The COVID-19 pandemic may have slowed business for the majority, but for local marine search-and-rescue crews, it’s done the exact opposite.
So far this year, RCMSAR5 Crescent Beach crews have been twice as busy as 2019, responding to nearly two dozen call-outs to date, compared to 10 in all of 2019.
And all while trying to navigate the challenges the pandemic has created around raising much-needed funds for training, equipment and maintenance.
“Because of COVID, so many people have – and rightfully so and good – (been) getting outside and doing a lot of things either on the water or near the water,” crew member Kristen Gribble told Peace Arch News.
“But that has also drastically changed our call level, in the whole Peninsula.”
Former station leader Scott Paulhus said Thursday (Nov. 25) that calls this year – 21 so far – have been for adrift or broken-down vessels (nine), searches (seven) and someone in the water (four).
Fortunately, none have ended in tragedy.
One that stands out, however, occurred in January, when the all-volunteer team was tasked to search for a vessel that was drifting into Semiahmoo Bay as the sun was setting.
Two young adults were found two nautical miles from shore, in an inflatable raft that had been rigged with a tarp for a sail, “lots of duct tape and scrap pieces of wood.” They were unable to steer or control where they were going, Paulhus said.
“They were cold, scared and a little embarrassed when we arrived on scene,” he said.
While COVID-19 didn’t stop the team from responding to calls, it did force them to change how they train; with weekly in-class training moving to a virtual format, and on-water training limited to five people or less at a time.
The number of new recruits that could be added to the fold also had to be limited, due to pandemic protocols.
The need for funds, however, has not changed.
Paulhus said while two organizations have “graciously” stepped up with donations, “we are well short of our annual intake.”
Gribble said every RCMSAR unit – there are around 35 in B.C. – is required to fundraise for their station. That effort usually generates around $50,000 per year for the local unit, which has made a tradition of two major events: a rock-and-roll dance that has been held annually for almost two decades, and Ducktona 5000, a rubber duck race staged near the Crescent Beach pier.
Typically, the unit also receives gaming grants.
Gribble said the unit’s finances are in reasonable shape at the moment, but with fundraising opportunities severely limited by the pandemic – all of their community events were cancelled – and word that gaming grants will be “significantly less,” the future is looking less bright.
“We are OK, but next year’s going to be difficult,” she said.
“We rely heavily on fundraising to keep our station up and running.”
Fuel is one of the unit’s biggest regular expenses, she said. This year, funds also went to a refit of their primary rescue vessel, Protector. After being out of commission for more than six months while work was done – during which time the crew used its secondary vessel, Vigilant, for call-outs – it returned to service in early November.
Gribble emphasized that local support for the unit has always been strong, and major campaigns that enabled the acquisition of each rescue vessel are was just two examples of that.
“We are fortunate in the community we live in,” Gribble said. “Most stations don’t have what we have.”
To help keep costs down this year, crew members – there are approximately 30 who have committed to being on-call 24/7 for one week per month – have been sharing equipment where possible, but that’s challenging with things like dry suits, due to the tight fit. One of the suits on its own, with no extras, costs up to $1,500, Gribble said. Fully equipped, that tab is “pushing $2,000.”
The Semiahmoo Peninsula Marine Rescue Society was formed specifically to raise funds for the Crescent Beach unit.
Anyone wishing to help support the team may do so online at www.rcmsar5.ca/donate
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