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Yukon News

Book a Real Page Turner

Once in a while, a small-press publisher produces a bone-chilling, hair-raising, spine-tingling, nerve-racking, breath-taking thriller that grabs the reader and won't let go.

Keith Keller's Dangerous Waters: Wrecks and Rescues off the BC Coast is one of those rarities.

The book is loaded with photographs, artistic renderings and site-location maps that allow the reader to relate to the survivors who are awaiting rescues that may never happen.

Keller, who lives on the West Coast, is a sea kayaker and has fished for cod off the East Coast.

When he started his research project, he had an appreciation and respect for the sea and the people who challenge it.

But he possessed no specialized knowledge about boats, oceanography or how search-and-rescue efforts are co-ordinated.

He was intrigued. From his work, he compiled 21 suspenseful accounts of marine disasters and close calls.

In an unusual style that works well, Keller has skillfully acted as a gatekeeper. He did 77 interviews, letting survivors and rescuers tell their own stories in their own words.

As each heart-throbbing event unfolds, the reader feels like they know the protagonists personally.

It's like sitting around a table, drinking coffee, laughing and crying while listening to their narratives.

One person speaks, then another and another. Back and forth, they take turns in the conversation.

As the story progresses, the author steps in to arrange the next segment into context.

In one account, Jurgen Schulte, a serious racing competitor, was at the wheel of his 36-foot sloop on June 5, 1993.

He was in the lead with a good prospect to win his class in the Royal Marine Sailing Association's annual, single-handed, two-day race.

Yet he generously sacrificed his positon and withdrew from the race to save two strangers from drowning.

"It was good to help," he told the author. "I think everybody on the water should keep a lookout all the time.

"That will be a lesson to me: if there's something unusual in the water, don't even hesitate.

"Go check it out. Even if you're in a race. Even if you have to be somewhere at a certain time."

Schute had saved a businessman, who was vice-president of the Vancouver Canucks, and a visiting nephew, who had never been on salt water before - and probably never wants to be in it again.

"It was a hard way to become famous," offered Glenn Baron of Alberta about the widespread media coverage.

Most of the stories transpire in dirty weather, often at night. Occasionally, the BC Coast Guard vessels can't execute a rescue as swiftly as the Americans.

So the US Coast Guard will volunteer services. When someone's life is in danger, the Americans and Canadians know no boundaries.

Sharing each other's waters depends on which unit can make the fastest, most appropriate response to an emergency.

In one case, the US team was reluctant to fly a Sikorsky north because of the snow and horrible conditions. It was dark and the focal point was an unfamiliar area to them.

They came anyway. The had learned a man was known to be a hostage to treacherous, sea-pounded rocks. Unless rescued, he couldn't survive long.

After plucking Reid Dobell from the sea, the helicopter crashed. Although one fisherman's body was never recovered, Reid lived to tell about his scare.

"These stories repeatedly tell us that when the worst happens, people who can help, do help," writes Keller.

"They at least try. The search and rescue specialists respond because that's what they do - which in no way diminishes the risks they take on others' behalf."

Those who by chance are in a position to help are called "vessels of opportunity."

They also respond, often at significant personal danger, he says, noting one chapter still brings a lump to Keller's throat.

Ken Datwiler, alone and knowing his boat would soon founder, tells the seine boat captain Bruce Rafuse to carry on and at least save himself from the hurricane conditions they're both fighting.

Rafuse told Keller in an interview that despite the obvious danger, abandoning Datwiler that ferocious night was not an option.

"I've owed my life to others and when you see something like that, it's not an option."

Fishermen are an interesting crowd, added Rafuse.

"Compared to most of society, I guess you could say they're at the rougher end of it - independent spirits."

Yet he'd be hard pressed to believe that any fisherman - regardless of how rough and tough - would ever let a person drown.

Like many fishermen who have been stricken with fright and lost a friend at sea, Datwiler quit the commercial fishing industry. So did Rafuse.

Keller spent a year and a half gathering these heroic stories from a bunch of fantastic, selfless people.

Then came time to approach a publisher.

He noted that at the top of a freelance writer's list of essential qualities should be the ability to deal well with rejection.

He can't. He made his pitch.

"(It) was a pathetic attempt to bribe the founder and president of Harbour Publishing with all the free coffee and beer he could drink in exchange for hearing my idea."

The publisher reminded Keller that he receives a thousand book pitches a year and didn't have the capacity to consume all that liquid.

The writer was instructed to condense his idea to one page and mail it. Keller did.

The publisher, like the writer, knew a good story when he saw one. So will the reader.

-Jane Gaffin, The Yukon News