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Monday, April 22, 2024
A faint cry for help and rescue from Lake Ontario

Golfers come to aid of three stranded canoeists

Above the sound of the wind and crashing waves of Lake Ontario, somehow Joe Interisano heard a faint cry for help.

As two couples were standing near the seventh tee at the Niagara-on-the-Lake Golf Club on Friday afternoon, alongside the choppy lake, only Interisano heard the yells from three stranded canoeists a few hundred metres offshore.

The trio were in the water, their red canoe flipped over.

The golfers, Interisano, his wife Victoria, and their neighbours Jeff Brookhouser and his wife Lucy, at first only saw two people in the water. They  had lifejackets on and were staying with the overturned watercraft. Later the golfers spotted a third person.

There were some sailboats and other craft nearby and everything seemed under control. “They were in the water but staying with the boat, so it looked like they were going to be OK.”

But, a few minutes later, as the foursome moved along to the seventh green, beside Fort Mississauga, the situation changed.

The canoeists had left their overturned craft and one of them was moving safely toward the shore – but “the other two were trying to swim upstream, against the current, toward the Niagara River.”

One of them was thrashing a bit and, despite wearing a lifejacket, seemed to be a non-swimmer, Interisano said. They were too far from shore to see clearly with the naked eye, but Brookhouser was able to use a golf rangefinder to zoom in a bit.

“We didn’t know how cold the water is and if they’re going to get hypothermia,” Interisano said. Having grown up in Port Colborne where he swam in Lake Erie, he knew things could go bad quickly and that it’s really tough to swim against the current.

At the seventh green, Interisano and his wife clambered down the steep embankment, across the gravel lakeside roadway and onto the boulders of the breakwater.

“We were yelling and trying to get the attention of the boats,” but with the wind, rough water and distance, no one seemed to hear them. “You’re helpless on the shore. We’re trying to scream and trying to get other boaters’ attention.”

Meantime, up near the green, Brookhouser was trying to use his cellphone to call 911, to no avail.

That area can be an intermittent dead zone for cellular service, but after a few minutes of moving around near the green, trying for reception, Brookhouser was able to get through to associate golf pro Ricky Watson in the pro shop. The group’s phones never did connect to 911, Interisano said, which he worries could be a concern in future emergencies.

Watson alerted the Canadian Coast Guard and someone else had already called 911. When Watson arrived on the scene, “I climbed down on the rocks to give them a visual and encourage them to keep swimming. Myself and the members, plus another group, all tried waving down the coast guard and fire boats.”

Amid all this, another problem reared its head: NOTL fire chief Nick Ruller said his crew and water rescue specialists from the St. Catharines Fire Department went to King and Delater streets after the 911 caller said the emergency was between Fort Niagara (which is on the U.S. side of the river) and Fort George. Actually, the incident was about 1.5 kilometres to the west, near Fort Mississauga.

The misdirection only delayed the NOTL crew by a few minutes and the St. Catharines rescuers had intended to launch their two rescue boats from near the NOTL Sailing Club anyway, Ruller said in an interview.

Acting quickly, the fire dispatchers were able to reconnect with the 911 caller and using GPS co-ordinates they were able to pinpoint the location more accurately, he said.

“Canadian and U.S. Coast Guard boats were also in the water, and Niagara EMS and police had resources assisting from land,” Ruller told The Lake Report.

Once safely ashore, the three canoeists were assessed by Niagara EMS and fire crews cleared the scene about 45 minutes after it all began, he said.

The incident is “a timely reminder of the importance of wearing a properly-fitted (lifejacket), knowing your vessel and its limitations and ensuring you are aware of the weather and water conditions prior to heading out on the water,” he said.

“Both St. Catharines and NOTL firefighters did a fantastic job given the circumstances,” Ruller added.

“For the past several years Niagara-on-the-Lake has utilized an automatic aid agreement with St. Catharines to deliver ice and water rescue services in Niagara-on-the-Lake, in order to increase the level of service. Friday’s incident demonstrates the value of these types of agreements for our residents and visitors.”

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