Search and rescue mission tests nav skills

Several years ago I participated in a search and rescue operation in Canada’s far north. During the course of this effort, I witnessed some of the more noble of human traits: bravery, camaraderie, selfless community spirit, and the incredible human will to survive in the face of overwhelming odds. I also ended up putting to very good use the navigational skills that I learned the previous summer while on a training cruise with Ocean Navigator’s schooner, Ocean Star.

The story began on October 25 when 10 men set out in a 35-foot wooden long-liner, Qasaoq, to hunt walrus near Loks Land, which juts into the North Atlantic near mouth of Frobisher Bay. Frobisher Bay lies on the southern end of Baffin Island in Canada’s eastern Arctic. It runs northwest to southeast for approximately 140 nautical miles and is 30 nm wide at its mouth. Iqaluit, the only major settlement in the area, is located at the head end of the bay. The weather in this part of the world is capricious: sudden, violent storms are a common occurrence during the late summer and fall. Much of the Bay is frozen over from mid-November till early June.

The hunt was successful. The captain and his crew caught 12 walrus, about 10,000 lbs, and loaded them into the hold. On the afternoon of October 29, they made a course for Kuyait, an outpost hunting camp approximately 95 nm southeast of Iqaluit, in the teeth of a fall storm. At about 1900, the crew discovered that the boat was taking on a lot of water but were unable to determine the source. Despite the two bilge pumps working continuously, the ingress of water continued unabated. The captain steered the boat closer to shore and radioed a message to Kuyait that they were having problems. By 2300, things started to go seriously wrong. The winds had picked up to about 50 knots with blowing snow and 15-foot seas. Then both bilge pumps quit. The water quickly rose in the hold, drowning out the engine, and the aged and rickety boat, battered by wind and waves, began to founder. The captain sent out a distress call that Qasaoq was sinking and that they were abandoning ship. The 10 men bailed out into a 16-foot tender boat, but almost immediately a large wave broke over the stern, capsizing it. Two of the 10 men managed to make their way back to Qasaoq, which, although three-quarters submerged, was still afloat. The remaining eight men were never seen again.

Meanwhile Qasaoq’s distress call had been received by two outpost camps, Kuyait and nearby Gold Cove. Due to unfavorable atmospheric conditions, Iqaluit could not be raised until early the next morning, October 30. Unfortunately, the first message that was conveyed to Mike Ferris of the Territorial Government’s Emergency Measures Organization (EMO) in Iqaluit, was that Qasaoq’s bilge pumps were broken and spare parts were required. It was not until one hour later, at 0850, that Ferris received word of the distress call, after which he immediately contacted the Rescue Coordination Center (RCC) in Halifax, Nova Scotia. Three military aircraft, a C-130 Hercules, an Aurora reconnaissance aircraft, and a Labrador helicopter were promptly dispatched to the area. In the meantime, Iqaluit’s EMO was pulling out all of the stops. At 1025, an Iqaluit-based (civilian) Sikorsky S-61 helicopter commenced the air search, followed four hours later by an RCMP Twin Otter, crewed by volunteer spotters from Iqaluit. Even commercial passenger planes were requested to vector their inbound courses over the search area.

The military aircraft arrived later that afternoon; the Aurora immediately joined in the search while the Hercules and the Labrador continued on to Iqaluit for fuel and repairs. As it turned out, the Labrador ended up being grounded for the remainder of the search due to serious mechanical problems. The search effort that day was severely hampered by high winds and poor visibility; in fact, both the helicopter and the Twin Otter were unable to make it all the way down to the presumed site of the sinking due to dangerously strong winds. The Twin Otter pilot later related that the stall-warning alarm, which is activated when the aircraft’s speed drops to 100 knots, went off several times. By nightfall, nothing of Qasaoq had been found, despite the best efforts of the searchers. The Aurora, normally employed for submarine detection, continued to fly transects of the search area well into the night until it was spared off by another Aurora sent up from Halifax. Both aircraft used their sophisticated infrared sensors to try to find signs of survivors, but to no avail. The Auroras would continue to operate almost around the clock for the duration of the three-day search, only landing for fuel and a crew change.

That evening, I received a phone call from a colleague at the Department of Fisheries and Oceans, Gary Weber, who asked me if I would accompany him and two others on the 26-foot Fisheries patrol boat Ivisaaruq to assist in the search for the missing hunters. The weather conditions at the time were pretty grim: gale-force winds, blowing snow, and temperatures hovering around freezing. Conditions when we set out at 0640 on the 31st were equally abysmal — 30° F with 40-knot southeast winds in blowing snow. They grew worse as we headed further down the bay. I estimate that the wind was gusting to about 45 knots, with 10- to 15-foot seas. The effects of the powerful tidal currents flowing against the direction of the wind resulted in seas that resembled a boiling cauldron. Handling the helm with the waves smashing into the boat, seemingly from all directions, was physically taxing. It took a great effort to control the vessel and prevent it from broaching.

Bad as it was, I was never very frightened, for I was in the company of an experienced and competent group of people. Tim Surette, originally from Nova Scotia, had spent much of his life at sea, working first as a fisherman and then as a fisheries officer. Jeetaloo Kakkik grew up in Iqaluit and thus possessed an intimate knowledge of the waters of Frobisher Bay. Gary and I had about an equal amount of experience from our respective travels throughout the Arctic.

Our destination that day was Gold Cove, where we were to spend the night before resuming the search the next day. We proceeded slowly but steadily down the bay, continually searching for signs of the Qasaoq along the way. We weren’t the only ones out there. Another boat, Rhonjalee, a 40-foot long-liner with a crew of 10, had left four hours before our departure. Our two boats were to conduct a search on both sides of Frobisher Bay. Ivisaaruq was assigned the northeast side of the bay, while the larger Rhonjalee was assigned the stormier and unprotected southwest coast. All the while the air search continued. After 11 hours of battling the sea and the elements, we finally arrived into the Gold Cove area well after dark; in these latitudes and at that time of the year, there are only about eight hours of daylight.

This was the only time during the trip that I felt nervous. At this point, we were navigating by radar and depth sounder with the free hands outside keeping their eyes open for landmarks and especially submerged boulders. One has to have traveled up here by boat to understand how precarious it can be, even in decent weather. Frobisher Bay is not well charted; only the main shipping channel as well as a few selected bays and inlets close to Iqaluit are covered in detail. The further you travel away from Iqaluit, the more you must rely upon your wits and observational skill. The only chart that covers the area in which the search took place is a 1:500,000 scale, which has a minimum of soundings. Even if a detailed set of large-scale charts were available, it would not solve all one’s difficulties. Two of the greatest hazards to inshore mariners in these parts are the hundreds of shoals and huge house-sized boulders which are scattered all over the bay, the latter being the remnants of the last glacial retreat. To compound the problem, the tides in Frobisher Bay, among the highest in the world, reach heights of 30 to 39 feet. This results in tidal flats that can extend almost a mile, as well as treacherous coastal shallows that, in some places, extend for up to two miles and that just conceal the rocky hazards beneath. Daytime navigation in this area is tricky; in the black of night, it is downright unsettling. In the Arctic, when things go wrong, you are pretty much on your own. Cell phones are non-existent, VHF is virtually useless, and HF radios are sometimes unreliable.

In any event, with my eyes glued to the radar screen and sounder, and the crew’s eyes glued to what little of the landscape that they could see, we crawled into Gold Cove and dropped anchor by about 1730. I have to say that the crew were the best eyes of the vessel, particularly Jeetaloo, whose knowledge of the area really came in handy. Charts and electronic aids are great, but there is no substitute for someone who has all of this information imprinted on his brain and who can make the right split-second decisions. By the time we arrived, Rhonjalee was already anchored in the cove. Sitting on her deck were the remains of Qasaoq’s wheelhouse, to which she had been directed by one of the search aircraft earlier that day. We all stood on Rhonjalee’s deck that night discussing the situation. Most of us were of the opinion that no one could possibly survive a sinking in those conditions. Finding the wreckage of the wheelhouse only served to reinforce this feeling. Even in the well-protected area in which we were anchored, the wind was howling with bone-chilling effect.

The next morning, November 1, at about 0800, we were directed by RCC to search the coast in a southeasterly direction. Gary was at the helm, and I was in the chartroom below, plotting DRs and shouting out compass courses. I also used GPS in conjunction with dead reckoning; in the fog and snow squalls, it was a boon. This is where the training that I had received on Ocean Star really helped. Things were moving pretty fast and furiously, but that intense training all came back to me, so I was able to keep up the pace.

At 1130 we received a call from the on-site rescue coordinator, who was directing the search from the Hercules. The air crew had located some debris just south of Gabriel Island, so we were ordered to proceed to that area. By this time the wind had abated considerably and the sky was beginning to clear. At 1230 we were advised that two men had been spotted sitting on boat wreckage; again, just south of Gabriel Island. After about 30 minutes, we saw the helicopter and Hercules circling the wreckage. By the time (shortly after 1300) we reached the survivors, they had climbed into the life raft that had been dropped by the Hercules and blown toward the wreck by the prop wash of the helicopter. Physically, they appeared to be in remarkably good shape. One fellow had on a survival suit, while the other had on a parka and snow pants. Both were soaking wet, hypothermic, and very thirsty. Mentally, they were in terrible shape. We asked them if there were any others, but their reply was simply: "they are all gone." It was a very somber moment.

They had been sitting on the wreckage since about midnight Saturday night: a total of 61 hours, during which time they were continually hammered by waves, wind, and sleet. They hung on by constantly talking and reassuring each other that they would make it through this ordeal. They told us that on the day before they had seen a boat and a plane, but that they themselves were not seen through the driving snow, despite their desperate attempts to signal.

That they survived for three days and nights under the these most brutal conditions is incredible. I tend to believe that their lifetime of experience, living and working under severe conditions, was the major factor that contributed to their survival. We whisked the survivors back to Gold Cove where a waiting helicopter medivaced them to Iqaluit. Both made a full recovery.

With the departure of the helicopter, the operation was effectively completed. We spent the night anchored at Gold Cove and departed for Iqaluit in fog and snow squalls the next day, November 2, at 0700, doing a sweep of the area on the way back. By this time, the remains of Qasaoq had vanishedto be listed as a hazard to navigation for the brief remainder of the open water season. We had only one minor incident on the return journey. About two hours into the trip, we spotted a floating object in the water several hundred yards ahead. Our hearts sank. It looked like a body, and it seemed to take an eternity to reach it. Much to our relief, it turned out to be a winter coat. It was turned over to the police upon our return, but we never did find out about its origin.

We arrived back into Iqaluit at about 1300 that day. Our fellow search craft Rhonjalee arrived the following day.

As for lessons, I will offer a few of my own ideas:

1. All vessels should carry enough survival suits for each crewmember. Furthermore, these should be donned in the event of encountering a severe storm or if there is even a hint of impending trouble.

2. Having a good grounding in basic navigation skills is a must in a search and rescue. You can’t find anyone or anything if you don’t know how to navigate properly. Moreover, this is a skill that should be learned before one is thrown into the breech, otherwise one will be fumblingalong and wasting valuable time.

3. Never give up. Most of us assumed that no one could possibly survive in such terrible conditions. The fact that two people hung on for so long demonstrates that humans will struggle on to the bitter end.

4. There is an old saying that "familiarity breeds contempt." The sea is a formidable power: even the most experienced people can get into serious trouble. Never underestimate the destructive power of nature no matter how experienced you might be or think you might be.

Robert Eno is an Environmental Protection Officer in Canada’s Northwest Territories and an ardent celestial navigator.

By Ocean Navigator