British Columbia·Photos

Leviathan II survivors' special thank you takes shape in Ahousaht

A year after a whale-watching tragedy near Tofino, B.C, killed six people, a couple that survived has returned to help build a skatepark for youth in the nearby village of Ahousaht.

Skateboard park build a year later connects survivors of whale-watching tragedy with rescuers

Survivor Dwayne Mazereeuw (centre) shows plans for the skatepark to Ahousaht fishermen Clarence Smith (left) and Ken Brown (right) who spotted the only flare deployed from the Leviathan II last year. (Megan Thomas)

Standing on the beach in Ahousaht, B.C., Dwayne Mazereeuw looks at the choppy waters off Vancouver Island's west coast that nearly took his life a year ago.

"This place has a special place in our hearts now," Mazereeuw says. "We have a very unique and deep connection."

Mazereeuw, 36, and his wife Elisa Kasha, 34, of Calgary were enjoying a Tofino whale-watching excursion aboard the Leviathan II when the boat suddenly capsized and they were tossed into the frigid water.

Skateboard park connects survivors of whale-watching tragedy with rescuers 1:11

The couple managed to cling to a flotation ring for what felt like an hour until a water taxi from the village of Ahousaht arrived and pulled them on board.

"It's not anything we will ever forget. It's going to affect us for the rest of our lives," said Mazereeuw.

Construction is underway on a skatepark in the village of Ahousaht. (Nate Webster)

The water taxi operated by Michelle and Francis Campbell was one of several vessels from Ahousaht and other local communities that rushed to help. In total, 21 people were rescued — but six people passed away.

Following that traumatic day, Mazereeuw was looking for a way to say thank you to the people of Ahousaht for the heroic rescue effort.

Then he heard about a campaign by the Vancouver company Landyachtz to build a skatepark for youth in the remote community.

Mazereeuw, who happens to design skateparks for a living for New Line Skateparks, jumped at the chance to help — even though travelling to Ahousaht meant getting back on a boat on the waters that nearly took his life.

Grant Shilling from Get On Board (left), Patti Campbell, deputy chief councillor for the Ahousaht First Nation (centre), and Leviathan II survivor Dwayne Mazereeuw breaking ground for the new skatepark. (Dominic Campbell)

"Initially after the accident, I didn't know if we would ever come back out here, if we would ever want to," he says.

"I get very nervous to come out and take a boat trip. But every time I feel a bit better."

Mazereeuw's willingness to travel back to the region, even though it means overcoming any lingering fear of the water, is not lost on the people of Ahousaht.

"I love that he is here, that he is open to coming to the community," says Patti Campbell, deputy chief councillor for the Ahousaht First Nation

"We didn't ask anything of him. He offered to help do this for us."

A concrete pad by the beach in Ahousaht will be home to the new skatepark. (Louis Frank)

'Deep connections'

Mazereeau is now on his third visit to Ahousaht and this time he will be here for several weeks to oversee construction of the skatepark.

Spending time in the community has also given him the chance to connect with rescuers like Ken Brown and Clarence Smith, the fishermen who spotted the only flare the crew of the Leviathan II managed to deploy.

"It's pretty cool. I'm touched by it, really," Ken Brown says while watching the start of construction on Ahousaht's skatepark. "I'm glad some good has come out of what we did a year ago."

Kids have been longboarding in the remote community for several years, but it's been a challenge with just one paved road to use. (Ron Pogue )

Unique challenges

Skateboarding is a new sport for kids in Ahousaht. It started to take off after outreach worker Grant Shilling from Cumberland, B.C., convinced Landyachtz to donate some longboards and helmets.

When the company realized there was only one paved road to ride on in Ahousaht, it made a financial donation and launched an online fundraising campaign to build the skatepark.

"This community has its own set of unique challenges, one of them being isolation and just access to sporting facilities and activities," says Shilling, a volunteer with the non-profit Get On Board that uses board sports to help young people develop confidence and life skills.

"It's about meeting the kids where they are and skateboarding is cool."

The skatepark project is expected to take about five weeks. All the construction materials and concrete for the park will have to arrive by barge.

"It is a unique build, for sure," Mazereeuw says. "There's definitely some extra logistics involved."

All construction materials and concrete for the skatepark will have to arrive by barge because of Ahousaht's remote location. (Ileisha George)

Commemorative plaque

The community of Tofino plans to pay tribute to the victims of the Leviathan II tragedy on Tuesday afternoon with a ceremony at the First Street Dock to unveil a commemorative plaque.

The Transportation Safety Board of Canada continues to investigate what caused the boat to capsize. It's expected to release its findings next year.

Several civil lawsuits were also launched by survivors and family members of those who died. Those cases remain before the courts.

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