“What is the Nature of Your Distress?” In Praise of Coast Guard Stations

Where there’s smoke…the fireplace works

19 May 2012  Montague Harbour, Galiano Island

“What is the nature of your distress?” Question routinely asked by Coast Guard Station dispatchers.

Slowly, over the Victoria Day weekend, in measured questions and responses, a drama unfolded over the radio.

A man called in on Channel 16, said a diver was down. Lost.

In Saanich Inlet, on the point across from Brentwood Bay.

There were two boats; the caller was on one and the diver was from another boat called “Corona.”

In fact there were three divers.

Yes, all were on the surface.

In the water.

One was bleeding, now non-responsive.

Yes, they were trying to get them into the dive boat.

The one who was non-responsive and bleeding, no, it was not certain he was breathing.

His lips were blue and pink foam was coming from his mouth.

Where should they go?

A nearby doctor who overheard this conversation—we all heard it; you are required to monitor channel 16 while underway in a boat—offered his services:  Just where is the diver? Where are the dive boats? What do they look like?

They are aluminum craft.

Oddly, no one answered more clearly. The doctor raced about (we heard the roar of the engine in the background when he called in), desperately searching for the dive boats.  He did not seem to find them.

The first caller returned to the channel. He confirmed that all three divers were on board. The Corona was proceeding to Brentwood inlet. He was preternaturally calm.  Who could be that calm? What were people doing out there diving in this cold water anyway?

Seconds later, someone from the Corona called. He sounded terrified, young, military in his precision.  He wanted to know where exactly he should proceed.  This was a navy dive team, he reported. The injured diver was one of theirs. The navy had been notified; they were sending a helicopter; to which dock in Brentwood was he to proceed?  We heard the motor behind him, his panic, the waves slapping the boat.  He turned to the side, gave someone an order, returned to the radio to speak to the Coast Guard.

Then silence. Nothing.

Within half an hour, two orange Search-and-Rescue inflatables returned up the Satellite Channel along the foot of Salt Spring Island to Ganges Harbour.


Later, as we were sailing by Ganges, we heard the same Coast Guard dispatcher, a woman, take a call from a boater in Ganges who had plucked a man who appeared to have hypothermia from an island in the harbour.

Was that the person who had been doing tai chi in the water earlier in the day? The dispatcher asked.


He had been checked out earlier and released.

But now?

He is known, the dispatcher stressed.

This made the boater who picked up this known and possibly hypothermic psychotic anxious that the Coast Guard wasn’t going to do anything, but that wasn’t true.  They were simply tired, or perhaps simply tired of this particular character and his watery antics.

Bring him in, the dispatcher said wearily.  Emergency Medical Technicians have been deployed. They will be in the harbour when he arrives.

Before we anchored at the end of the day, we heard the dispatchers handle three losses of power, a grounding or two, a sailboat adrift, a boat on fire—a holiday weekend, the first of the summer season, in the Gulf Islands.

Just a few weeks ago, as part of their budget cutting exercises, the ever helpful Harper government announced reductions in the numbers of Coast Guard Stations. Apparently, according to federal government wisdom, new technology means we don’t need quite so much aid on the water; we can cut down the number of Coast Guard stations.   We’re for setting Mr. Harper and his cabinet adrift on a cold day at sea, without offering any reply when they call. We think they could use a “corrective emotional experience.”

Driftwood and seaweed slime

We had our turn with the Victoria Coast Guard Station.  Last year, when our raw water pump failed, and we were in the ferry channel in Nanaimo, and there was not enough wind to sail, we called in to say we’d broken down.

No, no ferry was coming yet, but it would arrive, and then there would be trouble.  The Coast Guard dispatchers asked us a few questions, put out a call, and within five minutes, a nearby vessel, a sailboat, appeared to offer us a tow.  They brought us safely into a dock, where we were able to repair the pump.  A nightmare averted, without any real danger to us, to our vessel or to anyone else and their vessel, thanks to the voices on the other end of the radio. (For more on this incident, see Letters Hither and Home, July 31, 2011).

No matter how many precautions you take, things do happen on the water.  That’s why the Coast Guard Stations are there, and why we need them. Let’s go on staffing them! We desperately need people who will answer when we call, “And what is the nature of your distress?”


About Karin Cope

Karin Cope lives on the Eastern Shore of Nova Scotia. She is a poet, sailor, photographer, scholar, rural activist, blogger and an Associate Professor at NSCAD University. Her publications include Passionate Collaborations: Learning to Live with Gertrude Stein, a poetry collection entitled What we're doing to stay afloat, and, since 2009, a photo/poetry blog entitled Visible Poetry: Aesthetic Acts in Progress. Over the course of the last decade, with her partner and collaborator Marike Finlay, Cope has sailed to and conducted fieldwork in a number of remote or marginal coastal communities in British Columbia and Mexico. Their joint writings range from activist journalism and travel and policy documents, to an illustrated popular material history of the Lunenburg Foundry entitled Casting a Legend, as well as their ongoing west coast travel blog, West By East.
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2 Responses to “What is the Nature of Your Distress?” In Praise of Coast Guard Stations

  1. Marcia cope says:

    Cheers for the Coast Guard–we need them on duty.

  2. Phil Sigmund says:

    I don’t know what the Harper Gov’t is thinking, but it sure isn’t supportive of our coastal region.

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