2017 marked our 50th year providing marine search and rescue to the community, and plans were well underway for a wonderful celebration. It was going to be a very special time to look fondly back while taking a moment to enjoy who we are today. Of course, as with any organization, we are simply caretakers and this was also a chance to continue to build on the success of others and leave our mark for the future generations of PARA members to follow. The real icing on the cake was all of this coincided with Canada’s 150th and all of the additional opportunities to celebrate this year long party would provide.
But despite all of that, the 2017 boating season began with two simple words we normally reserve for the end of the season. As you can probably guess, I am talking about water levels. Sure we banty those words around a lot at the end of the year as we carefully monitor how low PARU sits while the fall colours begin to dot the trees around Frenchman’s Bay. So it’s not a discussion foreign to any of us. But in 2017, this conversation moved from our end of season agenda right to the start, even before we had put her back in the water. It was a topic that would dominate yacht clubs, marinas, and even main stream news outlets, as water levels across the Great Lakes reached near record levels. The normal winter runoff, coupled with consistently heavy rainfall, meant a very wet and for some a late start to the 2017 boating season. For us, with our regular home dock at Frenchman’s Bay Yacht Club under-water and our forward base on the spit just barely above water, it meant we needed to start the season at dock on the other side of our regular patrol area. Fortunately, as one expects in the close knit boating community, the kindness of others was clearly evident when Port Whitby Marina offered to host us until the water levels reached “normal” levels, and we could return to our home port. Time will tell if this is a bigger concern moving forward, but at least for 2017, it certainly put us and all boaters a little off kilter to start the boating season.
Of course it wasn’t all doom and gloom. Far from it. As with all our seasons, 2017 started in the dark winter months almost immediately after the holiday glow dims and the cold weather settles in to its regular pattern. This year, we tried something new and, given the success, will be sure to add it to our regular yearly schedule. Instead of a holiday party, this year we hosted our season kick-off with a review of last years’ taskings followed by an evening of pizza and drinks. It was a rousing success and a great way to introduce our newest members in to what we do while providing a little time for socializing. Sure it might be dark outside, but the warmth of companions old and new are always a pleasant way to shake off the frost. As winter trundled along our regular program of off-season prep continued. For our new members it’s the Canadian Coast Guard Auxiliary’s intensive Phase 1 and Phase 2 materials. A deep dive into boating terminology and marine search and rescue, these courses give them the knowledge that they will need to put into practical use once our vessel is back in the water. For the older members, especially those with leadership ambitions, it’s a chance for current and future coxswains to connect and share ideas, new and old. Beyond just the training opportunity it provides, our coxswain’s school is a real interactive open dialogue, meant to spark new ideas and openly investigate possible changes in approach/process. As we all know, change is inevitable and this is one of the ways we ensure that, as a unit, we tackle change with a positive and proactive mentality. As a result of this program, which we have been running for about three years now, we were very excited to announce two new coxswains to the mix for the upcoming season.
While we were all hunkered down in classrooms and yes even a swimming pool (annual abandon ship training) prepping for the season ahead, PARU was down in Kingston. In an effort to clean-up and, in essence, tighten up her interior we had sent her down to MetalCraft Marine. It was work that had been building over the years, and so it was real nice to be to have the opportunity to send her for a real professional make-over. Well, you can imagine the nervous excitement we all felt when in early spring, she was back at Frenchman’s Bay and ready for the big unveiling. To a person, none of us were disappointed. She looked clean, she looked sleek, and most importantly she looked ready for the year ahead. This, coupled with some additional grants we had generously received, provided us the opportunity to purchase additional equipment we could use to keep our boat and our crews cutting edge. This year we were especially grateful for the support given to us by the City of Pickering, Ontario Power Generation (OPG), and Firehouse Subs.
With off-season training completed, PARU back in the water, and our equipment stored on board, we were ready to go.
But before the official launch of the season we always end the off season with two key dates. The first is our Annual General Meeting when, among many other things, we get to honour our 2016 award winners including Rookie of the Year, Above and Beyond (2 very deserving winners this year) and our Lifetime Achievement Award. The second is our annual Operations Day when we bring all our members together to refresh memories, discuss new tools and equipment and share a laugh or two.
We are back to where this story began with water levels. Yacht clubs and marinas all over Lake Ontario were struggling with very high water levels. While some were luckier than others, it was bad news all around. It wasn’t just the regular boaters who were hit by this. We know all too well the impact felt by Toronto Island residents and local businesses. It even caused the cancellation of Paddle the Don, one of our favourite events. As mentioned, we found a temporary home in Whitby, but for those first few weeks, it was odd to see the lake so empty of boats. What is normally an exciting time of new launches was in 2017 an almost eerie silence. It was definitely a slow start to the season. However for our crews, this, while not ideal, provided us with a real window of time to translate classroom sessions into real-life experiences. During the off-season we had made the decision to begin our training crews at the beginning of May, instead of waiting for our normal May long weekend kick-off. With this added time and the reduced volume on the water, our newer members were able to get some real vessel time under their belts. For the veterans, it gave us the opportunity to shake off the mental dust that has settled and unshackle those long rusted reflexes from last season. Classroom time is great but on-water time is critical to building a cohesive team. When trouble brews out on the water, that is exactly what we need to be.
While May signals the “formal” start of our 2017 season, that doesn’t mean our events team aren’t hard at work, getting out there to not only talk about who we are and what we do but more importantly to spread the word about boating safety. There are always so many events our crews do, many without the vessel. While I won’t list all of them, there are always a few new ones each year as well as some classic favourites. 2017 was no exception.
The new events included participating as evaluators as HMCS York conducted their 2017 Search and Rescue Exercise (SAREx). It was a huge success, and enjoying it so much, we have already penciled it into our 2018 calendar.
In May, our Past Commodore was honoured to participate in Queen’s Parks Battle of the Atlantic ceremony, a touching tribute to the men and women who sacrificed so much those many years ago, allowing us to enjoy the opportunities we have today.
Of course our 2nd Annual Easter Egg hunt is always a calendar highlight, and this year was no different. As an added bonus, we were pleasantly surprised later in May when the cover of snapd Pickering revealed some familiar faces. As you can imagine, there are a few of these issues scattered throughout the vessel.
Last year, we started a Boat Safety day at the Pickering Markets. It was a pleasant day out for all. This year to kick it up a notch, we partnered with Nat’s Marine, Frenchman’s Bay Power & Sail Squadron and MADD Durham to continue the message about how to enjoy boating safely.
Finally, the loss of Paddle the Don was replaced this year by not one but two events. The Toronto Regional Conservation Authority (TRCA) wanted to showcase what Toronto’s local waterways have to offer. While we were not able to do so in PARU, we were ready, willing and able to support their two MomenTO 150 events which showcased the Rouge and Humber rivers. Our partnership with the folks at TRCA has always been strong, and our crews look forward to supporting their events. These educational moments give us the opportunity to not only meet local new boaters but also learn a little about the area we call home.
With those and many more events I could go on, but I want to focus our attention to our biggest event of the season. As mentioned, 2017 is our 50th year on the water, and we wanted to celebrate. It would have been relatively simple to plan a party and celebrate, but we like to do things the hard way. We didn’t want to just celebrate our history; we wanted to celebrate our local community as well. This meant that we started the day with our 1st, but not last, annual PARA Waterfront Festival, an opportunity to meet locals, chat about boat safety and show off our talents both on the water and in the dunk tank. As day transitioned to night, our crews tidied up for a real special night of celebration with our own families, our friends at FBYC, and some very special guests. It was a wonderful night.
Events, training and patrolling aside, we do what we do for the person in the water. 2017 was no different. We had a number of taskings this year which really drove home the message to our membership. Whether it’s towing in a broken yacht past midnight, or pulling in kayakers who find themselves in the water, or even rescuing those who drift a bit too far from safety of shore, helping others reminds each and every one of us the important role we play. We might train for days, maybe even years, and not once be tasked, but having the skills we do, and more importantly, the knowledge to use them with confidence when they are required, is the driving force that keeps all of us motivated and committed to continual development. Yes, 2017 had its share of those moments, but in the end we were able to bring everyone home; for us, that means we had a successful season.
It’s November now and the cool air is drifting in. Frost starts to speckle our morning windshields, and our wind-worn skin hides now beneath layers of clothing. The nights are darker, the leaves are changing, and squirrels scamper all about, stocking for the lean months to come. All of this of course means that another season has come to an end. It’s always a sad moment when we dock for the last time and the boat is prepped for removal. It’s a time to reflect on the past few months. It’s a time to pause and take a brief glance back at the collective and personal highs and lows. It’s at this time when some members decide, often reluctantly, to move on, and prospective members, perhaps catching a glimpse from the spit as we head out on to the lake, eagerly wait to join. New friendships have blossomed this year, old ones have been strengthened, and many more that have yet to ignite. It’s a time of change for our members, and yet at the core is the seasonal ebb and flow of PARA itself. As each season comes to a close, it’s a good time to remind ourselves that we are simply custodians of a greater purpose. We are neither the beginning nor the end, but we play a pivotal role. We teach, we learn, we build, we grow; it’s a cycle we repeat each year. The faces may change but the wheel of time rolls ever onwards. It’s our responsibility, our pleasure, to ensure we leave PARA in a better place than we discovered it when we first took our tentative steps on board.
So, you might ask, after such an interesting year, what do we remember most? Is it the cool summer nights coasting along a mile offshore? Is it the burst of adrenaline when a call comes in? Is it the pride one feels to be part of an association with partners blanketing the globe in a network of volunteer and professional marine SAR resources? Or is it simply the satisfaction one feels at the end of the day when all have returned safely to shore. All of those are worthy of such a title, but for the crews of PARA it’s something deeper than that. Its knowing when you step onboard each time, you do so with a crew you know have your back no matter the risk, just as they know you have theirs. And it’s knowing that, at the end of the day or night, you are going home to a network of family and friends that support you from afar. That’s what reminds us why we love to do what we do, no matter what the risk.
Until next year…