Rescue volunteers tap into adrenalin

Oak Bay Sea Rescue seeks new members to help patrol waters off Greater Victoria's east coast

Oak Bay Sea Rescue volunteers

Oak Bay Sea Rescue volunteers

An Oak Bay couple in their 70s were enjoying a sunny day on Chatham Island, but perilously ignored the tides.

When the waters receded, their sailboat was left grounded on the beach, tilting sideways.

“When we got out there, I think the person that was most relieved was the husband, because his wife was so irate at him and she thought they were going to be spending the whole night out there,” recounted Kim Bentzon, unit leader with Oak Bay Sea Rescue.

“We arrived out there and assured them everything would be fine and transferred them on board (our) vessel. She told us just to leave the boat and (her) husband there, but we didn’t.”

There’s no shortage of stories from Bentzon, a 15-year veteran with the volunteer organization, nor from relative newcomer Paul McDonnell, who’s been with Sea Rescue for a year-and-a-half.

“I just wanted to join because I wanted to volunteer with something, I wanted to do something practical,” McDonnell said.

Practical it is. Volunteers train for new situations monthly and are kept busy: in McDonnell’s time with the group, he’s responded to 11 incidents.

One of those served as a learning experience for the network of marine rescue groups on the West Coast.

Last September, Oak Bay Sea Rescue was called out to help find a missing vessel and boater. Despite hours on the water, they were unsuccessful.

Six weeks later, that same crew was called out again.

“We were called out to recover a body,” McDonnell said.

“It was a Sunday afternoon and it was kind of a long drawn-out thing, because the processes weren’t really set up for us to recover a body … We had to ask for a body bag to be brought (to the boat).”

The volunteers are trained on how to haul live people from the water, but this situation was different, Bentzon said.

“When it’s a decomposed body, it tends to be a bigger issue, so there’s some things we learned from this.”

It’s not just about rescues though – the volunteers learn important boating skills like knot tying, they tow stranded vessels, extinguish fires and deliver fuel. They train for different scenarios for three hours each month.

Both men are involved for different reasons. McDonnell joined to help people in distress in a hands-on way, while Bentzon initially joined out of a desire to spend more time on the water.

The two agree on a few points, though: volunteering with Oak Bay Sea Rescue is not often comfortable and not always glamorous, but it’s always fulfilling and frequently exciting.

“I don’t think people join to be comfortable, that’s part of the challenge,” McDonnell said.

Whether it’s saving stranded boaters or saving marriages, after 15 years, Bentzon can’t let go of the thrill of the job.

“When the pager goes off the adrenalin goes. For me, it’s a really big high. It’s an exciting time to go out there and it’s really rewarding to watch the crew learn and progress.”

For more information on the program, or to become a volunteer, email recruiting_officer@obsr.ca.

ecardone@vicnews.com