To call 2023 a re-awakening might be a bit of a stretch. It has, after all, been 3 years since the Covid epidemic and the uncertainty and apprehension it ignited is now pushed back into our rear-view mirrors. It’s also true, however, that at the start of the year the reality of Covid and the all too painful impact it had both physically and mentally still hung heavily in everyone’s psyche; but its day-to-day impact, like an early morning haze was starting to dissipate, driven to the dark corners in the sun’s bright light and we, for one, were ready for the rebuild. Thus, while many of us, even to this day, see it as a heavy weight on the choices we make, from a real societal pressure point, it no longer carried the same concern it had back in 2020 and through to 2022. On the contrary, what we did start to see was the re-birth of many of the community events that had historically dotted our calendars, always a real highlight for our membership. It also meant, from a training perspective, increased opportunity to re-engage and train with search and rescue (SAR) partners, one we fully intended to take advantage of.
But as always, we get ahead of ourselves, as each year doesn’t start with the turn of the calendar, it starts back in the Fall as we look to fill our membership gaps with new members eager to leave their mark on our community and within our unit’s crews. This year was no different and given a significant number of openings, we were able to bring on board 10 new members at the start of the season and, after a few crew shuffles, add an additional 2 members in the early spring. With a net of 10 new members, 2023 was really starting to look like a wonderful opportunity to recharge the internal batteries of PARA Marine Search and Rescue, sprinkling in a few new faces to learn from and, in turn, re-energize our core veteran membership. Of course, as always there are those who can hit the ground running and this year was no different. But like matches lighting a fire, the flame does not always spark right at the first strike, it is often those which require an extra scrape along the striker which often burn the brightest, only time will tell. As always, however, we are very pleased with our new 2023 crew members and hope to build on the past few years of very successful membership additions.
For this year the offseason highlight was not the additional crew on-boarding or even the off-season training. The real excitement was all the work put in by our own members to, not only improve the internal forward cabin space and mid-cabin storage, but, perhaps more importantly, significantly address our battery and electrical issues that have been plaguing us over the past few years. Under the leadership of Jason B and our Project Manager, Duane, this hardy band of knowledgeable do-it-yourselfers and a well-placed external Marine Electrician, delivered a whirlwind of activity throughout the first few months. The spearhead of this work on the ground was Justin T, our Lead Shipwright, who successfully guided this merry band of handy folk, including Cyril, Rob K, Rob A, Zach, Alan, Marcus, Eleonore, Justin M, Paul, Clint, and Colin. It was a herculean task, finishing right before our launch, but delivered with overwhelming success by its leadership team. The real inspiration lay not in the work completed but, in the passion and energy exhibited by all involved. Without their enthusiasm and commitment during winter’s darkest days, we might never have truly delivered all we had hoped to when this project’s vision launched back in the Fall of 2022. And while the effort of the team is already legendary, it’s the leadership exhibited by Jason B, Duane and Justin T that really stands out. No surprise perhaps, given what we see every day but when we look back, speechless, one can simply say “thanks”.
With the vessel in good hands, and the frost starting to thaw, our attentions turned to training and crew readiness. With a winter’s chill in the air and the weeks of idle hands, one can excuse our members for a little rust seeping into their nautical mind palaces. Sure, many of us have done this for a few years and like riding a bike, you tend to reignite those memories fairly quickly, but a spark or recognition is required, nonetheless. Which makes the early months an ideal time to train and re-energize not only our coxswains and 2nd in commands on their leadership skills but all our crews on the core competencies and behaviors which keep us safe, our vessel secure and allow us to head out successfully to help others. This training will often focus on many aspects of “being a member” including core nautical skills (e.g., knots, charting, and search and rescue techniques) to general and marine specific first aid to “soft” skills of communicating and teamwork and finally to the ever-important skills of self-awareness and knowing when it is time to step back and take the time to chat with someone and share. It often surprises many new members when they realize the breadth of information our members absorb each and every year and it’s, in part, the reason why yearly refreshers are so vitally important.
But all work and no play, as they say, does not always make for an enjoyable experience. So, each winter we try to sprinkle in some educational and fun trips to learn from our SAR partners. This year we took a road trip to Joint Rescue Coordination Centre (JRCC) Trenton and to the Canadian Coast Guard’s Marine Communications and Traffic Services (Prescott CG Radio) base in Prescott. It was a great opportunity to put faces to names when we talk to them over the radio in the case of Prescott CG radio or on a call after a tasking in the case of JRCC Trenton.
Seem like a lot already? Well it’s only April and PARA Marine has not even launched yet! And we are still not done for our offseason, even as we work on the boat and participate in training, we are also actively engaged in local community events. This is one area, as mentioned, has suffered over the past few years, due to lockdowns and engagement restrictions. Fortunately, 2023 saw a real increase in these events. So, in addition to our yearly visit with the local city and town councils, we added a few new engagements including the Pickering Easter Parade as well as participating in a great new educational program offered by Whitby High School. And this was just the start of a full year of community involvement including not only Canada Day, Remembrance Day and Santa Claus parades in all our local communities but also participation in both the Whitby Chamber of Commerce and Ajax/Pickering Board of Trade Golf Tournaments, just to name a few. It’s always a thrill to work with members of the local community and share the importance not only of what we do but also to spread the vital message on boating safety.
And just like that, a whirlwind spring nears its end, our off-season maintenance wraps up, training moves onboard the vessel and its finally time for our crews to officially get back on the water. Our regular patrol season normally kicks off with a few pre-season formalities. The first to start is our new members’ learning journey with a 20-hour intensive course on core boating and search and rescue skills. Spread over two days, one in the classroom and one on the water, it’s a real immersive experience for our new members. It’s an opportunity to engage early with all our new members, regardless of their own boating history, and set them up to be successful once they are out on patrol and part of one of our crews. The second is our formal close to last season and kick off to start the new one which comes in the form of our Annual General Meeting. Held every April, this is an opportunity to celebrate our last year and invigorate all for the year to come. A highlight of this event is the celebration of our annual award winners. I think at this point it will come as no surprise that our Above And Beyond award was presented to the off-season maintenance crew whose collective time and effort was well up into the 600 hour range. For 2022, our Rookie of the Year was Jessica whose flexibility and willingness to help, even at the last minute was amazing to see. Click on this link to see other past annual award winners. The final, unofficial start to the on-water portion of our year is our Annual Ops Day. Normally this is a day we all get together and discuss a few key topics, go over our new equipment, and refresh everyone in our safety gear. It should come as no surprise that 2023 was a little different and due to some odd coincidences, we were required to split this over two nights. Not ideal but due to the flexibility of our membership, we were able to make it work.
And then, it begins… On the May long weekend, like clockwork, our regular season patrols kick off. The crews settle into their own regular cadence of either weekly or bi-weekly patrols depending on whether you are a member of a weekday or weeknight crew. It’s always comforting to jump back into a regular routine, it’s in a way, calming. Sure, some crews juggle around each year and we always have our new members to acclimatize with their crews, but there is nothing like the camaraderie one gets from seeing so many familiar faces. It does not take long for the newer members to fit right in and, hopefully, feel a part of the crew. We are a very welcoming bunch and once a few jokes are shared and a couple of common experiences realized we all tend to ease into the rhythm of the summer. Now each crew has its own “identity”, often shaped by the coxswain or some of the older members, but it is also safe to say all crews are embracing of others and its not uncommon for our members to try different crews throughout the year as they fill in for others on shifts. It is certainly easy to do so given we have standard operating procedures and consistent training practices; in fact, one would be hard pressed to differentiate one crew from another when out on the water.
You might now think well is that it then, is it just patrolling for the summer? No, nothing could be further from the whole truth. There are many activities which spice up the year and 2023 was no different. This year we had a number of opportunities to work alongside 424 Squadron’s Griffon crews and SAR Techs. These types of events are a great way for our crews and the crews of 424 to train for those moments when we might have to work together for real. Just seeing what these professionals can do is awe-inspiring and a real testament to the dedication and enthusiasm they put forth each day to save lives both at sea and on land. This year also saw us restart our regular training sessions with the CCG Cape Rescue out of Cobourg. Having worked alongside them on a few taskings, often late into the night out in the middle of the lake, it’s virtually impossible to downplay the importance of acting in sync. By following a regular summer training exercise cadence with these crews, we were able to build up an inherent knowledge and understanding of the capabilities of both ourselves and the CCG Cape Rescue crews. To learn more about these crews, check out this CCG Cape Rescue Video.
It really was a jam-packed season what with training, SAR Parter exercises, community events and patrols. But underlying all these activities are those events that are the very reason we, not only do all of those other “things”, but really the reason why we are all here, our taskings and call outs to save others who might need assistance. If we look solely at the numbers, 2023 was, while slightly off, still a busy year. We had 28 taskings with 1 task requiring 4 separate crews. We were called out (tasked while not on patrol) for 20 of those taskings. Our “time to launch” was, on average 10.14 minutes in total or 15.24 when our crews are called out. To put that in context, our crews were called out from their homes, jobs and other activities and were able to arrive at our base, prepare the vessel and then depart dock in around 15 minutes, very impressive and something we are extremely proud of and are always striving to improve. While we were stood down, tasking cancelled as either vessel safe or a false alarm, 9 times, we did conduct 6 tows and escorted a further 3 vessels to safety. In terms of time, our average tasking was ~ 110 minutes with our longest being 475 minutes or around 7 hours. It was a year of “highs”, helping those who might otherwise have struggled, and unfortunately “lows”, searching without success. It was a year of patches too, a few early in the year, a bit of a “drought” early in the summer followed by a flourish to finish the year. It just goes to show you can never let down your guard as you never know when the call will come. It’s why our crews are available around the clock every day from early April to the middle of November. You just never know when that call will come. At the end of the day, though, we would not change it for the world. We are all passionate about what we do and while why we do it may vary from member to member, it’s safe to say that for all of us our reasons our founded in a passion and commitment to help those in need.
And just like that, our season comes to an end. Looking back 2023 was indeed a re-awakening, an emergence from the fog of uncertainty. What once was, returned, albeit in a slightly different skin, one which fits but is a little less recognizable than the one from the past. What was once familiar now seems somewhat distant and what once was unheard of, well now seems commonplace. Yes, it’s safe to say that 2023 will be a year to remember for both those moments of delight and those too of heartfelt reflection on who and what we have sadly left behind.
But with the end of 2023, we joyously welcome the arrival of 2024. There are so many things to look forward to, new members, exciting new training opportunities and all new experiences. And to kick the year off we started 2024, as we do each year, with our tasking reflection, a night of lively chatter, fresh new faces and heart-warming conversation.
See you out on the water in 2024 and who knows we might look a little bit different…