Hours-long rescue saves 2 sailors near Rimouski amid treacherous storm

Ted Savage was having dinner with his wife and friends Friday evening when the power went out and his phone started ringing. What followed was one of the most harrowing rescues of his career.

Horseshoe-shaped reef and 3-metre-high waves make for difficult rescue led by four coast guard volunteers

A 22-foot sailboat capsized near Rimouski Friday evening in the middle of a storm that ravaged several parts of the province and the Ottawa area. (Radio-Canada)

Ted Savage was having dinner with his wife and friends Friday evening when the power went out and his phone started ringing.

As a volunteer firefighter in Métis-sur-Mer​, Que., about 45 minutes up the coast from Rimouski, Savage and his colleagues were on standby for anything that could go wrong during the storm ahead. ​

Savage also heads Eastern Quebec's mostly volunteer-operated Canadian Coast Guard Auxiliary and had secured rescue boats across the North Shore.

But, with near-hurricane conditions forecasted for the area and 100 km/h winds blowing, he didn't think anybody would be at sea.

"We all knew what was coming down the pipe," he told CBC News Sunday morning. "To hear that there was somebody out there, trying to make it in — wow."

What followed turned out to be one of the most harrowing rescues of Savage's 12-year career with the auxiliary. The two sailors, whose identity Savage could not reveal as a matter of policy, made it without serious injuries. That was in part thanks to the dry suits they were wearing and the nearly four-hour operation Savage and a small crew of volunteers carried out.

Ted Savage has been a member of the Canadian Coast Guard Auxiliary for 12 years. He is also a volunteer firefighter based in Métis-sur-Mer, Que. (Submitted by Ted Savage)

Quebec provincial police confirmed it had been called to the shore in case its assistance would be needed, but that the bulk of the operation was accomplished by coast guard rescuers and local firefighters.

'It had all gone terribly wrong'

At 6 p.m., a call from a man and woman on a 22-foot Tanzer 22 sailboat came in asking for assistance from the coast guard to get to Rimouski.

Savage began making his own way to the city on land, knowing the coast guard would need the auxiliary. He and a crew of four men were already on the water with their Zodiac-type boat, which has a rigid hull and inflatable sides, when the couple declared a mayday.

"By 7 o'clock, it had all gone terribly wrong," Savage said.

An unusual southern wind had tipped the sailboat and knocked the two matelots overboard. When Savage, 60, and his crew arrived minutes later, the couple were clinging onto the mast of their overturned boat.

The tide was steadily rising and, with each three-metre-high wave, the boat smashed against the rocks of the reef it was wrecked on.

For more than an hour, the auxiliary crew struggled to get a line out to the couple to pull them into the boat. Eventually, they managed to hook them both, but a wave thrust the woman so hard she let go and was cast into open waters.

The rescue Zodiac used in the operation was purchased by the city of Rimouski almost exactly two years ago. Savage called it "virtually unsinkable, and I can attest to that now." (Submitted by Ted Savage)

The area the couple's boat capsized in is characterized by a horseshoe-shaped reef that Savage said makes for treacherous waters.

It's also what allowed the woman to then buoy herself to some of those rocks "by some grace of something," Savage said.

He and the crew decided to keep the man aboard their Zodiac since he wasn't injured and was kept dry by his suit, not to lose any of the time they needed to rescue his partner.

Perilous seas and a treacherous reef

At that point, the storm was picking up and the sky had turned pitch black. Volunteer firefighters from Rimouski were trying get to the woman on the rocks to no avail; a helicopter had been sent from Halifax, but the trip would be long, and the coast guard's rescue vessel hovered nearby, unable to get any closer due to shallow waters. 

"It was a struggle to keep the vessel even on station — just there — let alone manoeuvre it with any degree of precision … but we were the only ones that could get to her," said Savage, who was driving.

"As long as we could keep that boat running, we were gonna stay with her."

He and the crew tried to get a line out to her from different positions. After more than two hours, Savage decided to execute a manoeuvre typically reserved for calmer seas. Clouds had broken and a nearly full moon gave him a better idea of the surrounding obstacles. 

Jonathan Brunet leaned overboard to grab the woman and pull her into the rescue boat, ending the hours-long operation. (Submitted by Ted Savage)

He timed his approach to the woman so the waves would allow for the boat to tilt toward her and give crew member Jonathan Brunet just enough time to reach out and grab her while the other men held onto him.

"She was great. She just intrinsically knew what we were trying to do," Savage said. "She never, ever gave up, neither did [the man she was with] and it was something to see."

Though they avoided serious injuries, the days after the storm have been difficult for both the couple and the rescuers who risked their own lives, he said. 

The fact everyone made it out safe, Savage said, is a testament to how close-knit the region's different rescue services have become.

Successful rescues don't always happen, he said. "Things have to go a certain way, and most of the time they don't, to be honest," Savage added.

"Not everything worked out the way it was supposed to, but at the end nobody got hurt and nobody died, and that's a great outcome. And we're pretty happy about that."