Patrolling the Coast by Sea

B.C., West Coast Marine Services

2023-11-30 10:55 PST

Off the north coast of BC, a fisherman set up camp on a remote island. He’ll spend the winter out there. Police officers of the West Coast Marine Service, stationed in Prince Rupert, learned that the fisherman had received some mail. Officers collected the mail and boarded their floating detachment, the Inkster, and took the police vessel out to the isolated island to deliver his mail.

You’ll do that little extra because it goes a long way, says Sergeant John May, Marine Operations Support NCO. We get a lot of reward out of doing this kind of thing. He’ll be a person that will always respect the RCMP and support the police who travel the coast on police vessels.

The RCMP West Coast Marine Services (WCMS) is comprised of experienced, operational police officers who are committed to providing proactive marine enforcement to communities, large and small, up and down the rugged coast of British Columbia. Highly trained officers conduct expert and timely criminal investigations for the detachments and communities they serve.

There are multiple Indigenous Communities all along the coast that are fairly isolated, says Sergeant Rod Pick, Operations Non-Commissioned Officer for WCMS. During COVID, West Coast Marine Services were the only ones able to reach some of these communities. Often there are only two ways to access them are by air (float plane or helicopter) or sea. West Coast Marine provides that service to them.

This provincial service patrols the hundreds of islands and coastal communities from the international border with Washington and up to Alaska. WCMS conducts investigations on behalf of the coastal RCMP detachments and operates out of their Nanaimo Office, with a satellite unit located in Prince Rupert.

There are three fully equipped patrol vessels: the Inkster, stationed in Prince Rupert and patrols the North Coast from Bella Bella, Bella Coola, north to Stewart, and west to Haida Gwaii. During the summer months, the Lindsay is stationed in Port Alberni and patrols the west coast of Vancouver Island and the Higgitt patrols the inside passage of Vancouver Island. WCMS is headquartered in Nanaimo, where there is permanent dock space.

The three naval vessels are relatively small (the Inkster if 19.76 meters with the Lindsay and Higgitt being 17.6 meters) designed for coastal defence, border security, and law enforcement. There is a crew of four officers who spend seven days on the ship and seven days off. They can be at sea for those seven days without the need for refueling or replenishing food and supplies. WCMS also have civilian marine engineers who keep the vessels seaworthy.

Photo of the Lindsay patrol vessel.

Photo of the Lindsey patrol vessel

The patrol vessels are floating communication platforms equipped with satellite communication, redundant very high frequency (VHF) radios with automatic identification systems, a single sideband radio, and multiple police radios. In addition to the patrol vessel’s communications, the bridges are equipped with sophisticated electronic navigation packages.

If the Catamarans get into some bad weather, they just tuck into a little cove and wait it out, says retired Inspector Ken Burton describing the patrol vessels. But they're pretty solid boats. I took one around North America and didn't have any problems. They're tough little pieces of machinery.
Captain Ken Burton skippered the St. Roch II which crossed the Northwest Passage and circumnavigated North America – 24,000 nautical miles in 169 days. An earlier WCMS ship, the Nadon was dubbed the St. Roch II and retraced one of Canada’s most historic voyages across the Artic. For six months, it followed the original route of the St. Roch, an RCMP vessel that, in 1940, became the first vessel to travel to the high Artic travelling west to east.

The fleet of smaller vessels at WCMS vary in size and horsepower. In addition to the three Catamarans, WCMS have 11 small boats. There are four aluminum Rigid Hull Inflatable Boats (RHIB): two of the boats are open and two are with a cabin. They are light weight, high performance boats. That combination makes for an incredibly stable and manoeuvrable craft that is capable of rough water operation and are ideal for all weather rescue.

Photo of Rigid Hull Inflatable Boat

Photo of Rigid Hull Inflatable Boat

There are four 540 Zodiacs fibreglass RHIBs, which are equipped with 90 horse power outboard motors. These are the rescue vessels onboard the three Catamarans.

Law enforcement on the water requires extensive training. Most police officers have 5-10 years of general duty before they apply.

We recruit officers who have experience working in smaller detachments or isolated posts, says Sergeant Rod Pick, Operations Non-Commissioned Officer. They are well suited as they understand policing in small communities. Crews stay together on a small vessel for seven days. They need to be able to get along with others in a very confined space.

To skipper these vessels, the crew must be highly trained. It is one of the perks of becoming a member of the West Coast Marine Service is that the RCMP pays for the nautical training. The training is regulated by Transport Canada and is held at the Western Marine Institute in Ladysmith. Sgt. John May is in charge of training.

The training is comprehensive and requires a significant amount of sea time to be eligible to attend the first level of the training. Typically, officers must first spend six months with a field trainer at sea going through the basic operating systems on the vessel. They then attend the nautical school at the Western Marine Institute and take the survival craft basic safety and marine firefighting.

In it’s simplest form, it’s about acquiring time at sea, says May. On the first day of their shift, the crews come into the office, grab their gear and go to their vessel. If the vessel is in Nanaimo, they just drive but if it is up in Prince Rupert, we fly them up there where they get fuel and supplies. They start their patrol and, each day at sea, they accumulate sea time. On average, if you’re on the unit for four or five years, you’ll be eligible for the Master 150 Gross Tonne, Domestic Certification master ticket. That schooling takes roughly eight months full time.

Photo of Inkster and a SAR helicopter.

Photo of the Inkstar and a SAR helicopter

As they gain additional sea time, they are sent for several additional courses over many years.

It’s a great opportunity for our police officers because the RCMP pays for all this training, says May. You are essentially working while you are in school.

With that level of training and commitment, officers stay with West Cost Marine Services often for their entire career.

It's a unique niche within the RCMP and it's something that appeals to a person who is adventurous and outdoors orientated, Ken Burton, who spent 15 years as a member of the WCMS. You're taking community policing to a whole new level because you might be visiting people that live in a little community and there's only five or six people that live there.

Photo of officer in front of a glacier

Photo of officer in front of a glacier

Much of what WCMS does is proactive. Officers become part of the communities that they regularly visit along the coast. When people see the boat coming, they will greet the officers by name. Officers come visit, talk with the kids and play basketball with them. They will engage with the community and participate in their local events.

It’s particularly rewarding when WCMS visit the north, especially in the winter.

There maybe no other boats out there, says May. So, if there is a fishing boat that is having problems and you hear that on the radio, you make it a priority to go and help them. You know they must be in real trouble. It's very hard to explain unless until you're out there doing the job in the north because people have such limited resources. We’re able to get to places easily and, since weather is always a factor, having a police boat in the area can really help.

Many of the detachments we visit on the coast may only have one part-time officer or maybe just two or three people, says Burton. West Coast Marine Services has the ability to pull in to the community with a full-service patrol vessel, tie up the vessel, and provide police support to the people living there. They can stay there for a couple of days, or weeks, to conduct an investigation.

The three patrol vessels are fully sustainable and even have the ability to make fresh drinking water by reverse osmosis through a process of desalination that can remove more than 99% of the salt from ocean water.

With the remarkable communications technology on the ship, officers can talk to other federal or provincial agencies or to external partners, such as: CBSA, Parks Canada, DFO, Coast Guard, Conservation Office, Transport Canada, Ministry of Environment and Forestry, Transport Safety Board, and Worksafe BC.

For example, in the event of an emergency, an earthquake or big flood, the patrol vessel can actually pull in, drop anchor, and serve in the role of a floating command post, adds Burton. It can also provide support to senior management and our partners, whether it's at a big logging protest on the coast, or fisheries or pipeline protests.

Another example of when West Coast Marine Services were instrumental in a rescue mission, and sequential investigation, was the sinking of the BC Ferries vessel, the Queen of the North.

The patrol vessels were instrumental in that disaster that would ultimately claim two lives, says Burton. Our boats were the only ones that could go up there quickly, as are no police stationed in Hartley Bay. The patrol vessel was it and they could stay there for as long as needed.

Once the rescue mission was called off, the RCMP Underwater Recovery Team was brought in. Rather than diving for bodies, they were diving for evidence, searching for what might have caused the ferry to sink.

When there are serious or fatal boating incidents, it is West Coast Marine that investigates.

Our members attend the US Coast Guard course that gives law enforcement officers thorough and comprehensive training in commercial and recreational boating incident investigations, says Pick. We also train our officers in how to appropriately react to threats in the maritime community.

As a result, WCMS has the expertise to investigate boating incidents and give expert evidence in court.

WCMS has been involved in a number of high-profile incidents throughout the years. Many will remember the whale watching boat, the Leviathan II, that capsized near Tofino in 2015. Six of the 27 passengers died when the boat tried and failed to avoid a large breaking wave that ultimately sank the vessel. WCMS was the subject matter experts in that investigation.

WCMS can bring their vessels wherever needed along the coast, no matter how remote. They can go places that are inaccessible by other means, they can provide police coverage, logistics, transport of other police resources to an unfolding event.

Most days, WCMS patrols the coast monitoring the all boats that come into Canadian waters.

For the most part, we're educating the public on boating safety. We're checking the people who are on holidays. People generally in a good mood, says May.

When you are highly skilled, with subject matter expertise that is in constant demand, it’s hard not to love the job.

I never wake up in the morning and say, ‘I absolutely can't handle this job anymore,’ says May who has been with WCMS more than 27 years. It's been such a good run for me. I've, I've really enjoyed it. I've met a lot of people, great people. I've been up and down the coast hundreds of times and got to know a lot of the people in the villages. Got to know people in the specialized units. We taken part in a lot of important investigations in BC. There is a lot of variety. It’s been good.

(All photos courtesy of the National Police Federation)

The RCMP is looking for individuals with unique background that bring these experiences to their job. If you are interested in a career with the RCMP please visit our Recruiting page for more information and how to apply:

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