Tla-o-qui-aht man loses boat in off-shore rescue, concerns raised about Coast Guard response

Tofino, BC

A Saturday afternoon fishing trip nearly turned tragic as propeller troubles left two elder Ahousaht brothers stranded on the open ocean off of Long Beach, near Tofino.

Eddie Frank, 70, was out fishing with his brother, Tommy Joe Frank, 64, near Portland Point on his boat the Reel Cowboy.

“We were just going to haul up about 4 p.m. and head home, but the wire line got caught on the prop,” Eddie said.

He added that there was a six-to-eight-foot swell, the ocean was choppy and the wind was picking up. The auxiliary motor wouldn’t start so the brothers were helpless, drifting further away from their home harbour.

“I radioed the Prince Rupert Rescue Centre – that’s the station we need to call into for help,” said Eddie.

When asked by the dispatcher if they were in any danger, Eddie told her, no, not in immediate danger but they were drifting fast to the east. “I gave her my coordinates and asked for assistance and she said, we can’t seem to get anyone to go.”

Eddie said he asked the dispatcher to contact the Tofino Lifeboat Station but she told him that they were waiting for authorization from Ottawa to send a rescue boat.

“Ma’am, we’re drifting fast and there’s no boats around me,” Eddie told the dispatcher.

He said they waited 45 minutes before calling the Prince Rupert Rescue Centre back. When he heard that the centre could not get any boats to assist, he said he asked her to stand down and they reached out to family for help.

“Tommy called his son who called his uncle Elmer for help. It was going on to 6 p.m. by then,” said Eddie.

Michelle Imbeau, Communications Advisor for the Canadian Coast Guard said they followed standard operating procedure in this incident.

“On May 1, Coast Guard’s Marine Communications and Traffic Services (MCTS) received a call from the Reel Cowboy, offshore of Leonard Island, requesting a tow due to a mechanical issue. Coast Guard tasked the Tofino Lifeboat station and sent out a broadcast message alerting vessels in the area,” she told Ha-Shilth-Sa in an email.

She went on to say that vessels of opportunity (VOO) were in the area and said they would respond.

“One VOO was the Princess M,” Imbeau explained. “Knowing that VOOs were responding to a low-risk tow situation, the Tofino lifeboat crew was stood down, in the event that they may be required to attend a more dire/life-threatening incident.”

“The Canadian Coast Guard relies on VOOs to assist in low risk situations in order to ensure our primary Search and Rescue (SAR) vessels are readily available for distress situations,” said Imbeau.

But Eddie and his rescuers say it was nearly two hours before Tla-o-qui-aht fishermen were notified and responded to the Reel Cowboy.

Elmer Frank, Tla-o-qui-aht’s emergency operations manager, had been out fishing that day in his 21-foot speedboat, the Princess M. At the end of the day he pulled his boat out of the water and trailered it to his home at Esowista.

“We were getting ready to have dinner when my nephew called asking me to go out looking for his dad and uncle,” Elmer recalled.

He went on to say that he was told that the Coast Guard was not responding because they didn’t deem it a life and death situation.

Elmer left immediately, knowing that the wind was picking up and the brothers were in danger. He towed his boat back to Tofino, relaunched it and went out searching. Elmer’s brother Bruce had already left in his boat to help in the search.

“My brother found them first,” said Elmer, adding that the Reel Cowboy was near Florencia bay. “They had already drifted about 10 miles east of where they broke down.”

As Elmer headed out to Florencia Bay he felt his boat slowing and knew immediately that he was in trouble.

“I called Coast Guard and told them I’m taking on water and am headed to the beach,” Elmer shared.

According to Imbeau, the Coast Guard received another call, this time about the Princess M.

“Knowing lives were at risk due to a sinking vessel, Coast Guard tasked the Tofino station crew, and both the CCGS Cape Ann and Fast Rescue Craft (FRC) were sent to respond,” she told Ha-Shilth-Sa.

At the same time, Elmer’s brother was towing the Reel Cowboy to safety. He cut them loose when he heard Elmer was in trouble so that he could assist.

Imbeau said that when the Coast Guard vessels arrived on scene, the Cape Ann went to search for the Princess M, but it was no longer visible above the waterline.

By then, Elmer shot a flare, and was rescued by his brother.

“We were okay until they got to us, but as soon as we stepped off the boat it rolled and went under,” said Elmer.

The five rescuers aboard the Hannah J went back to Eddie and Tommy and towed them toward Tofino.

But it was Elmer’s sinking boat that drew authorities out to assist.

“The RCMP dispatched their Zodiac, looking for Elmer,” Eddie said. “Then we saw the two Tofino life boats…they told Bruce to cut us loose and they will take over.”

“I never prayed so hard to get to shore,” added Eddie, who said he finally arrived at Tofino harbour at about 10:20 p.m.

“I hailed into Prince Rupert and told them that we made it back safe, I was right choked with them,” said Eddie.

There were a lot of concerned people waiting at the dock when they arrived. According to Eddie, there was confusion at first, as people heard of the sinking of the Princess M and wanted to make sure that everyone came home safe.

While Elmer is grateful everyone is safe, he is annoyed at the inaction of the Coast Guard.

“They finally came because they knew my boat was in distress,” said Elmer, adding Eddie and Axel (Tommy) are elders in their community. He noted the sinking wouldn’t have happened if the Coast Guard responded in first place.

“I think they would have been found sooner if they (the Coast Guard) responded immediately,” Elmer said, noting that, at the time, the wind was gusting 25 knots. It was not nice weather, said Elmer.

Two days after the rescue, Elmer was out fishing on his troller. He said the Coast Guard deployed all kinds of resources to his sunken ship.

“They sent out a helicopter and the Parks Canada Zodiac searching for my sunken boat and there are no lives in danger,” Elmer said.

On Monday, May 3, the Princess M was located on a beach south of Florencia Bay where it was quickly being swallowed up by the shifting sand.

“I think it’s a wash, a loss,” said Elmer.

He believes his boat could have been saved but it was more important to save lives.

“We made the ultimate choice to abandon our boat so that we could go back for Tommy Joe and them,” said Elmer.

“This is unacceptable,” he said of the Coast Guard response, adding that Nuu-chah-nulth leadership has been pushing for their nations to be more safe and secure on the waters.

 “We don’t have resources from the federal government,” Elmer said. “We’re doing it on our own, we always help but there’s no help from the feds…no reimbursement for fuel, nothing, no acknowledgement.”

While Eddie is grateful to be back on solid ground, he said he feels really bad for Elmer.

“I respect him, I take my hat off to him,” said Eddie.

While he said he was in no immediate danger, Eddie told the dispatcher that they were drifting three kilometres an hour to the east. With the wind picking up and darkness approaching, it could have ended badly for the elders.

“First Nations groups come out right away when there’s a distress call, but the Coast Guard waits for authorization from Ottawa. I don’t know why,” he added.

Eddie says he will contact the local MP about the incident.

“I just hope it never ever happens again to First Nations that hail in for help from rescue centers,” he added.

On Sunday, May 2, Eddie, his wife and Tommy cooked the salmon they caught that day and fed the people who came to their aid. A Tla-o-qui-aht elder performed a cleansing ceremony and Eddie and his wife blanketed Bruce Frank, Elmer Frank, Terry Crosina, John Williams and Joe Williams as a show of gratitude and respect.

The Canadian Coast Guard reminds all mariners to be well prepared on the water, including with enough fuel and properly maintained equipment.

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