British Columbia·Photos

Canadian Coast Guard's Siyay hovercraft returning to service

After about a year without the Siyay hovercraft, the Sea Island Canadian Coast Guard base will soon have its workhorse back in service after it underwent significant maintenance and repairs.

The Siyay hovercraft has been out of the water for a year, as it underwent maintenance and repairs

The Siyay sits in a hangar at Sea Island base in Richmond. The hovercraft will undergo testing and inspections over the next couple weeks before being loaded with safety and operational gear and put back into regular service. (Rafferty Baker/CBC)

The Canadian Coast Guard is welcoming the CCGS Siyay hovercraft back into service at its Sea Island base in Richmond, just as the busy rescue season on the water is set to ramp up.

The 18-year-old hovercraft was on dry land for about a year, while it underwent significant maintenance at the Seaspan shipyards in North Vancouver.

"We've got, now, two crafts that are capable of doing more program work. So, it gives us the opportunity — whichever one's in for maintenance or servicing, the other can carry on with the same type of work," said Sea Island base Officer in Charge Bruce Briggs. 

Bruce Briggs pilots the CCGS Siyay from the water onto land at the Sea Island base in Richmond. (Rafferty Baker/CBC)

"They can be used in a multipurpose role. So we'll use them to relieve [navigational] aids.  We service a couple of the light stations with fuel and water."

The Coast Guard had been relying on a third hovercraft, the CCGS Penac — a passenger hovercraft built in 1984 that used to transport civilians across the English Channel — to fill in for the Siyay. But the older Penac doesn't have the large cargo area and can't be used for lots of the work done out of the base.

CCGS Siyay, along with the CCGS Moytel, have large multi-use cargo areas at the front of the vessel. While Siyay was out of service, the Sea Island base had to rely on the older passenger hovercraft, CCGS Penac. (Rafferty Baker/CBC)

Canada's busiest Coast Guard base

The Sea Island base is the busiest Coast Guard station in the country, according to Briggs. 

"We'll get over 300 — between 300 and 350 — calls, [search and rescue] tasking each year," he said.

"This area, there's a lot of mud flats, so there's a lot of shallow water," said Briggs. "We deal with a lot of just, your basic boats going aground. You get boats on fire. You get any number of things, you know, people going in the water."

Briggs and his crews don't like to talk about one of the common calls they handle: People who attempt suicide by jumping off the Lower Mainland bridges. A couple times a month the Coast Guard will be dispatched to help local fire or police departments with a call like that.

Medical emergencies

Another fairly common call for the hovercrafts during the summer months — and one that tends to be much less tragic — involves beachgoers at Wreck Beach.

"We get quite a few interesting calls here," said David Schur, a rescue specialist and diver at Sea Island, who has been called to Wreck Beach plenty in his 11-year career.

Canadian Coast Guard rescue specialist and diver David Schur uses the hovercrafts as a platform for all kinds of rescue efforts, both on land and at sea. (Rafferty Baker/CBC)

"Throughout the summer, we get everything from heat stroke, twisted ankles, people that can't walk back up the stairs," he said.

His rescue specialist colleague, Gary Nolan, agreed; the beach can keep them busy.

"We run into a lot of medevacs within Wreck Beach there, and a big portion of that is due to the inaccessibility," he said.

CCGS Siyay is powered by four large diesel engines, each with its own control. Two, power the massive rear propellors. Two, power the hovercraft's lift. (Rafferty Baker/CBC)

Hallucinating patient

Schur said a recent incident at the beach involved a young woman who was tripping on psychedelic mushrooms.

"We did one a couple weeks ago where a girl climbed the sand dunes and after some edibles, thought maybe she could fly, or I'm not sure, but she took a pretty big fall and was injured. We ended up having to medevac her off the beach."

"You can climb up there, and some people think it's a good idea to head up and hang out there and unfortunately this individual, without going into specifics, ended up injuring herself," added Nolan.

Rescue specialist Gary Nolan says the hovercraft is frequently deployed to Wreck Beach for medical calls during the busy summer months. (Rafferty Baker/CBC)

"She was severely intoxicated, where she couldn't explain to us where her injuries were," finished Schur.

According to the two rescue specialists, the team got her strapped into a stretcher and used a hovercraft to transport her to nearby the Spanish Banks beach, where paramedics could meet them with an ambulance.

But the rescue couldn't be done with the CCGS Siyay, as it still won't be loaded up with its equipment and put into regular service for a couple of weeks. 

The hovercraft is now undergoing testing and inspections at Sea Island. Briggs hopes the midlife maintenance will mean that CCGS Siyay will be part of the team's tool kit for about 20 more years.

Sea Island Officer in Charge Bruce Briggs looks at the medical room in the CCGS Siyay. The medical supplies still haven't been restocked after Siyay's year out of service. (Rafferty Baker/CBC)