NEWS
09/02/2016 10:20 EDT | Updated 09/03/2017 01:12 EDT

The 'extremely rewarding' mission of the east coast's search and rescue hub

HALIFAX — The small boat is taking on water, its ripped sails flapping furiously in rough seas as a 68-year-old man struggles at the helm of the vessel in distress hundreds of kilometres off Newfoundland.

A Cormorant helicopter approaches from above.

Dressed in bright orange gear, flippers and goggles, a search and rescue technician steps out of the aircraft and is lowered down into waves reaching six metres.

The man in distress — wearing a survival suit — jumps from his sailboat into the choppy water. The foamy waves swirl around the bobbing vessel as the pair are safely hoisted into the helicopter.

"Despite people being prepared with all the proper equipment, the weather can change and Mother Nature may not cooperate," said Major Rhonda Stevens, the officer in charge of the Joint Rescue Coordination Centre in Halifax.

The centre is the hub for rescue missions across the region — from finding lost hikers, to helping tow a broken-down boat and rescuing sailors forced to abandon a transatlantic trek, as happened in Tuesday's Newfoundland rescue.

Since the May long weekend more than three months ago, the centre has dealt with 1,340 cases, a typical summer's workload, said Stevens.

The Labour Day weekend is typically one of their busiest weekends of the year, Stevens said.

"With it being the last weekend of summer before the school season starts, we have a lot more people that are out, whether they're in a boat or doing other recreational activities like backcountry hiking," said Stevens.

"People can often find themselves in situations where they require assistance."

There will be at least five people staffing the centre this weekend — closely monitoring phone calls and satellite distress signals — including a trained air coordinator and four watchkeepers from the Canadian Coast Guard.

They oversee an area that's roughly 4.7 million square kilometres, spanning from east of Quebec to midway across the Atlantic Ocean and halfway up Baffin Island.

The good news: Environment Canada said in an information statement Friday that tropical storm Hermine was not expected to impact Canada over the Labour Day weekend.

Stevens is reminding Atlantic Canadians to prepare for their outdoor excursions this weekend by having all the proper safety equipment.

For example, if you're headed out on a boat, make sure it is mechanically sound, that you have enough fuel, that there are life jackets for everyone onboard, that the radio is working and that someone on shore knows where you're going to be and when you intend to return.

It's these types of precautions that can make all the difference, said Stevens, as some search and rescue cases do not have happy endings.

Earlier this week, the centre turned over the case of a missing kayaker in Cape Dorset to RCMP after he did not turn up following an extensive search, said Stevens.

She said the 68-year-old man in distress off Newfoundland — rescued safely without major injuries — had taken some safety measures into account before setting sail, including having a survival suit onboard.

"When you hear the distress call come in and you know that there's a vessel taking on water or somebody in the water, all those types of cases are extremely rewarding when you're able to conduct a safe rescue."

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