Nova Scotia fireman helps rescue young kayakers off Cabot Park

Coast Guard criticized for slow response

Mike Carson
Published on July 29, 2014
Tom and Bettina Callary stand beside Tom’s kayak that helped rescue stranded kayakers off Cabot Beach over the weekend. 
Mike Carson/Journal Pioneer

CABOT PARK – A kayaking adventure that went wrong, ended safely for 24 teenagers from Camp Triumph over the weekend. Thanks, in part, to the quick action of a visitor who was enjoying Cabot Park beach with his family.

The campers along with six counsellors kayaked from Cabot Park to Fish Island, a distance of about two kilometres on Friday for an overnight excursion. When they were returning on Saturday afternoon, the winds had changed. What should have been a one-hour paddle turned into a three-hour ordeal.

Some of the youngsters were having difficulty making it back to shore at Cabot Park. Staff from Camp Triumph began aiding the young kayakers and were soon joined by a Nova Scotia man vacationing on P.E.I.

Tom and Bettina Callary witnessed the paddlers in distress.

“Tom noticed some points out on the water,” Bettina said. “They were really far out. Tom asked what they were. Slowly we started seeing a couple of pairs of kayaks coming in. They were landing at the beach literally 10 feet from us. They were rolling out of the kayaks, extremely tired and talking about how difficult it had been. Then we realized that all of those other points were all kayaks.”

She said the weather didn’t seem that ominous.

“It was a beautiful sunny day,” Bettina said. “There was a wind but you wouldn’t have guessed how strong it was. When they left the Island, where they drifted to was nearly 10 kilometres down from where they had left, and the tide was going out. There was a strong current. There was a strong wind. There were a few boats left in the water that just weren’t coming in.”

Tom, who is a member of a Sydney, N.S.-based search and rescue operation and a volunteer firefighter, realized the young kayakers needed help and he sprung into action. He grabbed his Hobie kayak and headed out.

“I’ve got this kayak you can peddle,” he said, noting that “Your legs are stronger than your arms,” so he was able to reach them quickly.

Bettina said there were four boats still out when her husband entered the water. One was a young man who was towing a young girl.

“Then there was another girl and a boy and they weren’t paddling,” Bettina said. “They were just totally spent. Tom told one of them to hold onto his kayak and he (the boy) couldn’t even do that. In the time he (Tom) spent helping the other one secure the boat, the one who was supposed to be holding onto Tom’s boat, drifted 300 metres away in 10 seconds.”

So Tom doubled back and got that one too and was able to tie the kayak to his.

The total rescue took about two to two-and-a-half hours.

“I towed in two,” Tom said. “The seas were rough. There was an off-shore wind blowing in our face all of the time. The tide was going out and there was a riptide. It wasn’t pleasant.”

Bettina said she didn’t know what would have happened if Tom had not been there because the Coast Guard was still 30 minutes away.

Jordan Sheriko, a counsellor at Camp Triumph, said he was disappointed with the response they received from the Coast Guard.

“When the first group of our paddlers got back to shore, they got the Cabot Beach lifeguards to radio the Coast Guard for help,” he said. “That call was put through. Unfortunately, we later found out that none of the volunteer Coast Guard boats at the Malpeque Harbour were notified, nor were any fishing boats that were in the area that could have helped. None were notified that there were paddlers in distressed.”

He said there was a Fisheries plane circling overhead to keep watch and the Coast Guard was supposed to be getting a boat ready, coming either from Summerside or Charlottetown.

“It was over an hour-and-a-half of me going out on the water with three other paddlers, two of which I was towing, while we were waiting for that response (from the Coast Guard),” Sheriko said. “When we chatted with the fishermen on the wharf afterwards, they were quite shocked that they hadn’t received any call from the Coast Guard.

“In a marine area like this, that should be prepared for changes in weather, that was disappointing. We were expecting and relying on that backup.”

Ray MacFayden, Maritime co-ordinator for the Joint Rescue Co-ordination Centre, said the Coast Guard did receive the call and went through the standard operating procedure.

“At 2:09 p.m. on Saturday we received a call from the lifeguards and we put a broadcast out eight minutes later,” he said. “We got a notification that there were some children who were unaccounted for at that time. There were a bunch of calls made to some Coast Guard auxiliary vessels, none of whom responded. None were available. They weren’t answering their phones.”

He said these standby crafts are volunteers.

“So they answer or they don’t,” MacFadyen said. “They’re either home or they’re not.” Twenty minutes after all attempts to reach the standby vessels failed, the Cap Nord was dispatched Summerside, but when the crew arrived at Cabot Park with their rescue vessel, the kayakers were already safe on shore.

“I don’t see anything here that looks unusual,” MacFadyen said. “What I see in the case file suggests that they called all of the local Coast Guard auxiliary resources. They worked their way through that list and then moved on to the lifeboat station in Summerside who then trailered their rescue craft up there.”

“People expect that when they’re on the water there’s going to be somebody there in minutes,” he said. “It’s just not the case. There’s not a boat everywhere waiting to rescue people. I understand that everybody wants somebody there immediately but the Maritimes is a big place. Once you go out on the water it’s not like being in the middle of town where you can call an ambulance and they drive down the street.”