Technical Rope Rescue on a Lobster Boat
I was a Search and Rescue Technician in Greenwood, Nova Scotia, in 2012; a newly appointed Team Leader, meaning I was the ranking SAR Tech in a team of two on a helicopter crew consisting of the two SAR Techs, two Pilots and a Flight Engineer.
On the opening day of lobster fishing season in the Bay of Fundy, I reported to work for what I thought was an administration day, which meant I would be attending to my secondary duties; helping support our training, maintenance and operations, and conducting dry land training. Essentially, I wasn’t on the flying standby crew, so I didn’t expect to go flying.
The Transport and Rescue Standards and Evaluation Team (TRSET) was in town to audit all of our squadron paperwork and records, and generally inspect every aspect of our operation. Part of their job was to evaluate our “in house” standards checkers; the people that evaluate the members of the squadron to ensure performance standards are upheld. TRSET’s task was to observe our standards member conducting a “no notice check ride;” a spontaneous test for a member chosen by the checker. I was chosen to be the member. So my relatively low-key admin day became a trial by fire, and my test anxiety was starting to build.
We did our pre-flight checks and took off. My checker was watching my work and supervision of my Team Member SAR Tech, Master Corporal Jim Cooke. As I was conducting my duties my squadron standards checker was asking me questions about procedures and the specifications of the CH-149 Cormorant helicopter, on which we were flying. Of course, he was asking me all the questions to which I did not know the answers, and after saying, “I don’t know,” several times in a row, my anxiety was getting even worse.
By the time we were about to start a hoisting exercise, the lead standards guy from TRSET was on his second red pen, and I was (internally) a mess. I knew things were going badly, and if I failed this check ride I would be suspended from flying until I could pass again.
Just when I was at my lowest, the pilots got a radio call from the Joint Rescue Coordination Centre in Halifax, Nova Scotia. A lobster fisherman off Digby, NS had fallen overboard, spent at least 5 minutes in the water, and had been recovered to the boat but now had a decreased level of consciousness and was combative. Boom! A live mission! The Rescue Gods had answered my prayers. My feelings of anxiety immediately disappeared and I got very calm as we planned our insertion and rescue on the way to the boat.
When we arrived over the boat, we saw an approximately 40 foot vessel completely loaded with lobster traps from the stern, all the way to the back of the wheelhouse. There was nowhere to walk on the deck.
When the CH-149 Cormorant does a boat hoist, they instruct the vessel to sail into wind at approximately 10 knots. The helicopter then matches the speed and direction of the boat and it essentially becomes a hover, although much harder to match speed and direction and allow for pitch and roll of the boat. To maintain visual reference on smaller watercraft, the helicopter has to hoist to the very back left corner, or fly backwards into wind and hoist to the bow. Even then, often the only thing the pilot sees is an antenna or mast. Luckily, this boat had a large mast above the wheelhouse, and a boom extending horizontally backwards 90 degrees from the mast. More on those features later.
I chose to hoist to the back left corner of the boat, on top of the huge stack of lobster traps. I briefed to the crew that I would hoist out first with a guideline in hand, then Jim would follow while I controlled the guideline to stabilize him, then we would insert the Stokes litter. My thought for using the Stokes was if the patient was combative we could secure him in it and he would be immobilized, allowing for a smoother extraction.
After I hoisted down and successfully guidelined Jim onto the top of the traps, I handed the guideline to him to bring down the Stokes and I proceeded to the wheelhouse with my “SAR penetration kit” medical pack. As I mentioned, the boat was completely stacked with traps and the only way into the wheelhouse was a small opening approximately 1½ feet wide on the starboard side. I realized right away that this was a huge problem to get the Stokes in and to get our patient out.
When I arrived at the patient, he was indeed combative and not coherent. He was the Captain of the boat and insisted he wanted to keep fishing. Jim suggested we employ our Agitated Patient protocol and gave him some oral Lorazepam to calm him down. We then spent the next 10 – 15 minutes (the longest phase of the rescue) trying to get the patient into a cold water survival suit. It was like trying to dress an uncooperative toddler to go out in the snow.
The only viable place for a hoist extraction was the bow. I realized we would have to pass the Stokes over the water to get it out and around the wheelhouse to the front of the boat; unacceptable. I called the helicopter and briefed for an insertion of our rescue basket (different from the Stokes in that the patient is now seated upright), and our rope rescue kit. I instructed Jim to widen the exit to the wheelhouse and make a workspace behind the wheelhouse where we could load the patient into the basket. He must have cut at least 10 lobster traps away and threw them overboard.
In order to get our patient safely to the bow, we had to go up and over the wheelhouse. I used the rope rescue kit to build a 4:1 mechanical advantage system with 11mm rope and pulleys. I purposely did not build it with a progress capture. I anchored a tubular webbing sling around the horizontal boom and connected one end of the 4:1 to it. I handed the other end of the 4:1 down to Jim and he connected it to the top of the rescue basket. Jim and three of the crew members lifted the patient in the basket up as I took up slack in the system. Jim climbed to the roof beside me and received the patient as I raised him higher and placed him on the roof. I disconnected the 4:1 and passed it forward to Jim and he connected it to another webbing sling anchored high on the vertical mast. Jim raised the basket, and I controlled it as we moved higher and further forward over the wheelhouse. Once we crested the top, Jim let out line on the system as I pulled the basket and we lowered it onto the bow of the boat. From there, I briefed the extraction sequence. The helicopter had to fly backwards to put the side rescue door on the proper side to face the boat, and we hoisted the patient and ourselves back to the helicopter. The entire operation took about an hour.
The patient was transferred to a Nova Scotia EHS ground ambulance. For being inventive enough to handle a tough rescue problem, and perform the rescue safely, I passed my check ride and lived to fly another day.