Column: Boating tragedy a reminder of nature’s power

For all the survivors, the traumatic experience is a life changer.

It was a day like so many others. A choppy sea. Clear skies. Excited tourists focused on the hopeful sight of barking sea lions, bobbing seals, sea otters, orcas, grey whales, and marine birds. The day was beautiful, the scenery exquisite, the anticipation palpable as the Leviathan II, a twenty metre vessel with open and closed decks owned by Jamie’s Whaling Station, left the dock in Tofino with 27 passengers and crew on board last Sunday. They were heading for Vargas Island and the rocky islets known popularly as Sea Lion Rocks.

As everyone soaked in the sights and sounds and the scent of sea spray, no one had any inkling this would be the whale watching boat’s final voyage.

In an instant, disaster. It hit so fast, so furious, there was no time for a mayday, no time for radio contact. Just an emergency flare. The maritime signal for distress.

Days later, some survivors would say a wave hit them, instantly rolling the boat on its side, tumbling it, and tossing passengers into the sea.

The flare was spotted by Clarence Smith and his deckhand Ken Brown, two Ahousaht First Nation residents fishing for halibut further east and close to Flores Island. Checking their radio, they expected to hear an emergency call. Nothing. Making a distress call to alert other boat operators on the water, they raced to the site of the flare to be confronted with the absolute worst of disasters.

The Leviathan had capsized with just its bow sticking out of the water. People were screaming and thrashing in the water. The men would ultimately pull 13 people to safety. And they would deal with the grim task of retrieving those who had died.

In no time the site was a flotilla of rescue boats – local water taxi companies, more Ahousaht boaters, private vessels and Canadian Coast Guard. In Tofino, residents turned out en masse to care for 21 people brought to shore and opened their homes to provide warmth and comfort while the injured were transferred to hospitals. In the final tally, five people, all British nationals, died and one, an Australian, currently remains missing.

It will be months before the Transportation Safety Board completes its investigation into what happened. But for all the survivors, the traumatic experience is a life changer.

The wave theory may prove to be at least partly accurate but everything hinges on the outcome of the Transportation Safety Board’s investigation. Marc-Andre Poisson, the director of marine safety inspections, confirmed that a wave did in fact hit the boat from the starboard side but he cautioned that other factors may also have contributed to the disaster.

At the time, he said, most passengers were on the upper deck and had gathered on the port side. This would have raised the boat’s centre of gravity, affecting stability. With the force of the wave, the vessel broached, then capsized.

Marine wildlife viewing is an immensely popular billion-dollar tourist industry. But every time a boat leaves the dock, they venture into an alien environment with its own rules.

“Mother Nature’s the biggest misery on the planet,” said Ucluelet fishing guide Ken Lewis. “When you’re outside your comfort zone, you’re at her mercy.”

Indeed.  The ocean is a harsh task master, forgiving of nothing. Currents collide, tides swirl, winds whip into squalls and waves can change from a calm swell to dangerous white-caps coming in swift succession. As much as the waters look calm and inviting, the ocean’s mood swings can be menacing. Fishermen and guides live with that knowledge every day.

As the TSB works conducts its investigation, a lot will undoubtedly be learned from this awful tragedy.