One man’s bravery and service on the ocean remembered

By Debora Steel, March 1, 2011

The US Coast Guard Silver Medal of Bravery was presented to Martin Charles for his efforts in saving the crew of a US Coast Guard helicopter that crashed into the ocean off of Bamfield in 1976.

Ottawa — 

Update: Clifford Charles has informed the Council of Ha'wiih on June 27, 2013 that the Canadian Coast Guard Hero Class Vessel named for his father Martin Charles will be delivered to the West Coast this year. He hopes people keep an eye out for the CCGS M. Charles in their communities, coming soon.

Here's our story from February 2011

The late tyee ha’wilth of Uchucklesaht Martin Charles was honored in a unique way on Feb. 10 in Canada’s capital city. The Canadian Coast Guard named a new patrol vessel after him in memory of his bravery and service.

Nine mid-shore patrol vessels, called Hero Class vessels, currently under construction were named for Canadian heroes, and late Martin Charles was among them.  Seaman Martin Charles,  M.B. joins two fallen First World War soldiers (Corporal Joseph Kaeble, V.C., and Private James Peter Robertson, V.C.) in the recognition, as well as Royal Canadian Mounted Police members Corporal Gordon Robert Teather, C.V., and Constable J.L. François Carrière; Canadian Coast Guard Chief Officer Gregory Paul Peddle, S.C., and Canadian Fisheries and Marine Service Fishery Officer Agapit LeBlanc; and Corporal Mark Robert McLaren, M.M.V., and Captain Nichola Kathleen Sarah Goddard, M.S.M. who were Canadian Forces members who served in Afghanistan.

Martin’s son Clifford Charles attended the naming ceremony along with his daughter Sheila Charles. It was held at the Canadian War Museum in Ottawa. Clifford says the patrol vessels will take two years to construct and the CCGS M. Charles will be the eighth out of production.

The 43-metre vessel will support a crew of eight and could carry up to six RCMP officers or fishery officers. Top speed will be 25 knots and the ships will have a range of 2,000 nautical miles and be able to stay at sea for two weeks.

Clifford said the honor to his father was “pretty darn awesome.”

But who was Martin Charles and why did his work receive this acknowledgement?

Martin was an artist of wood carvings. He made dugout canoes and totem poles and models of West Coast vessels, including the Bamfield lifeboat MLB Bamfield.

In his earlier years he worked with small logging outfits, and sailed aboard trollers and seine boats, fishing along the west coast to Prince Rupert. He was considered an experienced and knowledgeable sailor.  

Martin worked for the Coast Guard for 32 years at the Bamfield Coast Guard Station, the first motor-driven lifeboat station in Canada.

“The crew sailed with extra confidence when aboard the lifeboats with him,” wrote Clifford in an email about his father.

Martin was awarded two medals of bravery, which stemmed from a single tragic incident.

On Feb. 29, 1976, David Christney, then officer in charge at CCG Station Bamfield, Martin Charles, his son Clifford Charles, and Bob Amos were called into action when a 50-foot seiner ran into trouble at the head of Barkley Sound. The F/V Bruce I had become lost in search of herring. The Bruce I out of Victoria was grounded on the rocks, and while two crew members were left with the wreckage, two others made it to a life raft.

Martin and the lifeboat crew got to the scene of the life raft and quickly pulled the two very cold survivors of the seiner wreckage on board. They were heading back to the station when the unthinkable occurred.

Another Bruce I crewman, Reid Dobell, had been swept to the top of a 30-foot rock by a wave, and used a light to signal for help. A U.S. coastguard helicopter had been called to assist in the rescue efforts and plucked Dobell off the rock and to the safety of the helicopter. Or, at least that what was thought.

It was a stormy night with wet snow falling, and no sooner had the helicopter crew rescued Dobell it crashed into the sea.

"Two hundred feet in the air, the engine quits - he's back in the ocean," said Clifford Charles in 2008 when the Bamfield lifeboat station commemorated 100 years of lifesaving.

The lifeboat vessel turned away from the station and headed instead to rescue the rescuers. The lifeboat crashed through the breakers, but the rescue was a dangerous one. The lifeboat got hung up on the wheelhouse of the sinking seiner, almost took a helicopter blade to the lifeboat’s window, and a young Clifford was almost washed overboard.

But the brave crew managed to rescue the helicopter crew and Dobell, who, until his death from cancer in 2009, had called every Feb. 29 to CCG Station Bamfield to thank them for saving his life.

The captain of the Bruce I perished in the incident. All they found was his "floater"coat, turned inside out as he succumbed to the frigid ocean waters.

All the members of the lifeboat crew received commendation. Martin received the Canadian Silver Medal of Bravery and the USA Coast Guard Silver Medal of Bravery for his extraordinary efforts that day.

Clifford Charles spent 37 years at the Bamfield Coast Guard Station, and retired as officer in 2005. He was obviously proud that his father’s bravery was remembered by Canada. It has yet to be decided what region the M. Charles will be put into service.