with water rescues.