Courage on Call

Alex Muir retires from active duty after 33 years with Oak Bay Sea Rescue

Alex Muir demonstrates safety skills to his crew.

Alex Muir demonstrates safety skills to his crew.

If there’s no substitute for experience, in Alex Muir, Oak Bay Sea Rescue has more than they could hope for.

Muir recently retired from active duty after 33 years on the water with the local search and rescue station.

Coming in from his final training run, Muir’s crew gave him the helm, and he took thee boat through a few manoeuvers.

One member said, “I didn’t know the boat could do that,” Muir recalls with a chuckle.

Clay Evans, Superintendent Marine Search and Rescue Canadian Coast Guard, started at Oak Bay Sea Rescue with Muir and others back in the early 1980s.

“I think that the success of RCM-SAR Unit 33 Oak Bay is very much due to Alex’s decades of effort,” Evans says.

“It takes a special kind of person to volunteer and give up their free time, sometimes at three in the morning when the winds are howling, and Alex is one of those people.

“He and all of those who have volunteered at the Oak Bay unit should be very proud of their life-saving legacy. Oak Bay Sea Rescue remains a critical component of the federal SAR system on Southern Vancouver Island,” Evans says.

Based at the Oak Bay Marina, Oak Bay Sea Rescue answers calls stemming from weather changes, others from lapses of boater attention, and others still from medical emergencies. Each is at the heart of why search and rescue volunteers do what they do.

“The weather is so changeable. It can be pretty merciless if you’re out there and the boat is being tossed and turned,” Muir said recalling one vicious storm that blew up out of nowhere on a Victoria Day weekend, when waters were packed with boats.

A long day ensued, from tracking kayakers forced to take shelter in Cadboro Bay to others stuck out in the islands. “Fortunately everybody that weekend got home safety. I know of another time that wasn’t the case.”

Raised on the West Coast, after graduating from Belmont Secondary and the University of Victoria, a career in computers took Muir east for a time, but on his return home, his mother-in-law introduced him to Oak Bay Sea Rescue.

“I found out about this and I had all this boating experience and I thought I should put it to some use,” Muir says. “Search and rescue was just a way of giving back and helping people.”

The year was 1983, and at the time the organization operated under the Provincial Emergency Program. When PEP withdrew from marine search and rescue the next year, the Oak Bay group joined the Canadian Marine Rescue Auxiliary Unit 35 Victoria, renamed Unit 35 Victoria-Oak Bay.

Muir became president of Oak Bay Sea Rescue Society in 1986 and later unit leader of Unit 35. When the Victoria station closed due to lack of crews, he and a few others from Oak Bay began an aggressive recruiting and training program, re-establishing the Victoria station and helping found the Victoria Marine Rescue Society. Once the Victoria station was fully restored and active, the units were split into Station 35 Victoria and Station 33 Oak Bay.

As Oak Bay president, Muir established fundraising to allow the station to purchase its first high-speed, all-weather rescue craft.

At a national level, Muir urged greater self-sufficiency for the regions. Recognizing the need for better funding, the Coast Guard increased budgets and money was allocated for hiring an executive officer in each region. With this also came a name change to Canadian Coast Guard Auxiliary to improve the image and clarify the role of the organization.

Regionally, Muir pushed for better understanding of the stations’ capabilities. A comprehensive survey of stations followed, leading to both a document that guided the development of training and crewing standards, and the move to standardized all-weather, high-speed rescue craft.

“I never dreamed it would get this far in my lifetime,” Muir says.

“From the days when we had a radio, compass, first aid kit and tow line and away we went…to have radar is just such a vast improvement and now to have GPS, it’s just such a vast improvement (again).”

Terry Calveley, president, Oak Bay Sea Rescue Society, commends Muir’s dedication.

“He’s been just such a fixture really for 33 years, right from the get-go, both regionally and locally,” she says. “He’s just been part of it the whole way.”

Working both at the administrative level and as an active-duty coxswain requires significant time and commitment, she adds.

“As coxswain, you have the responsibility of taking new crew under your wing and teaching them. A lot of it is how you work together a team,” Calveley says. As a leader you really are helping to form their experience.”

While boating gear and training has improved so that sea-farers are often knowledgeable about local waters and their risks, Muir recalls a time where an experienced kayaker was practicing his roll-overs and dislocated his shoulder.

Sometimes new paddlers can also be deceived by the seemingly calm waters off Willows Beach, not realizing that the barrier provided by the off-shore islands creates a false sense of calm.

“If you get into trouble out there, the currents can sweep you away very fast,” Muir says.

Beyond the Oak Bay coastline, volunteers cover all of Saanich’s oceanfront and into the Saanich Peninsula. A lot of the members come from Saanich, Muir notes.

Like volunteer firefighters, members are called to action via their cellphones – a far cry from the old days of pagers and carrying a pocketful of quarters in case you needed to find a payphone.

While technology has brought the biggest change in the organization since he started, when a map and compass was key moving about on the water and volunteers used their own vessels, today crews still learn the old school basics, ready in case technology fails. “You have to be prepared for anything,” Muir says.

Outfitted with the right gear and the right boat for the local environment, the crew can put their extensive training to work, knowing “the boat will get them home safely.”

From their all-weather survival suits to the equipment each member carries in their vest, to the vessel under their feet, “our equipment is so vastly superior in every respect,” Muir says. “They’re just so much safer.”

Where other parts of Canada are typically quieter in the winter, not so here on the West Coast.

“I’ve had calls on Christmas Day and the very next day on Boxing Day I had another call,” Muir recalls. “People boat here all year-round.”

One call took them to a boat quickly taking on water after hitting a rock. They couldn’t get to the hole to fix it, but the sea rescue crew managed to pump the water out fast enough to keep the boat afloat and get it to safety. “You come away from that thinking wow, we actually saved that boat,” Muir says.

Favourite memories include returning to Oak Bay from the Inner Harbour during a storm one night, as lightening flashes illuminated the city skyline. Another time Muir and his crew set out to rescue a mariner caught with no wind in his sails and a failed motor. “It was like being on a mirror, with a full moon and an absolutely flat ocean; it was magnificent,” Muir says.

Calveley expects Oak Bay will still see plenty from Muir.

“I know all too well the dedication it takes to be involved with something for so long,” Calveley says. “I have a saying, contributing to your community gets in your DNA and when you’ve had a taste of serving your community, I don’t think it ever leaves.”

Muir agrees, “it’s been a lot of fun over the years, and a lot of challenges.

“I look at the young people who are coming up and I’m really encouraged,” he says. “It’s wonderful to see that because it really says the organization is in a good place.”

With crews keen to continuing their training and certifications, “I know it is in good hands and it’s good to know my crew has a good coxswain  in charge who will do the job well.

“I’m just in awe of our organization and what we’re able to do.”

Oak Bay Sea Rescue: New boat needed

Oak Bay Sea Rescue Society (OBSRS) was formed on Dec. 12, 1977, with 12 volunteer boat owners, who at the time used their own vessels to respond to emergencies.

Recognizing the beating these private boats took in rescue and towing, dedicated vessels followed, first through the Provincial Emergency Program and later through Canadian Marine Rescue Auxiliary.

Boats created for marine search and rescue are unique to both their use and their environment, and the lifespan is about 20 years, says Terry Calveley, president, Oak Bay Sea Rescue Society.

“They look like the whale watching boats, but they’re quite differently built and quite differently equipped,” Calveley says.

At about the 10-year mark, vessels undergo a half-life refit, which Oak Bay Sea Rescue is planning for its primary boat in a few years, at an estimated cost of $150,000.

It’s back-up vessel, used for training and as a second boat when the other is in use or undergoing work, is nearing the end of the its search and rescue life, meaning OBSR is also fundraising about $400,000 for its replacement.

The society has raised about $100,000, and a major event is also planned for this summer at Oak Bay Marina.

As a registered charitable society run completely by volunteers, all fundraising dollars go to the fund, Calveley says.

Donations can be made through their website, obsr.ca, and tax receipts are issued for donations of $20 or greater.