Kayaker helps rescue crew after tug flips in notorious B.C. narrows

One kayaker was already shooting video of the tugboat North Arm Venture and its barge as they sailed towards the middle of Skookumchuck Narrows. By August, the six-minute video of the capsizing and rescue had received more than 85,000 views on YouTube.

It has all the elements of an extreme kayaking movie — astounding scenery, whitewater rapids and nerve-rattling adventure.

But when kayaker Dave Fusilli realized he might have to dive into a rolled-over tugboat to save a missing crewman on July 19, he thought maybe he’d bitten off more than he could chew.

On June 19, the 42-foot North Arm Venture, with an equipment barge in tow, flipped over in British Columbia’s Skookumchuck Narrows, at the entrance to Sechelt Inlet. Fusilli, 28, and his companions witnessed the whole thing while waiting for tidal rapids at the inlet, 75 miles northwest of Vancouver.

Three mariners swam away from the capsized tug, but one crewman was trapped inside the vessel.

“All kinds of things went through my mind,” he said later. “What was I going find down there? Was there a body? Was it going to be dark? And then he popped out of there.”

One mariner was injured in the accident, according to the Joint Rescue Co-ordination Centre Victoria. The crew was towing a 172-foot barge, North Arm Express, which carried five or six fuel trucks. The barge and trucks weren’t damaged.

Skookumchuck Narrows is legendary for turbulent tidal rapids. On a 10-foot tide, 200 billion gallons of water flow through the narrows connecting Sechelt and Jervis Inlet. The difference in water levels between one side of the rapids and the other sometimes exceeds 6.5 feet in height. Current speeds can exceed 20 mph.

It is preferable to run the narrows at slack tide, but on some big tides there is effectively no slack tide. Times of tides can also vary significantly from published tide data depending on the weather and freshet conditions inside Sechelt Inlet.

Fusilli and his Demshitz team members were touring British Columbia making kayaking videos. While waiting for waves to build, they spotted the barge.

“He was directly across and coming out towards us, and I think he was going to turn,” Fusilli said. “The corner of the tug went under. Once it started to go underwater, the momentum just kept carrying through. It went over pretty fast.”

Kayaker Dave Fusilli pulls on of the tugboat’s crew to the safety of the barge.

North Arm Venture’s captain, mate and deck hand were thrown in the water. A barge man, still in his bunk, was trapped inside the 440-hp tug.
While other vessels approached, Fusilli paddled out in his kayak. He steered around the side of the barge and came to the overturned twin-screw vessel. Two men had made it onto the barge, and a third was some distance away, caught in the tide.

“I came around the barge and I saw the upside-down boat with the propellers still spinning and the engine getting louder and louder,” Fusilli said. “I paddled out there and (one crewman) grabbed onto the kayak and I pulled him to the tug. He said there was another guy in the boat … and he said, •We gotta get him out of there.’ He said, •Can you swim very good?’ That’s when a lot of things went through my mind. We were banging on the hull. About a minute later the guy popped up from out of the tugboat.”

Fusilli paddled over to the victim, who clasped the end of the kayak. Fusilli dragged him to a ladder on the barge. Reached by telephone by Professional Mariner, the man who had been trapped declined an interview, saying that he’d been instructed not to comment.

The Joint Rescue Co-ordination Centre said one of the crew sustained a head injury and was evacuated to nearby Egmont by the water taxi Duke of Earl.

The 33-foot tug Sea Imp X was also in the area, responded immediately and towed the capsized tug and the barge to nearby Killam Bay. Canadian Coast Guard fast response craft Westview 1 and lifeboat Cape Caution also arrived.

Peter Hewlett, general manager at North Arm Transportation Ltd., said the crew entered the narrows in slack water.

“They went in at exactly the right time,” Hewlett told Professional Mariner. “The tides don’t conform exactly to the tide chart. It seems as if there was some water moving in the narrows. Something caused the barge to veer to the right.”

Fraser River Pile & Dredge conducted the salvage operation, Hewlett said. The damage has been assessed, but he could not provide a dollar figure.

“The engines would be damaged significantly,” he said. “She went over running.”

Canada’s Transportation Safety Board is investigating.

Michel Drouin

By Professional Mariner Staff