A life-saver on water

From left, Steve Radoslav, hugging Bob the training mannequin, instructor Amber Dashwood, Leslie Bradley, and Matt Conner. GLORIA KATCH PHOTO


POCOMAR is looking for a few good members

Special to the VOICE

Assisting missing persons, disabled boaters and animals in distress is all a part of being a volunteer for the Port Colborne Marine Auxiliary Rescue (POCOMAR). The organization’s Public Relations and Media Officer, Angela Davis, was on hand at the recent Canal Days in Port Colborne to help inform the public about water safety, as well as to recruit new members.

POCOMAR’s volunteers were handing out Marine Safety Kits, pamphlets, and floaters for boat keys, as well as offering interested passersby tips on water safety, from their booth at the end of West Street. This year, the team has already received some 21 search and rescue calls, a big jump over this time last year. 2018’s total was 35. Last year’s statistics also included $355,000 in property saved, in addition to 37 lives, during 428 hours of rescue operations, noted Davis, emphasizing the need for more volunteers.

The warmer the weather, the higher the statistics, because more people tend to head to the waterways to cool off, explained Amber Dashwood, an instructor with POCOMAR. She recalled 2016 as being a particularly bad year, with as many as 46 search and rescue missions. POCOMAR currently has 27 volunteers, and can handle as many as 50, but the last 12 months have seen many volunteers retiring, having children, leaving this rescue team short from its usual roster of 30 to 40 members.

Fortunately, this year, all of the search and rescue and missing persons were found, reported Davis.

POCOMAR covers a 63 km territory, from the mouth of Lake Erie to the Grand River in Dunnville, and often collaborates with the Niagara Regional Police, which also has a boat harboured at Sugarloaf Marina, where POCOMAR is based.

After being a volunteer for a season, Steve Radoslav “loves it,” emphasizing that POCOMAR fills the “void for the coast guard.” Oftentimes they are called into support calls near the U.S. border all the way to Nanticoke, which is a significant nautical area, as the nearest Coast Guard base is in Port Dover, he said. Radoslav has trained in POCOMAR’s four rescue boats, which have been out in 12- foot waves, and he enjoys the challenge of training in “high seas.”

While POCOMAR offers pleasure-craft owners tips on water safety and conducts inspections for free, its team doesn’t issue fines when violations are discovered.

“We’re not enforcement,” Davis said, adding when many speeding boaters spot POCOMAR they automatically slow down thinking they could get a ticket, which she admits is often “a good thing.”

Nicknamed “Port Rocky,” Lake Erie has its challenges owing to its uneven, shallow, boulder-lined terrain, and whipping winds. Many boaters, even from the area, who may be accustomed to Lake Ontario, get into trouble when they venture onto Erie. The largely unprotected shoreline is subject to gusty westerly winds and quick-changing inclement weather patterns.

“A lot of people don’t realize it could be calm and about 20 minutes later the winds pick up and it’s rough out there,” said Davis.

This may not be a problem for larger or motorized craft, but POCOMAR has had to rescue boats with engine failure, sailing vessels, and kayaks dangerously tossing in the treacherous waves.

While POCOMAR doesn’t keep statistics on rescuing animals, the organization has had its share of assisting pets who weren’t wearing their life jackets. Davis has two dogs, and while she admits that her Doberman “hates it—he wears it.”

Many might assume that a Doberman’s long legs and muscular build would enable easy swimming, Davis said that some breeds are too “barrel chested and top-heavy,” leading them to sink, not swim.

When attempting to rescue an animal, she cautions pet owners to make sure they are safe first. Just like rescuing people, it is best to have a floating device, kisby ring, paddle, or something handy they can climb onto.

Similarly, anyone witnessing someone struggling in the water is best advised to throw the distressed person a rope, hand them a paddle, or line, to keep them afloat, and direct them to shore.

“We don’t want to put two people in the water,” she said, especially if there are dangerous conditions present. Davis recommends calling 9-1-1 or *16, which is the marine radio channel for search and rescue operations. The call is automatically directed to dispatch headquarters in Trenton, which will send the correct search and rescue unit according to territory.

Over its years of operation, POCOMAR has found the occasional corpse. If this occurs, the team does not touch the body until the NRP arrive in case it becomes a crime scene.

The best safety tip, said Davis, is to wear a lifejacket when boating, and always have it in proper repair. There are many styles of lifejackets now that are less bulky and easier to put on in an emergency.

While some may assume that because lifejackets are on board they are being safe, when emergencies happen people panic, and they can’t get them on in time, Davis said. Many parents with young families tend to put them on their children, but not themselves—also not advised. Davis has seen boaters using their life jackets as furniture. “They sit on the life jackets and it compresses them and breaks down the buoyancy,” which makes it more difficult to keep anyone afloat, she cautioned. Again, it’s another good reason to purchase a newer, less bulky brand.

Kayakers should always wear life jackets and they should have a water safety kit on board, which includes a tow line, flashlight, whistle and a reflective device to attract attention if stranded.

Davis advised knowing your “surrounding areas.”

“You could be in a small lake, and next thing you know, you’re into a fast moving river.”

For anyone venturing out at any time, let someone else know your destination, so when police or search and rescue teams are notified they can head in the right direction.

Most of the time, Davis said being a volunteer is “a lot of fun.” She enjoys meeting people from the various local communities as well as the experience and confidence one develops in conducting search and rescue operations. Training is conducted in two phases—one focuses on how to operate and maneuver boats properly, while Phase II teaches charting maps to search safely for persons. About three hours a week is spent on the water, and then an evening is assigned on a regular basis to learn from the coxswain and other experienced team members.

There is some classroom work, but most training is hands-on, she said.

At the end of the training, all volunteers have the ability to operate a boat, as well as know First Aid and C.P.R. This year the standards were amped up a notch so that all volunteers learn Marine First Aid training through Transportation Canada, which is more appropriate for rescue missions on water.

In addition to learning about water safety, volunteers are required to help with fundraising, which is simply covering four bingo nights at Delta Bingo in Fort Erie, for two hours each, per year.

“It’s not a hard thing, as long as everyone does their shift,” Davis said.

POCOMAR is at Sugarloaf Marina seven days a week from May until the end of October, but Davis is fine with that, because the number one requirement for volunteering is having “a love of water.”

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