Despite the busy scene at Hamilton Harbour where dozens of boats were docked for Canada Day weekend outings, Const. Marty Bushell's weekend patrol aboard The Alliance I seemed routine and quiet on a balmy Saturday. 

His partner Tom Bennett occasionally read out the water depths on the plotter to remind Bushell to avoid shallow water. The sound of the engine and the fan quickly drowned out small talk between the two Hamilton police marine unit officers. 

Then a Mayday call came.

Bushell slowed down the boat, adjusted his hat and took a sip of water, as he waited for radio communication. 

"Roger. How many people are on board your vessel? Over," the coast guard was heard asking someone on the radio.

Silence. 

“Roger. Are you in any immediate danger? Over,” the coast guard continued. 

Silence.

“Roger. Do you have a GPS position? Over.”

More silence.

The one-way conversation, Bushell explained, suggested that the boat in distress was too far away for The Alliance to pick up its radio transmission. 

As the call appeared to come from another jurisdiction and the coast guard was responding, The Alliance resumed its patrol. 

Bushell is one of the four full-time constables of Hamilton police's marine unit. With the help of four other part-time members including Bennett, the unit provides police visibility along Hamilton's waterfront and performs search and rescue if needed.

“If there's no deterrent out there, all kinds of shenanigans are going on,” Bushell said, referring to drinking and the behaviours that come with alcohol abuse. “We really don't get that here, because people see us out every day.”

Proper-fitting life jacket

Nonetheless, ahead of the Canada Day celebration and the peak of the boating season, Hamilton police's marine unit wants to send a message to the public about boating safety: Wear life jackets that fit properly and stock up on adequate safety equipment.

Mayday vs. Pan-Pan

It is not uncommon for the Mayday call to be abused. Someone once called Mayday for sea sickness, Bennett recalled. For non-life-threatening situations, people can use the phrase "Pan-Pan," which means "I need help but it's not urgent," Bushell said. 

“Life jackets are meant to be worn,” he told CBC Hamilton.

The bulky, orange life jackets invented in the 70s can be quite uncomfortable, Bushell said, but now there are better-fitting options.

In addition, choosing the right size is essential. The label inside the life jacket will show the height and weight it's designed to hold.

“A couple of times we have found people on vessels [and] while they did have life jackets, they didn't have the appropriate sizes for the people on board,” Bushell said. 

An ill-fitted life jacket will easily come off when someone falls into the water, he added. 

OPP alarmed by fatalities

The lack of life jackets is also a big concern for the Ontario Provincial Police, following a spike of fatalities in recent boating incidents.

To date, there have been 11 boating deaths this year within the OPP jurisdiction, compared to five at this time last year.

The majority of these deaths were preventable, OPP said. Nine of the 11 victims were not wearing a personal floatation device (PFD) or a life jacket. Alcohol was a factor in at least three of the incidents.

"Our officers have come to expect that when they recover deceased boating victims, the overwhelming majority of them will not be wearing a PFD or life jacket,” said deputy commissioner Brad Blair, commander, OPP traffic safety and operational support, in a news release.

When they're not worn, PFDs or life jackets are useless safety equipment, he added.

“Boating incidents come up very suddenly and afford no time to reach for a PFD let alone put it on before tragedy strikes.”

OPP advise passengers to ask for a PFD or a life jacket before they board the boat. If the operator doesn't provide one, they say, don't go out onto the water.

Invest in proper equipment

In addition to life jackets, Bushell advises operators to stock up their nautical emergency kits with proper equipment. While a generic flare gun with a small, 12-gauge launcher meets the safety requirement, it only goes up several hundred feet. The higher the flare goes, the higher your chance of being seen.

Hamilton police marine unit

Const. Bushell explains how a parachute flare works. (Sunnie Huang/CBC)

For night time use, Bushell recommends a parachute flare that can shoot up to 1000 feet and burn intensely until it hits the water.

For day time, an orange smoke canister is likely the only option. Pull it and throw it in the water in the event of an emergency and it will emit a cloud of orange smoke that's visible in daylight.

Operators should also check the kit for expiry dates and restock accordingly, Bushell added. 

"It they are not up to date, it's the same as not having them," he said. 

“If you are willing to spend big money on a boat, let's step it up and buy some really good equipment.”