News Local

Changing of the Guard

By Pete Fisher, Northumberland Today


Next season will bring new faces and a new ship to the local Coast Guard station.

Both captains and both engineers of the two crews are retiring and there will also be a new cutter at the Cobourg station in the coming year.

In total, over 140 years of Coast Guard experience will be gone from the local station.

Captain Colin Slade and engineer Paul Whalen from one of the two crews spoke with Northumberland Today about the upcoming retirements.

Each crew of four work two-week shifts before changing. Although the standby time is 30 minutes from receiving the call to leaving the dock for a rescue, the average time is two minutes for the day and approximately eight minutes during the night hours.

The season for the Coast Guard runs from around the beginning of April to early December.

Some crew members then transfer to ice-breakers (there are two on the Great Lakes) for winter months before returning back to the base in Cobourg.

This Sunday, the Coast Guard cutter Cape Mercy will leave Cobourg for the final time and will be replaced tentatively by the Cape Rescue next year. It is an identical ship, but newer.

Through the winter months if anything is needed, the military will be called in from CFB Trenton.

Slade and Whalen walked away from their last shift on Wednesday.

Each has over 35 years with the Canadian Coast Guard.

Slade joined the Coast Guard at 19-years-old after he saw an ad in a Toronto newspaper. He grew up in Brampton and had a family background on the water with his family owning a sailboat on Lake Simcoe.

“I got accepted at both the Coast Guard College and Georgian College, but the Coast Guard College was free so I chose that one,” Slade said with a smile as he sat in his office looking through old newspaper articles.

It was 1981 and Slade spent the next three years at Coast Guard College, though he joined his first ship the next year in Newfoundland.

Since then, he’s worked on approximately 30 ships throughout his career, from ice-breakers, buoy tenders, research vessels and search and rescue.

Slade started off as a cadet and worked his way up the rank structure until he discovered Search and Rescue.

“I really like the atmosphere of Search and Rescue,” Slade said.

Filling in for other crew members, Slade started coming to Cobourg in 1991 before eventually becoming captain at the Search and Rescue station.

For the general public, when speaking of the Canadian Coast Guard, it doesn’t generally mean Search and Rescue.

“It could mean aids to navigation, ice-breaking, marine traffic, environmental response as there are different branches,” he said.

But the fleet side is where Slade spent his career.

“I’m glad I picked this career, I really enjoyed it and enjoyed sailing on a vessel. I’d do it again,” he said without hesitation.

Since he first joined, Slade said life of search and rescue has changed “tremendously” with technology including cellular phones and Global Positioning Systems (GPS).

“When I first started sailing we were getting position using old style navigation systems of which have long since been phased out and GPS has come to the forefront,” he said. “Positions are now very easy to get and communications has changed tremendously with cell phones and satellite communications.”

When dealing with life and death situations, training is something that is critical not only for the people that need help, but also for the crew.

It’s not uncommon for people who visit the lakeshore to see military aircraft from 424 Squadron at CFB Trenton working with the crew of the Cape Mercy on Lake Ontario.

It’s not only for the benefit of the Coast Guard crews, but for pilots, Search and Rescue technicians and crews members from from the military aircraft in simulating a vessel in distress or lowering a member of the military on-board a moving ship.

But when the time comes and the public needs assistance, members of the Coast Guard will be there, no matter the weather conditions.

Slade has been on many successful rescues, and some that ended tragically.

In the rare instance, it’s about helping people before their life is in jeopardy.

Many years ago a person built a homemade raft near Gage’s Creek in Port Hope.

Slade describes it as a Huckleberry Finn type wooden raft approximately 12 square feet,

“He figured he would paddle around Lake Ontario,” Slade recalled.

Essentially, going wherever the wind took the operator. The person had water on board and a small shed.

“He read something about travelling around the Great Lakes and thought he could do it in a raft,” Slade said. “He was on his way out when we were able to intervene.”

Slade said with his experience, he doesn’t believe the raft would have lasted a day at sea, let alone the first storm.

Over the years the one message Slade said he would convey to boaters is to “prepare for your voyage.

“Evaluate the conditions before you leave and before you enter a harbour.”

Through the summer months when Cobourg becomes a popular tourist destination, members of the crew almost take on a second role as tourist ambassadors given the location of their base at the bottom of Division Street.

Vehicles and pedestrians constantly go past on their way out to the east pier.

“Because of the nature of where it is, we are fielding questions, where’s the washroom, where is downtown, what’s a good restaurant and over the years we’ve probably all been ambassadors answering many questions,” Slade said. “We recognize many, many cars that go out to the pier regularly.”

Slade said he doesn’t have any regrets about the career he choose and would gladly do it again if he had the chance.

“I’ll miss the people and the act of actually rescuing somebody and saving a life is pretty fulfilling,” he said.

Most of the general public really never gets to see members of the crew at the time of an emergency, they just may see the boat tied up along the harbour wall, but Slade said they could have spent the last 12 hours on Lake Ontario conducting a rescue.

Now that his career with the Coast Guard has come to an end, Slade said he has lots of hobbies that will keep him busy and is looking forward to spending time with his grandchild.

“And my wife has a long list of things for me to do,” he quipped.

Whalen, meanwhile, spent his career mostly on ice-breakers in the Great Lakes before transferring to the Coast Guard station in Cobourg seven years ago.

“I was looking for something to re-energize myself and I thought Search and Rescue was a good fit for me,” he said. “I’ve really enjoyed my time.”

When he was an engineer on the larger ships, Whalen said it was like operating a small city with having responsibility for propulsion, water and waste systems, power for the ship including the galley.

But being a member of the Cape Mercy he’s not only in charge of the engine, but he’s also an active member of the search and rescue crew.

“I think Search and Rescue is more face-to-face with the public,” Whalen said. “As a engineer it’s a completely different animal because I spend most of my time down in the engine rooms and on this one I’m up on deck helping out as a component of the search and rescue team as well as maintaining the engine room on-board.”

Whalen got his start after reading a pamphlet in the guidance counsellor’s office of his school and has never looked back.

“I’m really going to miss the people I’ve worked with over my career. I’ve been lucky to have worked with a lot of good people,” he said. “I joined the Coast Guard because I didn’t want to have an office job back when I was in school. I wanted to work with my hands instead of going behind a desk every day.”

For those who are thinking about a career in the Coast Guard, but men said they would encourage it, but don’t really think the career is very well known throughout Canada.

Whalen said he will enjoy his retirement with his family, but will also miss life on the water.

“There was never a lack of something to do,” he said.