Canoe journey support boat flips at Pacheena Bay, sending one occupant to hospital

Deborah Potter, July 9, 2019

Tribal Canoe Journeys have been held by West Coast First Nations since 1989, attracting heavy participation from Nuu-chah-nulth-aht, but a recent incident in Pacheena Bay is emphasizing the importance of lifejackets in the annual event. (Ha-Shilth-Sa archive photo).

Anacla, BC — 

This year’s canoe journey to Washington started only days before, when one of the support boats capsized, sending the three occupants into the water.

More than 100 paddlers meet annually in a West Coast Indigenous community for the Tribal Canoe Journey, this year paddling many kilometers to Lummi, Washington. Among the families participating are the Ka:'yu:'k't'h'/Che:k'tles7et'h' canoe family, Pacheedaht and the Tseshaht. They started at the northernmost point of the Nuu-chah-nulth territory, in Kyuquot, paddling their way down to Lummi, Washington. Stops for rest are planned in Nuu-chah-nulth territories along their journey.

It was in one of the stops, in the traditional lands of Huu-ay-aht, where the accident had happened.

On July 8, later in the afternoon, the Ahousaht support motorboat was perched in Pachena Bay, watching the canoes come in. The waves had been increasing in size, until one completely flipped the support boat over. While the other two support members had been able to land firmly on their feet in the shallow water, Bernice Sabbas had not been so lucky.

“All the canoes came in okay,” James Swann, Bernice’s brother, explained to Ha-shilth-sa. The Ahousaht support boat had been the only vessel to flip.

She was not wearing a life jacket, and the constant waves swept her out, hindering Sabbas’ ability to stand. Spectators had saw her struggle, and trudged through the water to help her out.

At 3:46 pm, the BC Emergency Health Services received a report of the overturned boat at Pachena Bay. They had dispatched an ambulance helicopter and paramedics from Port Alberni to her location.

Bernice spent some time in the Bamfield clinic, before getting flown out to the Victoria General Hospital in critical condition. With the water in her lungs, she was beginning to have seizures, said Swann. She spent the night in Victoria’s intensive care unit, and is most likely going to spend another few days there.

In a telephone interview Swann shared that Bernice is doing a lot better today than yesterday. After her night in the Intensive Care Unit, she is now alert and cleared for solid foods. She will be staying in the hospital for an extra few days, just to make sure she doesn’t have any more fluid in her lungs.

Swan stressed the importance of wearing life jackets.

“It should be the number one priority,” he stated.

In 2006, Mowachaht/Muchalaht hereditary chief Jerry Jack had his life taken from the sea. It had been at the same event Bernice Sabbas almost drowned in, except Jerry Jack was a participant in the canoe journey.

They were paddling down the Juan de Fuca Strait when their canoe hit a wave almost three-feet tall and capsized. None of the paddlers were wearing lifejackets, but Jerry had been the only one to lose his life that day.

The next stop for the Tribal Canoe Journey is in Ditidaht territory, where paddlers are expected to arrive at Nitinaht Lake on July 11.