It’s another warm night, hopefully the start of a real upward trend. A nice change from the cooler and damp days of late April and early May. No complaints, mind you, like all Canadians, we stoically take what we can get, accepting of the ever changing and fickle nature of spring weather, or at least we convince ourselves we do. This is, however, not just any warm night, no we are not referring to Game 7 of the Toronto – Tampa Bay series (our condolences to all fans on the loss). No this night is so much more than just a normal Saturday, it’s the final weekend before the launch of our summer patrols; our formal kick off to the boating season and the anticipation and excitement of our crews is building. While officially we launched and have been in service since April, our first call out and stand down happened to be earlier today, it’s these patrols where our members truly engage in the regular summer routine of patrols and the resulting weekly interaction with each other and our local boating community, something we all enjoy. To be honest however, and this might surprise some of you, there really is no offseason. Perhaps it might be better to think of two seasons, an active one, while PARA Marine, our vessel, is on the water ready to respond, and an “inactive” off season when PARA Marine is “on the hard” and the team preps for the season yet to come. It’s these off season tasks which actually start prior to the formal end of the active season in mid-November. So now you might be a little confused and wondering, what do you mean, how can the season start before the last one ends? Well if you want to know what the start of a season might actually look like, lets rewind the clocks a bit and take a look.
But before we take that figurative step back, let’s pause and think about how best to truly capture those early pre-season activities and then how we might effectively package them in a way which makes sense as a flowing narrative. If we think about these activities thematically, we begin to visualize a few key areas. There is the vessel, post and pre season preparations, and critical fundraising, necessary to support current maintenance and future vessel upgrades, equipment repairs and replacement. Finally, but no less important, there is crew preparation including training, new member onboarding and of course the unspoken but vital to our success, crew synergy or cohesion. When out on a call on a rough late summer night, bouncing along in 12 foot waves with little visibility looking for the proverbial needle in a haystack, a crew really needs to act as one, understanding each other in a way to ensure a free flowing and collaborative dialogue often before the orders are even issued. Building this synergy starts day one and its off season activities, while safely on land, where we continue to strengthen these ties deep in the middle of winter. All three of these core areas intertwine during the offseason to ensure that when we do arrive in May ready to launch patrols all the figurative “t”s are crossed and “I”s are dotted and our crews are ready to go.
PARA Marine, and her predecessors are really at the core of who we are and it’s how we as members, at least initially, identify ourselves as part of a “crew”. PARA Marine is the corner stone of crew building, it’s where we spend most of our time. So in a way, it’s our vessel which brings all our distinct personalities together and sparks those first initial tingles of a cohesive crew. How does PARA Marine spend the off season? Well it wont surprise other boat owners to know PARA Marine spends most of the time protected from the elements on land. Now that isn’t to say we dock, lift out and walk away, quite the contrary. This is the perfect time to provide additional tender loving care as a thanks for all PARA Marine has done for us over the years and in particular over the last season. There are always a few nicks and bumps and roughened edges which occur over a busy season. These eventually need addressing and it’s at this time our focus turns to completing any critical or other necessary repairs. This year it included replacing our starboard engine seals after some mid-season oil leaks. In addition, at this time, we try to complete any additional changes or upgrades necessary to ensure our launch into the season is as early and successful as it can be. In 2022 the focus was on upgrading our Raymarine electronics to Lighthouse version 4 as well as uploading the latest charts from Navionics. We also took advantage of this time to begin preparation of an updated schematic of our electronics to enable for more flexibility and foresight with our navigational and marine systems moving forward. Finally, there are the usual one or two mechanical updates which this year included work on our fresh water supply.
As you can imagine, the cost of running a fully volunteer search and rescue vessel is not cheap and requires support from many corners. It goes without saying our grass roots donors, including members, clubs, local boaters and past members, are key and we are always grateful. For many of our purchases, however, we often need an additional helping hand. Thankfully there are a few local governments and businesses who happily recognize the importance of what we do and graciously help us out. It goes without saying this support, often through grants from local governments (Pickering, Ajax and Whitby) is critical to provide us with the necessary freedom to flex, adapt and grow in difficult times but it’s also through non-governmental partners, e.g., Firehouse Subs or OPG, whose generosity over the last few years has been a key piece in the fundraising puzzle. 2022 was no exception, with additional funding this year we have been able to purchase key search and rescue equipment both for training and tasking purposes (e.g., AIS datum marker tracker) and core safety needs (e.g., electronic flare) as well as a few other key purchases. To build up this support takes time, patience and a tireless commitment. Fundraising is a lot of work and with so many wonderful causes to choose from its makes for a crowded landscape. It’s our job to ensure we identify and package the importance of our role in local search and rescue into small bite size pitches we can use to engage and elicit assistance. This includes annual presentations to all of our local government partners and pitches to businesses who are looking for opportunities to help. To achieve all of this takes time and our members spend countless hours and personal energy, alongside willing and supportive partners, identifying and raising awareness, and identifying the necessary funds to keep us afloat and safe each and every year. This work, as you can imagine starts back in the Fall. As always, we are very grateful and appreciative.
The final piece of this complex narative is perhaps the most complex because though we know people are the key to our success, people juggle many variables, each with complex priorities and realities often unseen to the rest of the crew. So as you would imagine, tapping into these complexities and energizing our people is where we spend a large bulk of our energy.
It starts as we wind down the season. As volunteers, we all give up a significant amount of time to do what we all love to do, you have to, it’s a significant commitment. But there is a real unseen but significant cost to this commitment as it impacts our family, our friends, and our own individual professional lives. Being a volunteer really does take a “village” of support. A day only has 24 hours and with our busiest season lasting from May to October we need to tap into as much of that time as we can. To give you a little context, each member will, on average, spend 75 hours during this time on patrol, in training, participating in a community event or on a tasking. Add onto that 10 to 20 hours in the less busier months and you can see the numbers really add up. There is a clear toll and despite everyone having the necessary passion for what we do, each and every year, life just happens, priorities change and tough decisions need to be made. Every fall, like clockwork, some of our members need to re-evaluate choices with their families and make the tough decision to step down. It might be for a few years, it could be forever, we do not know but it’s a choice we all have to ponder at some time and will often do multiple times during our own journey with PARA Marine Search and Rescue. But when the door sadly closes for a departing member, it excitedly opens for another new recruit. So once we have a sense of who might be stepping down, we begin the process to identify who might be a viable new member. Our membership page is always available but we only onboard in the fall once the pressures and time commitments of patrolling have died down. It’s a rigorous process, with multiple interviews and an overall intro session, but it needs to be. As with a regular job interview, we are looking to find the perfect match or connection. We hope to find those recruits who are not only a fit for PARA Marine Search and Rescue in terms of passion, energy and compatibility but likewise from a potential new member’s perspective, we want them to feel the same way towards our unit. We use this critical evaluation time to provide them with an open and honest representation of what their commitment will really mean and what is expected, as well as highlighting some of the many rewards membership brings. The hours you need to complete, the training you will need to undergo, and the responsibility you will take on if accepted. The recruitment “dance” focuses on finding fit within our culture and identifying those recruits who are excited about taking those first steps on what we all hope is a long and rewarding collaboration. 2022 was no different and so while we lost a few members, around 10 this year, we were able to onboard 3 new members and, as a special surprise, “re-board” one of our more experienced members who has returned and is excited to once again join our crew. It’s always great to have past members return as it demonstrates to us, at least indirectly, that we seem to have concocted a successful cocktail of culture, collaboration with a sprinkling of excitement something past members often mention they miss once they depart.
All members need training, as we all know the more we practice, practice, practice over and over again the more confidence we have when a tasking arises, or even while conducting a seemingly simple procedure (e.g., setting a course in a plotter), happens for real. The shift from practice to reality should be seamless and that’s how we want our members to feel. Our training encompasses many layers and each year we continue to build out those layers with two thoughts in mind. Our first priority is to ensure all our members are familiar with processes, both on paper in our operating procedures and while on the vessel and likewise know any related activities others might be completing around the vessel while in other roles (e.g., helm manoeuvres, line preparation, or radio communications). Role and crew activity awareness go hand in hand. You cannot be successful in one if you are not familiar with the other. Over time, as we build up this knowledge we, in parallel, identify and highlight the safety challenges and subsequent mitigating actions. Ultimately as individuals, of course, we are responsible for our own safety but as a unit, we need to ensure our crews have access to the right information and are given ample opportunities to practice within a safe environment in order to build up this critical knowledge and familiarity. By including these points in our training program, our members have the confidence knowing they are ready for the season and are able to act upon the necessary steps fully aware of important safety requirements (e.g., wearing the right personal protection equipment (PPE)), appropriate locational awareness (e.g., understanding where to and where NOT to stand), and the proper procedures (e.g., identifying the appropriate sequence of events and related commands from the coxswain).
Our second training priority is to build up a program which provides opportunities to all members, both those new to our unit as well as those who have been with us for many years. We want all members to feel engaged, and offering a training program with growth potential allows those members who might want to engage in a deeper understanding of say the helm role, to be given a platform to provide them with those opportunities including both hands on and insightful information necessary to success. In 2022 we will be launching our new personal progression log which will allow our members to track their progression during their time with PARA Marine Search and Rescue, from completion of the Canadian Coast Guard Auxiliary Central & Arctic’s Phase 1 and Phase 2 program, to that fateful day when they step away. This program will offer a variety of training options allowing members to focus on one or two key skills (e.g., Navigation, Radio, Deck Hand, etc). It’s a great addition to our training program and builds on a wonderful initiative started a few years back which we affectionately refer to as the “orange book”.
For our new members, however, training always starts with the foundational Phase 1 and Phase 2 courses. As both courses have completion timelines for new members it’s important we tackle these early and often. This includes offering these in class and on water combination courses both in the Fall and early in Spring. In 2021 and 2022 we held sessions for both courses, one in October and one in April. One of the positives of our Phase 1 and Phase 2 material is its regional consistency. As this course is required by all units, it’s a great opportunity to work closely with other units and build up local knowledge and familiarity. We always offer these sessions to other units and have recently held joint sessions with Toronto Search and Rescue or as happened this year, we will send members to other units with one member recently completing the training in Brighton
With member turnover and training in hand, our final challenge, and likely the hardest, is building cohesion and collaboration. As tangibles, these are often hard to ‘build’, they usually occur naturally or not at all. What we can do, however, is provide the right environment to allow these seeds to germinate and grow “naturally”. Recently this has been all the more difficult to build given ongoing Covid-19 requirements limiting opportunities for face to face engagement. As with all organizations, we have tackled these challenges in unique and with ever-evolving solutions. Some have proven to be so successful, they are here to stay (e.g., virtual executive meetings) and others merely acting as temporary respites until in person activities can resume (e.g.,virtual training). With 2022 starting to show signs of a shift to a new more open normal, we have slowly started to move from outside our virtual bubble to a more controlled interactive in person experience. While our training started the year virtually (e.g., January 2021 tasking review) we have now shifted to more in person events, all while maintaining critical Covid-19 protocols to ensure our crews remain healthy and active and are ready to respond to call outs or while on patrol. Our first big event was our Ops Day, held for the first time since 2019. This event, held in early May, is really the last big event before we launch the patrol season. It’s our final pre-season chance to remind and refresh all on key activities including safety, both personal and crew, PPE and how to properly wear it, as well as introducing all our members to any new equipment or procedures while on board. This event does, however, offer a slightly less overt experience for everyone. It’s a chance for our new members to meet their crew mates, sometimes for the first time, a chance to re-connect with colleagues who we might, not have seen for a few months and a chance to share a few laughs, retell old stories, albeit new to some, or simply reconnect, critical to our success out on the water. One cannot underestimate the importance these moments have on a late night tasking. Sure we might share a few jokes and swap ever growing fish stories of moments that might not have gone according to plan but that’s all part of the fabric of our crews. Perhaps hard to explain but to those familiar with it, not hard to see when we are all together. It’s a bond we share, one no one outside can fully understand but one, we all know and feel each and every day.
Hopefully you now see what we meant when we said our season, while starting in May, really started before the last one wrapped up. It’s the nature of the business we are in and honestly, we wouldn’t change it for a second. It’s what we all love and how we live and feel each and every day. It’s a passion we all share, one you can see on the faces of our members when they step aboard PARA Marine, be it for the 1st or for the 100th time. It’s infectious, but its these kinds of infections we don’t mind having and will happily share with others. So, when you see us passing by this summer (you cannot miss our vessel), give us a wave or say “hi” and be safe and confident in the knowledge, should you ever need us, we will be there in a sturdy and reliable vessel, with a knowledgeable and trusted crew working seamlessly as a cohesive unit, and know we have your back.
Have a safe and wonderful 2022 season and no matter what activity you partake in, enjoy but please enjoy it safely and responsibly.