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Alberni’s marine SAR unit relies on volunteers, local donors to stay afloat

Unit’s vessel will need retrofit, boat shed in next few years
Don Simpson, left, and Ian Arklie of RCM-SAR Unit 39, Port Alberni, at the Maritime Heritage Society’s Ken Hutcheson Gallery. MIKE YOUDS PHOTO


Special to the News

A potentially lethal collision with a log boom jolted Royal Canadian Marine Search and Rescue Unit 39 into realizing a better equipped vessel was needed in Port Alberni.

Ian Arklie, past leader of the local rescue station (RCM-SAR 39), was on board a Zodiac Hurricane that dark March night a few years back in inlet waters off China Creek.

And then he wasn’t.

“I was on that boat and I can say I safely survived flying a log boom,” Arklie recalled. “I wasn’t driving,” he hastened to add.

Together with current SAR station leader Don Simpson, Arklie spoke Thursday night (Jan. 18) at the first Maritime Heritage Night of the year, sharing stories of their years as part of a group of about 40 well-trained volunteers. In all kinds of weather —often in the dark of night—the Alberni Responder is headed down the inlet to marine emergencies.

A 38-foot Falkins Class Type 2, Responder is a relatively recent arrival, purchased by the unit seven years ago. Prior to 2011, volunteers had to rely on smaller, open, rigid-hull inflatable boats or “owner-operator” craft—their own boats—in early years after the SAR group formed in the 1980s. Without community support, the Responder would not be so well equipped, Arklie noted.

“It is an incredible vessel. We’re very proud of this boat and what it can do.”

Arklie entertained an audience of about 40 people with a vivid recollection of the log-boom mishap. They were returning in the early hours of the morning from a joint call-out in Bamfield when the collision occurred. Another volunteer piloting the inflatable looked over at the lights of China Creek Marina and temporarily lost his night vision. They knew something was ahead of them in the split second beforehand but there was no chance to respond: They were airborne over a boom.

“We had a very deep-V haul and we were in the lay of the logs, so we had logs keeping us nice and level and, you know, we rocketed down that thing,” Arklie recalled. “We were only doing about 16 or 18 knots, but this was the end of March. Zero. It had been foggy, so the logs were all very nicely ice-covered.”

Though it happened in a flash, he recalled the thoughts racing through his mind as the props sent wood chips flying around them.

“We’re either going to clear this thing or we’re going to stop before we get to the end of the logs. All of a sudden, the port motor got caught in a binding chain. Well that boat just stopped and did a jig to the left.”

The force sent a fellow crew member flying into Arklie and the two of them wound up in the saltchuck. While no one was seriously injured, it was not their finest moment.

“We made up our minds that this was never going to happen again,” he said.

The Coast Guard Auxiliary was standardizing RCM-SAR vessels, so the unit saw an opportunity to upgrade to a larger vessel with an enclosure, choosing an outboard variant on the jet boats used by other units because it was more than $100,000 cheaper. They can go almost as fast as jet boats while carrying more equipment, Arklie said. Servicing is easier as well.

“We felt we had a very knowledgeable crew and Port Alberni is an outboard community, so we decided to go with the outboard option.”

A B.C. Gaming grant helped with the $525,000 purchase, another example of how the unit must go cap in hand to sustain what might be considered an essential service. Due to the word “Canadian” in their name, some people mistakenly believe RCM-SAR (formerly known as the Canadian Coast Guard Auxiliary) is federally funded, an added challenge in local fundraising. Although the units train with the Coast Guard and the RCMP, they are a charity, a network of 700 volunteers.

“We still do not receive funds for our local station from the federal government.”

Responder will be due for a major refit in three years, another big-ticket item. Arklie has been reassured by B.C. Gaming that they are eligible for a grant in support of that work. They are also planning to build a boathouse after a donated one was lost while under tow from Sooke Bay in 2016.

The unit averages 16-18 callouts a year, a number that has declined over the years, they noted.

RCM-SAR welcomes local recruits. Within six months of joining, recruits must obtain a first aid ticket, radar operator’s licence and a pleasure craft operator’s card. They also offer a junior program for youth aged 16-19. For contact information, visit the RCM-SAR website at