British Columbia

Rescue of Vancouver Island fishing guide 'absolute miracle'

Experienced fishing guide Neil Sherwood managed to swim for more than three hours in rough seas off Vancouver Island's west coast before rescuers managed to spot him.

'I have no words for the relief I felt,' says fishing guide of the moment Coast Guard Zodiac appeared

Neil Sherwood says he told himself to stay calm and push out negative thoughts while he swam for three hours in rough seas hoping for rescue. (Neil Sherwood)

Alone for hours with only his thoughts and the cresting waves, Neil Sherwood forced himself to avoid thinking about the people who would miss him.

He believed it was the only way to survive, and it worked.

The 44-year-old fishing guide managed to swim in cold, rough seas,for more than three hours on Monday. He was 13 nautical miles from land near Kyuquot on Vancouver Island's west coast. 

"Even if I was starting to think about my family, or past loves of my life, or who I would miss, or who is going to miss me, I would immediately just get those thoughts out of my mind," Sherwood said.

Sherwood, who has been a guide in B.C. since the early 1990s, started the day by picking up a guest at Rodgers Fishing Lodge in Esperanza Inlet.

The weather was far from perfect, but not out of the ordinary for the rugged west coast of Vancouver Island, he said.

"The conditions weren't ideal for fishing, but it's something that we've got to face all the time."

No lifejacket

Sherwood gave his favourite lifejacket to his guest. He didn't pull out another one for himself, a move he would soon come to regret once they started fishing.

"I was struggling to bring the fish aboard, so I reached over and grabbed it by the gills and that is when we were hit broadside by a particularly big wave. Next thing you knew I was in the water."

Neil Sherwood, 44, was pulled from rough seas near Kyuquot Sound after about three hours alone in the water without a lifejacket. (Joint Rescue Coordination Centre Victoria)

Sherwood said his guest took control of the boat and tried to swing it around so he could climb back in. But with little marine experience and difficult conditions, he couldn't get the vessel close enough. 

It wasn't long before Sherwood could no longer even see the boat.

"It was becoming very clear that I might be in [the water] for a long time," he said. "It was definitely a lonely feeling."

Calm thoughts, slow movements

Sherwood said his thoughts immediately turned to how to survive. He rushed to shed the rubber boots, pants, and fleece layers that were weighing him down. 

Swimming in just his underwear and a thin orange jacket he thought a rescuer might be able to spot, Sherwood did what he could to conserve energy.

"I need to relax, I need to calm my thoughts, and I need to control my movements," he said of what was running through his head. 

He spent the next three-and-a-half hours thinking only of the next five minutes. He also fought against hypothermia and pushed back any negative thoughts.

"Eventually, I saw a black Zodiac just come out of nowhere. I have no words for the relief I felt and I remember kind of thinking I don't have to fight anymore," he said. 

"I will never forget that moment."

Extremely lucky

The black Zodiac was from the Canadian Coast Guard. Sherwood's guest had managed to make a distress call from the fishing boat before heading for land himself.

It was part science and part luck that Sherwood was spotted, said Katy Rodin, a member of the crew that left from the Coast Guard station on Nootka Island to carry out the rescue, along with aircraft from the 442 Search and Rescue Squadron at CFB Comox.

Sherwood's last known coordinates were put in a computer program that takes into account wind and ocean conditions to estimate a current location.

Large swells can make it difficult to spot someone in the water, even if they are close by. But that wasn't the case this time, Rodin said.

"It was almost like the sea just pushed him up towards us. He just was right on top of a swell right ahead of us."

Sherwood was flown to Comox for medical treatment, but after a few hours of treatment for hypothermia, he was released.

News of the rescue soon made it back to people in Kyuquot who had had tried to help search for Sherwood, and assisted the stranded guest on board his boat.

"It's an absolute miracle that everything happened the way it did," said Matt Guiguet, an owner at Rugged Point Lodge. "Neil kept swimming."

Previous survival

Sherwood had some experience to draw on when he went into the water. He was also involved in a marine accident nearly 20 years ago.

He was fishing with a friend off Haida Gwaii, B.C., when a wave swamped the boat. After several hours of clinging to the overturned vessel, the pair decided to swim for shore.

Sherwood made it, but his friend did not. 

"Through that experience of being in the water before for long periods of time and dealing with hypothermia and big waves and loneliness, I definitely drew on that experience," he said.

Sherwood returned to work and was back out on the water Thursday, but said he will never again be on his boat without a lifejacket or personal flotation device.

His only thoughts now are of gratitude for everyone involved in his rescue.

And if anyone finds the Edmonton Oilers ball cap he was wearing while they are out fishing on the West Coast, Sherwood would like it back.

"It's my lucky fishing hat."