Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Over the Waves and Far Away

Everyone has their own way of dealing with criticism. Some ignore it, some invite it, and some pay attention to what their critics say to improve themselves for the next time. Then there are the people who've let a modicum of power go to their heads, people who think that because they're in charge they therefore define reality. People like, say, Keith Ashfield, Minister of Fisheries and Oceans and the minister responsible for the Canadian Coast Guard.

You may recall that among the multifarious provisions of the recent Conservative omnibus budget bill was the closure of CCGS Kitsilano, a Coast Guard base at the foot of the Burrard Bridge and adjacent to the heavily-used waters of False Creek and English Bay. Responsibility for ensuring the safety of Vancouver's waterways would therefore devolve to CCGS Sea Island, a hovercraft base adjacent to Vancouver International Airport. Time and again, when the issue came up in the media, this was the talking point that the government rallied around - that since there were two Coast Guard stations reasonably close to each other, one of them was therefore superfluous.

Following on from that, Minister Keith recently announced a funding boost of $100,000 to the Royal Marine Search and Rescue Auxiliary - an organization that I wasn't able to find anything out about, as the only hits for it on Google are for news articles talking about this funding boost. So what is the RMSRA? I have no idea, but Minister Keith obviously thinks that a thousand C-bills are enough to let it step into the spot the Coast Guard is vacating.

Minister Keith likewise has a message for his critics, here - namely, that claiming the impending closure of CCGS Kitsilano will put lives at risk is instead "propagating false information." I wish I could be that confident, that certain at times. It makes me wonder how Keith puts his pants on in the morning on account of the massive, hairy, swinging cojones he must have to make a statement like that with a straight face.

How long will it take them to get here, again?

Let's take a look at the numbers. Under the Conservatives' plan, the hovercraft of CCGS Sea Island will be the primary search-and-rescue vehicles for the entire Lower Mainland; in addition to their current area of responsibility in the Strait of Georgia and Fraser delta, they'll now also have to deal with people in distress on the waters in Burrard Inlet, False Creek, and English Bay. The Vancouver Sun reports that according to Minister Keith, "the closure of the station in no way endangers people using Vancouver-area waters" - but is that really the case?

The fact is this: the two stations are about eleven kilometers apart as the crow flies, but that's not much of a help, since those hovercraft are not exactly built to go roaring up Granville Street. By water, the rough distance is more like twenty-five kilometers, with potential straight-line paths complicated slightly by the breakwaters that keep Richmond from drowning. The two hovercraft stationed at Sea Island, CCGH Siyay and CCGH Penac, are faster than almost anything else on the water with maximum speeds of eighty-nine and eighty-three kilometers per hour.

At pedal-to-the-metal maximum speed, Siyay would need about seventeen minutes to cover the distance from CCGS Sea Island to CCGS Kitsilano; Penac would be only slightly slower, at eighteen minutes. In both cases, in case of trouble that's almost twenty minutes before any search and rescue activities can even begin, and since I doubt it's feasible for a hovercraft to be burning at maximum speed for the entirety of its run, it could well be even longer.

A lot can happen in twenty minutes, especially if what's already happened is serious enough that you've called the Coast Guard.

My own opinion on this is simple - it may not happen tomorrow, this year, or next year, but sooner or later someone will die on Vancouver's waters because, for whatever reason, the Coast Guard could not make it in time. On the water, seconds can count - and should that come to pass, it is this current government and Prime Minister Stephen Harper in particular who will bear responsibility for such death. We know, after all, where the buck stops in the Harper Government.

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