Crew battles violent storm in search for tug that failed to show up for B.C. rendezvous

With wind gusts of 50 knots and waves threatening to overcome their boat, Glenn Moffat and Len Stefiuk steered out into Sunderland Channel off the coast of Vancouver Island on the morning of March 7 in an attempt to find a tug that had failed to arrive for a rendezvous.

The missing vessel, 42-foot Island Providour I, had last been heard from at 0200 when it contacted Vessel Traffic Services Comox to announce that the boat would be stopping for the night. The crew of Island Providour I, Brad Scott, 47 and Layne Olsen, 25, had made the decision to halt their southbound tow of two barges after battling high winds and rough seas.

Moffat and Stefiuk, aboard the 42-foot Island Yarder, were to meet Island Providour I at a prearranged spot.

"We were supposed to meet them off Kelsey Bay that morning at 6:30," Moffat explained. "When they didn't arrive we made a few phone calls, and we talked to traffic (Vessel Traffic Services) who told us they weren't in the system."

The two returned home, but then their manager at Jarl Towing called them back to say that the Island Providour I's owners had called saying they did not know the whereabouts of their vessel and to proceed to search for it. Given the severity of the conditions, Moffat and Stefiuk began to fear the worst.

{C}Island Providour I , which sank in British Columbia's Sunderland Channel, is shown here at a Campbell River dock after the vessel was salvaged.

The searchers had no way to know at the time that, in fact, Island Providour I had sunk and its crew taken to a life raft. Soon after the last message was sent to the vessel traffic system, the two barges being towed by the tug were caught by the wind and swung out to the side of the tug. The torque created by the massive two-story barge and an equipment barge was more than Island Providour I could take; the tug was overtaken by its load and pulled under.

"There was a lot of windage on this camp; it is a monstrous two-story thing," said Marc Proulx, a Canadian Coast Guard Officer at the Joint Rescue Coordination Centre in Victoria. "The windage grabbed them and girded them and they started down-flooding. They went over so fast • all they could do was grab the life raft and get in. The skipper actually went in the water."

Camp barges are essentially floating logging camps. This one was a full facility barge, capable of housing 200 people. In addition to the camp barge, Island Providour I was towing a second one with logging equipment on board.

The tug went down at 0300, leaving the two men floating in Sunderland Channel with no food or water and wearing very little clothing to keep them warm. Eventually, the crew was lucky enough to drift into the shore of Hardwicke Island but, with no way of contacting rescuers, they were left waiting in the life raft for any signs of another boat. At daybreak, the last person to have seen the two men and Island Providour I, the man on the camp barge, contacted the tug's owners, West Coast Tug & Barge in Campbell River, informing them that he had not heard or seen from the men. The company headquarters then contacted the Comox Coast Guard as to their disappearance. The call was made at sunrise after the whiteout had cleared and the barge's caretaker was able to see the towline leading down into the water.

"There was the guy on the camp barge, and as daylight came around he said they were anchored up somewhere," Moffat told Professional Mariner. "Last time he had heard them he said they were checking out of the system. When we heard that, it was pretty obvious what had happened."

The barge man had been monitoring the tug's radio signals and had heard the vessel check out of the vessel traffic system. Island Yarder could establish no radio contact with the tug or barge.

The Island Yarder crewmembers knew that they could not waste any time in starting a search for the missing tug, but with the storm that had likely taken Island Providour I down still raging, the two men knew full well the risk involved.

"It was one of those days that you never leave the dock unless you have to," said Moffat. "When we left we were getting gusts of 45 to 50 knots, we were taking greenies over the bow. It was just as bad coming back."

As day broke and white-out conditions diminished, the barge man had noticed the towline hanging down in the water and contacted West Coast Tug & Barge, who then contacted the Coast Guard.

According to Proulx, the Coast Guard issued a mayday relay requesting information on the missing tug and then notified the Victoria Joint Rescue Coordination Centre. A Coast Guard cutter, Buffalo aircraft and Cormorant helicopter were tasked to the scene.

Just as the mayday relay was being broadcast, Island Yarder was approaching Hardwicke and York islands. What Moffat and Stefiuk saw confirmed their worries.

"When we came around the corner from between Hardwicke and Yorke Island, we could see the barges anchored in the middle of the channel. The moment we saw the barges all of a sudden, we just started looking."

Seeing the barges detached from the tug, Moffat and Stefiuk were convinced that the tug had gone down and could only hope that the crew had gotten out in time. After scanning the shore of Hardwicke Island for about two miles, Moffat and Stefiuk spotted the life raft on the shore. Then the two survivors, Scott and Olsen, came into view, safe on the raft but shaking from the cold.

"We were so happy to see them. It was a huge relief to see the two of them stand up and step out of that Beaufort," Moffat said.

"We put the boat on the beach to get at them," he said. "Lennie and I didn't want to put our boat in too much danger. There were big swells, but we put her up on the beach with some bumping and thumping, and they left everything behind and crawled over the bow with no shoes and limited clothes. They were both extremely cold and wet of course. We wrapped them up and fed them hot coffee."

The relief of the two survivors was matched by their rescuers. "It sure makes a guy feel good compared to what we expected when we left," Moffat commented. "We had no idea what we were going to see when we went out there and everything went the right way."

According to Proulx, no float-free EPIRB was activated at the time of the tug's sinking. Proulx said the Coast Guard was not certain the vessel had one on board, and without this emergency distress signal it was impossible to locate the vessel once communication was lost and the boat began to sink. "With no notification of this, it could have ended up tragically," he added. "It took them two and a half hours to drift ashore. They were very lucky."

The vessel has been raised, and the Transportation Safety Board of Canada is investigating the incident.

Michel Drouin

By Professional Mariner Staff