Go for a rip on the Detroit River with the Canadian Coast Guard

This crew of four can go from a deep sleep to a full on rescue on Lake Erie in five minutes flat.

Meet one of two crews that rotate every 14 days and patrol nearly 150 nautical miles

This crew goes from deep sleep to rescue ready in minutes

5 years ago
Duration 0:31
A 2 a.m. alarm woke the crew up and had them on board the rescue boat on Lake Erie in five minutes.

It takes the four members of the Canadian Coast Guard crew stationed in Amherstburg, Ont. just five minutes to go from a deep sleep into a full-suited, operational rescue mission.

Commanding Officer Sondi Ryersee knows that's true because she was there when a call came in at 2 a.m. 

Take a ride with the Canadian Coast Guard in Amherstburg

5 years ago
Duration 1:00
Commanding Officer Sondi Ryersee and her Canadian Coast Guard Crew hit the Detroit River.

"By the time I come down the stairs the crew's dressed, we were off the wall with the big boat running in less than five minutes," said Ryersee, standing inside the crew house on the shore of Lake Erie while a cold, bitter wind pounds waves into the dock. 

"That's from pyjamas to full uniform, to full gear — in five minutes," said Ryersee.

"These guys are good."

A Search and Rescue boat with the Canadian Coast Guard heads under the Ambassador Bridge on the Detroit River. (Chris Ensing/CBC)

These "guys" are one of two crews of four that rotate two-week shifts at the Canadian Coast Guard station in Amherstburg.

Ryersee, who has been a commanding officer for more than a decade, calls the team a family. 

Rescued from near death

"We've been together for over four years so we know each other's strengths, we know each other's weaknesses," said Ryersee. 

Those strengths were on display last summer during what she calls a "life-alerting" rescue mission on Lake Erie. 

Her crew was on the ready last summer when they received a call about two men in the water after falling off a jet ski.

Those men spent about eight hours in the water while emergency crews searched from above. 

Sondi Ryersee is a Commanding Officer with the Canadian Coast Guard based out of Amherstburg. (Chris Ensing/CBC)

"To be able to save those two men who were literally close to death," said Ryersee, who recalls one of the men being a father with young children at home. 

"To know you were able to hand the dad back to them — it was amazing ... it will be something I'll never forget."

Trust, stress and passion

Ryersee praised the work of partner agencies that take part in search and rescue missions including the Ontario Provincial Police, RCMP, municipal police forces and the United States Coast Guard. 

She said a major factor in the efficiency of all the agencies working together is training, trust and consistency. That's something she sees every summer with her team when they respond to calls.

Crew member Jesse Read surveys the water during a recent trip on the Detroit River. (Chris Ensing/CBC)

"You can't do that if you don't have trust that this person is going to protect your back or protect you from falling in," said Ryersee. 

"It's everything to have these people around me."

Rescue Specialist Jana Lorbetski checks readings on board a Search and Rescue boat. (Chris Ensing/CBC)

Ryersee said that the call volume shifts depending on the year with no major trends sticking out except for one — the incidents her crew are responding to are more serious. 

"When we do have a call they're not little, small calls where the boat broke down," said Ryersee, who has noticed a drop in calls in recent years. 

To know you were able to hand the dad back to them — it was amazing ... it will be something I'll never forget.- Sondi Ryersee

"Now when we do have them they're big, major calls where people are lost. They're more serious."

Relying on each other

When Ryersee, who was born on Pelee Island, heads out on an emergency call she knows that the person the crew is searching for could be a family member or a friend.

"In this job you learn to put everything in a compartment. So when I'm captain, I'm captain," said Ryersee, who said the entire team has a "direct focus."

Engineering Officer Greg Colbeck explains how some of the technical parts of the boat are designed to help in rescue situations. (Chris Ensing/CBC)

She said one major shift she's noticed since starting out with the Canadian Coast Guard is the change in attitude toward mental health. 

"I honestly think back when I started if you shed a tear and got upset that was bad," said Ryersee. 

"Now? No. Get it out, talk about it."

One summer wish: Life jackets

For the crew on board the Cape Dundas, the clear wish they have as the spring boating season starts in Windsor-Essex is simple and straightforward. 

"Get a comfortable life jacket, one that you're comfortable wearing, and wear it," said Ryersee. 

"Not a black life jacket — fluorescent. Make them bright and pretty with reflective tape so we can see you."

Ryersee said she has noticed safe boating habits increase with educational and preventive training campaigns well out on the water.