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BC Bookworld Review


If ever there was a thorny spike mariners had good reason to fear it was Ripple Rock in Seymour Narrows near Campbell River. Ripple Rock's twin peaks lurk just beneath the surface of the narrows where tides sometimes screamed through at fifteen knots. It was a deadly combination. Ripple Rock took 114 lives and claimed 125 vessels in just 75 years. In 1958, after years of planning and tunneling, the largest non-atomic explosion ever blasted the navigational hazard to the heavens. Although man re-shaped this particular hazard with the aid of explosives, as Keith Keller's Dangerous Waters illustrates, the fury of a west coast storm or hurricane cannot be tamed, and can send seasoned mariners scurrying for their lives.

Keller is a former newspaper reporter who also spent four summers cod fishing on the east coast. He has an ear for a good story and in Dangerous Waters he allows people to tell tales of rescue and disaster in their own words. Years after the fact these accounts read as though they occurred yesterday, (stories are verified and expanded by overlapping accounts from others involved). Fishermen, kayakers, tugboat operators, sailors - all learn to respect a constantly changing dynamic of wind and water.

Brent Melan, for example, was on a night run across Georgia Strait with his dad's fishing vessel Lennie Jane in April 1990 when a storm drifted further south than he bargained for or weather forecasters predicted. Wind and sea erupted, and a huge wave flipped the vessel onto its side. Melan had enough time to send out a Mayday call and scramble onto the overturned hull. He dove into the frigid water in an attempt to retrieve a life raft from the boat's deck, but couldn't get deep enough, and realising he might become tangled in lines, held onto the hull for dear life. "I prayed - called on some dead people to help me. I didn't want to die, and I knew I was close. I looked around for a piece of line to tie myself to the boat so at least they would have a body to bury." It was tugboat Captain Dyke Noel and his crew who, after spending the night searching, at daybreak spotted the overturned Lennie Jane with a hypothermic but grateful Brent Melan. He credits singing "You Are My Sunshine" - his girlfriend's favourite song - with keeping him focused on living.

Fisherman Randy Morrison watched his skipper go down with his boat after they were caught in Hecate Strait on the notorious North Coast. Randy drifted in a survival suit for more than 24 hours, and with eyes swollen shut from the sea-water imagined ghost boats coming to his rescue. In his semi-conscious state he could see men leaning over to help him. Luckily the Canadian Coast Guard eventually fished him from the stormy seas.

Common threads run through these 21 accounts, including descriptions of adrenaline rushes that are somehow sustained for hours, often to stay afloat or keep warm. Many described being enveloped by a remarkable calmness that helped prevent panic and aided them in making the right decisions. Clarity when needed most.

The skill of the Canadian Coast Guard is well documented in these stories, including the action of lightkeepers frequently credited with initiating rescues and communicating vital information. Coast Guard brass and federal politicians who've approved "de-staffing" and automation of the lighthouses should be encouraged to read these accounts and be reminded of these efforts.

On the 20th anniversary of his rescue from a rock pinnacle (after a February storm demolished the boat he and three others were on), Reid Dobell left a message on the answering machine of the Bamfield, Coast Guard station to remind the folks there he hadn't forgotten what they did for him. The Coast Guard had been alerted to his predicament by the lightkeeper at Cape Beale, just above the graveyard of the Pacific.

-Mark Forsythe, BC Bookworld