Jurgen Pokrandt was on duty at the Oak Bay Marina last Friday night when what seemed like a routine call turned into an 11-hour search for a missing Saanich man.
Pokrandt and crew members, Jerry Hunter, Chris Life and Nathan Leung had just begun their week-long shift as night crew for the Oak Bay Sea Rescue (OBSR) Society, known as Unit 33 of the Royal Canadian Marine Search and Rescue.
Around 10:50 p.m., Pokrandt, duty coxswain, received a call to investigate the waters off Oak Bay after a concerned citizen had called police and reported hearing cries for help.
Two young Saanich men had set sail from Telegraph Bay Cove earlier that evening with the intention of camping overnight on Discovery Island. However, their canoe capsized while travelling through Baynes Channel near Ten Mile Point.
According to Pokrandt, the waters were calm Friday night, but he noted that Baynes Channel can get very rough with conflicting currents.
“The Oak Bay area has a lot of rocks and islets – it’s a very dangerous area for boating unless you know your way around,” says Pokrandt, a society member for 13 years.
Pokrandt and crew met Saanich police on the shore near Flower Island and were told to search the waters around Cadboro Bay, from Ten Mile Point to Willows Beach.
The Oak Bay crew was first out on the water, Pokrandt says. They combed the waters until coming across one of the missing canoeists around 12:30 a.m. Saturday.
“As we were motoring out there, we were yelling, stopping the engines, and listening,” Pokrandt recalls. “And at some point, we heard faint cries for help. We zeroed in on it and we finally heard the direction and we yelled and we got a response.”
A 20-year-old Saanich man was found clinging onto a sign at the top of a concrete marker known as Tod Rock, located near Mary Tod Island.
He was wet and a bit incoherent, according to Pokrandt. “He was standing there hypothermic.”
However, upon finding the young man, the crew learned another was still missing.
“At that point, a major mayday was issued,” Pokrandt says.
After the first young man was located Leung, a crew member for 15 months, discovered the canoeists were acquaintances.
Leung attended Lambrick Park Secondary with both boys, he says, and played soccer with them for a couple of years.
“We were just focused on searching for the canoeists so we were just professional about it and we tried our hardest to find both of them,” Leung says.
“It gave me so much more motivation to get back out there and try even harder.”
Members from the Canadian and U.S. coast guards, Victoria police marine unit, Saanich fire department, RCMP marine unit and Oak Bay police and fire continued to search the area for the second canoeist throughout the night and into Saturday morning. A helicopter from Comox also searched from above.
Meanwhile, Unit 33 members continued to search “every little nook and cranny” along the water, Pokrandt says, and called out in hope of getting some sort of response.
By 7 a.m. Saturday, a second Oak Bay boat, sent as a relief crew, joined them on the water.
“We’re dedicated, and we just wanted to search for this guy. … We thought there must be a chance, a hope, that he’d still be out there somewhere,” Pokrandt says, adding that both boats remained on the look-out until being told to stand down around 9 a.m.
The search was called off early Saturday afternoon. The second canoeist has not been found and was deemed a missing person.
Pokrandt says this type of call isn’t unusual, especially in the summertime. It’s the extent and seriousness of Friday night’s search that made this mission different.
“There’s a lot of other things which are just simple searches,” Pokrandt says. “In this case it was for real. So I’m glad we checked it out thoroughly.”
Common calls to the unit include sightings of items, such as flares, reported by concerned citizens, broken down vessels, and overturned kayaks.
On average, the crew receives one call each week, but Pokrandt noted that on a Sunday the crew could get as many as four calls in a day.
Oak Bay’s search and rescue team, often dubbed Oak Bay’s navy, currently has about 40 active members, making up eight crews (four day and four night) which rotate in week-long shifts each month.
The group is volunteer-based and relies largely on public funding.
Operating costs range from $80,000 to $100,000 every year, depending on whether new equipment is needed, according to Terry Calveley, president of the OBSR Society.
“We are extremely grateful of the support the community gives us,” she says. “It’s what helps us stay afloat.”
All members of the society are crew members, with the exception of board members, Calveley said, noting they’re actively seeking new crew and board volunteers.
Most members join the team because of a love for being on the water, Pokrandt says.
“We like what we do because we like being on the water – maybe it’s a boy-scout complex – I don’t know what makes us do it,” he says.
For more information about the Oak Bay Sea Rescue Society, see obsr.ca.