By Chris Wickham, Coxswain, RCMSAR Station Mill Bay

This winter I had the privilege of attending the IMRF Lifeboat Crew Exchange Programme in Germany, hosted by the German Maritime Search and Rescue Service (DGzRS). The objective: to share experiences, ideas, and best practices and to improve training and operational capacity.

Our group had volunteer professionals from Greece, Sweden, Norway, France, Estonia, UK, Ireland and Canada. Over the week we visited SAR stations, training centres and maritime and navy memorial museums. We toured the DGzRS shipyard, national headquarters and MRCC (our Marine Communications and Traffic Services) as well as a U-Boat and did sea to air exercises with the German Air Force. We also went to sea on so many vessels I do not have a count. All this was done while being fully engaged in advanced training and exercises in:

  • First aid and transport
  • Damage control
  • Navigation
  • Bridge resource management
  • Seamanship
  • Vessel handling
  • Marine communication (International Maritime Organization Standard Marine Communication Phrases)
  • Firefighting
  • Searching
  • Air to sea rescue

I knew I was in for a rich and unique experience from our first day together. We were assigned to an in-depth simulated search, with four ships working together and a two-manned marine communication centre. After a short intro to the bridge and tools, the exercise began.

On the bridge

The call came over the radio, with SAR vessel positions confirmed and ETAs given. Four vessels coming together for what they call a complex situation, with members from eight countries having never worked together­-what could go wrong? Well apparently, when you bring people from an international stage to train together, very little. The shared best practices and camaraderie were so natural; we aced it and had fun.

Working throughout the week with volunteer and paid professionals from around Europe, I was encouraged by how common many of our best practices are. I was very impressed with the trainers’ ability to facilitate challenging situations that fostered success, and respected the willingness of the masters on the larger ships to hand over the controls to those wishing to take the challenge.

Our final exercise was in the Baltic involving a search for a vessel in distress and two missing crew. We had four agencies and seven vessels execute the exercise. Canada and Estonia (Team Zulu) were handed the 28-metre SAR vessel Berlin and the role of the on-scene commander (OSC). After receiving the Mayday, all vessels in the area reported to MRCC. MRCC immediately handed the search and communication to the Berlin as the OSC. The next hours were very engaging in terms of both communication and navigation.

Sea to air

We established our area of search from the last known position and local weather reports (two hours before the call) and ran a hybrid mid-channel search with the Berlin as the lead. We then advanced to a shore approach on the windward shore, returning on our course offset by two cables. Both OSCARs were found in our return search. The week ended with success and camaraderie, just as it had begun.

The solid training and support I have had over the past seven years was put into practice and allowed this exercise on a European platform to be successful. I know that we at RCMSAR will continue to build on our history. Being in Germany gave affirmation to our foundations and current direction.

I am encouraged by how aligned we are with so many other maritime rescue organizations with respect to practice and training. I was proud and grateful to have had the opportunity to represent Canada at the exchange, and look forward to the opportunity for RCMSAR to host the International Maritime Rescue Federation Congress in Vancouver in 2019.