Three men in their 20s are lucky to be alive after spending some considerable time in the icy waters of Gull Lake on Sunday, May 18.
“Just before 9 p.m. on Sunday night, we received a 911 call that there were three boaters who went fishing on Gull Lake who were overdue,” said Cst. Ted Munro of the Rimbey RCMP. “I estimate by the time we received the call they were about an hour and a half past the time that they were supposed to meet at the wharf.”
Munro said the three males used a friend’s boat and had planned on fishing the north end of the lake however after failing to return to the wharf where they were scheduled to meet several hours later, the owner of the boat – Monty Shephard of Calgary began checking other wharfs in the area but found no sign of the boat or the crew.
Shephard said he returned to a neighbour’s cabin and requested that they contact 911.
Soon after, police arrived at the Parkland Beach Marina where they immediately coordinated a civilian search of the lake with the assistance of several volunteers, three civilian-owned boats, auxiliary members of the RCMP and members from the Red Deer Rural Detachment.
Munro said at approximately 10:30 p.m., one of the civilian boats was returning from a search of the northern area of the lake and was proceeding south along the east coast.
However at the same time the skies were nearly black and the owner/operator – Rob Steenwyk of Red Deer, decided to make a beeline to the wharf and incredibly, saw the nose of the boat sticking about four or five feet out of the water.
With the help of his friend Ralf Kaiser, Steenwyk was able to locate all three of the missing men and haul them aboard his boat.
“There was a real bright moon that night so we did have the benefit of the moonlight, but other than that, it was very dark. Steenwyk was able to locate the three males but they were not hanging onto the boat. They weren’t hanging on to each other either,” Munro said noting that the trio had drifted approximately 100 metres apart in all directions.
Following the news that they had been located, word quickly spread that they would need immediate attention and two ambulances were dispatched from Rimbey. At the same time, Munro said many campers, boaters and residents also jumped to action.
“That aspect of this whole story is probably the most remarkable thing. When they returned to the shore there was a number of men and women and a nurse waiting for them,” Munro said. “They brought them off the boat one-by-one onto a narrow walkway on the wharf that we were navigating. The boaters weren’t walking under their own power or anything – they were holding onto consciousness in the boat, they were carried to the shore’s boat launch and as each one was taken off, there was immediately eight or ten, maybe even 12 people on the patients wrapping them in blankets, quilts and sleeping bags to keep them warm as they were extremely hypothermic.”
While word of the rescue reached out further and further, Munro said more and more campers were running back to their campsites and returned with whatever they thought would help and in many cases, gave up their jackets and sweaters to assist the victims.
Munro said even kids were more than willing to give up their outerwear to help out the cause.
“It was amazing to see. As each person came off the boat there was a new group of people attending to that person and there was all kinds of people to help out,” he said. “In the time it took to get them off the boat until the ambulance got there, two of them really recovered nicely. They were talking and even joking around a bit by the time the ambulances arrived.”
Furthering the recover of the three men who, at the time, were lying on the beach, was the fact that several concerned citizens – under the direction of the RCMP, began to vigorously rub their bodies to stimulate circulation as well as talking to them to ensure they remained conscious.
“At one point I remember looking up Parkland Beach Road and there was people running down from the campgrounds with sleeping bags and quilts and everything so it was quite amazing. It was pretty emotional,” Munro said. “I did a bunch of interviews yesterday from other areas and some of the bigger centres couldn’t understand why there was so many people there and what they were all doing there. They just didn’t understand the makeup of a small community and how important that is. It was pretty cool to see.”
But the coolest part of all was still to come.
Munro said that once the three victims had been brought back to full consciousness and were safely in the ambulance and on their way to hospital, a thunderous and very enthusiastic cheer went up from the large crowd after realizing what they had done to save the three men and the severity of the situation. In many cases, Munro said people were breaking down and crying and there were plenty of hugs going around.
It remains unknown as to just how long the males were in the water but the RCMP estimates it could have been up to three hours – and this isn’t the mid-July type water either.
Munro said just two days earlier they knew there was still ice floating on the lake and he estimates the temperature of the water at the time of the sinking as somewhere between three and five degrees above freezing.
The two oldest of the three males – who ranged in age from 21 to 28, were released later that night after receiving treatment while the youngest was released the following day.
While the weather at the time was a bit unstable with on and off wind gusts and periodic rain, Munro said the boat most likely sunk due to a mechanical failure that resulted in all three men congregating in the stern or back portion of the boat.
According to one of the men rescued, the boat had run out of fuel while they were returning from fishing. The trio then hooked up a spare tank to the engine however they could not restart the engine after many attempts and decided to row to the shore.
The wind, however, restricted them from making any headway and the boat began to drift out of control. At that point, the men opted to drop the anchor to prevent any further drifting however the combination of the prevailing winds and the excessive weight in the back of the boat caused the nose to rise out of the water bringing the stern dangerously close to the waterline.
All it took from there was a few big waves, and the boat was swamped and sinking very quickly.
“If those guys hadn’t have found them on their way back through from the search, I don’t think we would have found them that night. It’s a very big lake and they didn’t have much time left,” Munro said. “One of the guys – I didn’t hear him say it personally, but he had apparently told Constable Coulthard, that once it got dark they had pretty much given up and didn’t think it was going to happen.”
Following the incident, the RCMP were quick to emphasize to boaters not to take lakes or the weather lightly as they are a force of nature and in both cases, can change very quickly.
“There’s a few things that I would stress,” Munro said. “First, have someone with experience with you. Don’t just jump on a boat and go out on a lake and assume that nothing is going to go wrong. You have to have some knowledge about boating and there are boating safety course that are available. Even if they’re not mandatory, I’d encourage people to get the handbook and go through some of that stuff.”
He was also quick to remind boat owners to thoroughly check their vessels closely before going out on the water, especially if it is for the first time in a season.
“Another thing is maintenance and equipment. Make sure your engine is working properly, make sure your plugs are in place and where they need to be, make sure you have some safety equipment on board like some flares,” he said. “As well, make sure you have some basic survival equipment”
Whether it be going for a cruise on the water, a snowmobile ride in the winter or just a walk around the block, Munro said letting someone know where you’re going and how long you’ll be could be the critical difference between life and death. Equally important – especially in the case of isolated rural areas, is the ability to reach others in case of an emergency.
“These guys all had cell phones and all three had left them back in the cabin, so communication is key,” he said. “In the policing business, communications are probably our most important tool. If you’re in an area where there is no cell phone coverage, you can get handheld VHF radios that are fairly inexpensive. They have specific marine features on them like an emergency channel and with one push of the button, you’ll be patched into the Coast Guard or a help centre.”
Munro also strongly urged the public to become very familiar with the mechanical operations of their recreational vehicles – including boats, and to be prepared with emergency supplies such as bailing pumps, oars, flares and, of course, the ultra-important life jackets.
“They did have life jackets on though, otherwise, they wouldn’t have made it,” Munro added. “When they were found they were barely conscious and the life jackets were the only thing that saved their lives. There’s no way we would have found them. It was their life jackets that kept them up at the time that they were found.”
The youngest one was in the worst shape and had to spend the night in hospital. The other two were released a few hours later.”
In the event that the boat capsizes, Munro said it’s just like stalling a car in the middle of a brutal winter and emphasized the importance of both staying with the vehicle and staying together, no matter what.
“I think people have a misconception that they’ve seen in movies where a boat sinks and sucks them under the water. Well that’s not going to happen with a little boat – maybe a huge ship, but not a little one,” he said. “So stay with the boat and also stay together. I don’t know what the circumstances were – they may have started out together and may have lost consciousness to the point where they couldn’t hang on and drifted apart. But you should always stay together.
Munro said it could be very beneficial in two ways. First, if in the water, holding on to each other or hugging will preserve body heat and keep core temperatures higher. Secondly, several bodies together make a larger visual target and are much easier to see from a distance or the shore than just one head bobbing in the water that could be mistaken for a duck or other waterfowl.