Rescuing a man at sea, putting out a flaming boat, night searching and hauling in a thunderstorm are some of the missions I’ve been on as part of a Coast Guard team. An exciting life indeed! The three summers spent with the Canadian Coast Guard were memorable in every aspect. When I was a kid I couldn’t go out the lake in the middle of a storm. My parents wouldn’t let me! But with The Canadian Coast Guard I was paid to get out there in storms. I loved it! Here are a few photos of this extraordinaire job I had.

Let’s start with a video

I am opening this topic with an edit of the best sequences taken in my three years in the Canadian Coast Guard:

What my experience as a Coast Guard was

To get an idea of what it is to be a Coast Guard you should watch The Guardian: the movie with Kevin Costner. Unfortunately I never got to jump off a helicopter but God I wish I did! A lot of what we do as Coast Guards is confidential and can’t be told here, but I will tell you as much as I am allowed to.

Summer of 2006

was spent on Deux-Montagnes Lake working at the Oka marina. I was blessed to work with an amazing partner and a friendly boss who new everything there was to know about the profession. A student in physics and a highly experienced seaman, Joël taught me a lot about rescue missions. That summer was the busiest in terms of rescue missions due to the fact that Deux-Montagnes Lake is hard to navigate. It has shallow depths in many places. It is that very summer that I got to save people from a burning boat. In stormy conditions I had to jump onto a deriving sailboat and tow it back to shore. Also I rescued people whose sailboat had capsized. Searching for lost people in the night was very exciting and stressful. Refloating boats was also part of my job! In short a very exciting summer job. The only downside was dealing with people who didn’t take us seriously because we were young and still going to school my partner and I. Until they needed help and found out how efficient we really were! Of course it’s not all adrenaline rushes; lots of moments are quiet when you are patrolling. A lot of the job is educating people. Also there is paper work and cooking involved as well as equipment maintenance.

In 2007

I applied for a boat leader position. Suffering from “C. difficile” when doing my phone interview, I still managed to class among the finalists chosen to receive the ten day training in Québec city. I was pleased to have the second highest score at the end of the class since many of my fellow partners had more experience than I did. Despite that really good score, I wasn’t given a boat leader position that summer. In the end I fell victim to a faulty post attributing system and left Québec city knowing that I should have been boat leader.

In spite of the flagrant injustice, I chose to remain in post and was happy to land a job at St-François Lake. Being based at the Valleyfield marina was a pleasant thing for me. I had a great summer with my partner Rémi and my friend Laura. There are less missions on Saint-François Lake but it’s fun to be working on the Lake where I grew up! Knowing every corner of the lake was making me so much more efficient and allowing me to take control when assisting Laura on rescue missions. Laura’s expertise on nautical regulations and Rémi’s great first aid knowledge were making us a top team. That summer went by so fast! Laura had an objective: increase the number of boat inspections, so I put in place a partnership between the two important marinas. Every pleasure boat owner who conformed to regulations received a discount. The objective was easily attained with hundreds of inspections! The most intense moments that summer happened during thunder storms of course: we had to rescue people whose boat wasn’t watertight, do trainings while far away from the shore, save a drunken man who had fallen off his boat in the middle of the night and tow a boat that had broken down.

2008

is the year of boat leading! That summer I finally get the promotion I deserved and the Lake I wanted: St-François. Of course with great power comes great responsibility! I have to assure the safety of my colleagues and people I rescue, make sure they stay safe and sound. Any discordances between staff people needs to be dealt with by me. The equipment is also your responsibility as boat leader. All these new facets only made my work more interesting though. I loved it! My skills in dealing with people made it very easy for me to manage my staff. Rémi was on my team and so was a rookie: Karine. Here are a few events that the summer incredible.

The new collaboration between marinas installed by me was still in place. Pleasure boat owners still got their rebate when passing the inspections, which made our job that much easier. As for trainings, the start of the season was enriching with the presence of Sébastien who, for a few weeks, took Karine’s post. Sébastien had a two year experience so that gave me and my team the opportunity of training beyond any comfort zone without risks. The whole point of training you see is to be able to put yourself in the shoes of the people you’re rescuing. Knowing what these people are going through and being able to stay in control makes the rescues that much easier. When Karine came back to the team I made sure to include her as best I could and get her up to date on what we had learned and experienced with Sébastien. She was a fast learner so she quickly adapted. In two occasions that summer I felt like we came close to meet our ends. Here are the stories:

The ghosts of St-François Lake

After super one evening we left Lancaster and headed for Valleyfield, our base. We were using the commercial ships’ channel when darkness came, accompanied by a light fog. Visibility was moderate but still decent. Soon we left the commercial ships’ channel and took the one which was going to take us right to the Valleyfield marina. Less than a nautical mile (1,852 km) away from base we hit a thick cloud of fog. This channel we’re on is narrow and shallows and the proximity of an island are making the whole escapade perilous! I decide to navigate the boat and give Rémi the lookout post. I can’t even see him from where I’m standing so I’m hoping he’ll shout if he sees anything! Karine’s eyes are riveted to the GPS. I’m navigating the best I can with my own senses, thinking I’m taking the right direction, when the GPS suddenly tells me the island in right in front of us so I stop! The surface of the lake is mirror and the fog seems to be everywhere: above AND under! Despite my experience, I get a little sea sick for a short moment. The feeling is as if the boat was floating on a cloud and could turn upside down any moment. The team is nervous, I can feel it! Using radar I attempt to locate surrounding objects: the island and the buoys! And of course I let our presence known using VHF radio and turn on the fog horns. I now feel confident enough to start navigating again: in the right direction! It feels exactly like navigating blindfolded! When I go into gear the second time I am fully confident in Karine’s ability to use the navigation instruments. Suddenly Karine calls out a buoy right in front of us. The intermittence of silence and the fog horn is making me nervous! Rémi finally sees the buoy and calls out to me: buoy on the starboard beam, approximately one meter! I catch a glimpse of it before it disappears into the fog. The apparition is ghost like! If not for the instruments telling me so, I would say the boat is immobile. But what a relief to know I can trust them! After a short time of anxiety we finally reach port safe and sound. My team mates have done a great job and I’m proud of them.

Second highlight: life dilemma!

We are sitting quietly after a good supper when the ringing of the emergency phone takes us by surprise. Rain is pouring outside and there are warnings for squall lines. Lighting is could also be a threat to us if we leave our shelter but this is a distress call. It’s our job to answer it! My team mates are suddenly high on adrenaline and visibly ready for action. Karine grabs a note book while Rémi is getting the needed equipment ready. I get all the information I can get from the “Marine Rescue Sub Center” and Karine is taking notes: a boat is in trouble because of a squall line near Rivière-Beaudette. I am told that the decision to go out or not is entirely mine! I consult with my team and everyone is for it so we put on our protective suits. While on our way to the rescue site I give a call to the Montreal radio line to let them know I’m taking the rescue call. Once the channel’s shallows passed, I head out to Rivière-Beaudette. Despite the strong rains we can all see that a squall line is in our way. Taking up speed I am wondering if I should go right through it or around. It’s quite a spectacle to have lightning striking right next to us!

I’m going as fast as I can, time is running out, but in my mind I can picture us getting hit by lightning and not being able to answer the call. I chase away the thought! Despite all the protection on the boat, a straight hit of lightning would do considerable damage and render the mission a failure. We have a saying in our field: one life lost is better than two! As cruel as it may sound this is our motto. In other words I will not risk our three lives to save less! I’m thinking about that as I am passing through the squall line. Should I have went around it to be safer, but lose valuable time for the rescue? The rescue call was actually sent by someone on the shore reporting the “struggling boat”! These calls are often unfounded! This sailor might not really be in grave danger. Scared, yes, but not necessarily in need of immediate assistance! I decide do go around the squall line and when we finally reach the reported boat, we realise that this was a false alarm!

Place of work

The inshore rescue boat service (IRB) covers most of Québec and Canada’s streams. As for the St-Laurent region, students who have obtained the Coast Guard post have to report to one of the six following bases: Valleyfield (GC-1201), Oka (GC-1202), Beaconsfield (GC-1203), Longueuil (GC-1204), Sorel (GC-1205), et Trois-Rivières (GC-1209).

The territory each team has to cover is determined by attendance. For instance, the Montreal area is smaller than others, but overflows with sailors. Inversely, the Valleyfield and Trois-Rivières regions are much bigger but require a lesser Coast Guard effective. Each lake is different in many aspects, but all of them are beautiful!

The routine

Whether the sky is shinning or hail is falling, Coast Guards are patrolling, training or going on safety missions. Members of a team can always choose not to go out if their safety is at risk, but our superior always has the last word. As mentioned earlier, part of the Coast Guard work is to do inspections and these take place all summer long. You get to meet all kinds of people: amateur sailors, experienced sailors and old sea dogs!

Disadvantageous aspects

There are no real hassles in this job, but there are things I liked doing less. Working for the government is synonymous with paperwork! All kinds of reports need to be filled out each week and every single action we take is dearly noted in a journal. This official journal is there to remind us of what’s been done on a daily basis. Of course you quickly get used to writing down everything you do and filling out the reports (It becomes second nature) so it’s not so much a pain in the neck after a while. Some of us actually enjoy the time spent writing!

Eligibility criteria

Students willing to apply for IRB work should check out this government website link: http://www.marinfo.gc.ca/en/emplois/promotion_esc.asp. All requirements and everything else you need to know is listed on there.

Training and working conditions

Every region has two teams of three people, one of which is a team leader. The teams relieve each other every week (80 hours of work!). Every candidate is chosen wisely and will undergo a 16 day training in the city of Québec where he or she will learn about the techniques and equipment required to do the job well. Again, for more information visit: The CCG Website.


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See you soon!
Sam

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