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Oak Bay Sea Rescue crews prepare for worst

Annual pool practice allows Coast Guard Auxiliary volunteers to test emergency skills
Oak Bay Sea Rescue volunteer members Fraser Dodds

About two dozen orange-clad individuals bob around the middle of the Oak Bay Recreation Centre pool.

Penned in by floating lane markers running the width of the pool, they resemble a group of whale-watchers whose boat has flipped them into the drink and are waiting to be rescued.

But in fact, they are the rescuers.

Volunteer members of Oak Bay Sea Rescue, the Canadian Coast Guard Auxiliary’s station based at Oak Bay Marina, they are here both to test and certify their specialized floater suits and to practice specific rescue skills.

“It’s certainly nicer to be in the pool,” station leader Kim Bentzon says with a grin.

In actual fact, it’s a rarity that these hardy folks get the opportunity to work on their technique in a calm-water environment, where the biggest challenge is sharing space with a group of women engaged in an aquafit class.

Outside of this one-time January tradition, most out-of-class training happens during three-hour sessions on the waters off Oak Bay Marina, where the team has its two Zodiac rescue boats housed.

Training officer and junior program director Kelly Noel, for example, is planning a joint workout next month with members of the South Island Sea Kayakers Association. Unlike the pool session, it will offer a more reality-based experience for volunteers, a handful of whom are in their first year with the group.

“(The kayakers) will be on the water, they’ll capsize their boats and search and rescue goes and rescues them,” Noel says.

As for classroom time, the volunteers meet the first Monday of the month at the Royal Victoria Yacht Club to hear guest speakers ranging from meteorologists and search and rescue technicians (SARtechs) to Coast Guard officers.

Bentzon appreciates the dedication of the active crew members, who range in age from 18 to 70. But he also is impressed with the commitment of the juniors (age 13 to 17), who learn the ropes – so to speak – until they become eligible for active duty on one of the eight five-member crews upon turning 18.

“It’s good to see young people involved,” he says. “They’ll be our future coxswains and board members.”

Chris Life, a strapping young man of 19, got involved with Oak Bay Sea Rescue in Grade 6 at age 13. He was the first junior member to cross over into the senior ranks and take a regular crew spot.

“It’s interesting to learn different things like first aid and radio tech,” he says.

The organization is always looking for new members, Bentzon says, either juniors or adults. For interested parties, the activities are varied, he notes.

“Our number 1 priority is search and rescue, but we also teach boating safety and will do courtesy checks on vessels for boaters.”

The training is pretty much constant, he says. It’s a necessary factor to ensure crew members are prepared when the waves start to roll, the skies grow dark and boaters – most of whom aren’t dressed in bright orange – are in peril.