About 110 fishermen and crew make up the Canadian Coast Guard Auxiliary (Maritimes)
To earn a living, Thomas Jr. MacDonald uses his boat to farm mussels in North Lake.
To give back to the community, he uses the vessel to save lives.
MacDonald, 45, is a training officer with Zone 4 (covering Charlottetown to East Point) with the Canadian Coast Guard Auxiliary (Maritimes), a non-profit volunteer organization dedicated to search and rescue, education and safe boating.
The auxiliary consists approximately 110 salt-water captains and their crew.
MacDonald says the volunteers are ready 24/7 to exchange leisure, comfort and sleep for cold, wet and fatigue in a range of situations that require skill, strength and nerves.
The volunteers, he stresses, risk their vessels that are typically worth more than $200,000 — not to mention their livelihood and their lives — each time they respond to an emergency call.
The auxiliary has been a first responder presence in the province for the past 35 years.
Most calls come in foul weather and at night.
The call for help ranges from a ship sinking to a missing person.
MacDonald says the volunteers have saved many lives over the years.
“I grew up around the sea,’’ said MacDonald.
“I worked on boats all my life. I like to give back to the community.’’
To be ready for any potential life-saving battle, great emphasis is placed on training.
Training exercises are carried out in April, July and October.
Canada's CH-149 Cormorant search and rescue helicopters have been involved in training exercises this week with members of the P.E.I. Volunteer Coast Guard Auxiliary as those volunteers do their part in the exercises on the water in their fishing vessels.
MacDonald went out Tuesday in Souris Harbour for the windiest day he has ever taken part in a training exercise.
“It was rough,’’ he said.
“It was borderline.’’
Still, training under tough conditions makes MacDonald and his peers that much more battle ready.
“If there’s ever an incident, we know how to deal with it,’’ he said.
“We just train, train, train all the time.’’
And there are plenty of incidents.
Each year, the P.E.I. auxiliary members respond to about 50 search and rescue calls.
“We like to think every time you go out, you’re saving a life,’’ said MacDonald.
On Thursday afternoon, Capt. Darrell Lesperance set off from Naufrage Harbour in his fishing boat calledLucas Mitchell for some training on calm waters on a warm, sunny afternoon.
That calmness was soon whipped away by two Cormorant helicopters whirling in to do some training in tandem with Lesperance, MacDonald and long-time auxiliary member Art MacDonald who fishes out of Souris.
The trio of auxiliary members was all aboard Lucas Mitchell with Lesperance taking control of his fishing boat.
Lesperance, who fishes lobster and tuna, has been with the auxiliary for roughly 10 years. He gets three to five calls a year and participates in training every chance he gets.
“The more training the better,’’ he said.
This was his first time doing any training with helicopters swirling overhead.
His job was to maintain a speed of 10 knots and a position of 270 degrees west while search and rescue technicians (SAR Techs) abseiled to the Cormorant from his boat.
He was surprised by the hurricane force winds generated by the helicopter as it descended close to the deck. Water thrashed against the cabin, violently rattling a door and windows.
“You can feel the boat vibrating and it’s a little tougher keeping the coordinates,’’ said Lesperance.
“They generate a lot of wind: more than you would expect.’’
The captain also needed to keep his boat handy as SAR techs pulled a mock victim from the water.
MacDonald was also quite geared up to take part in the high-energy exercises Thursday.
“There is no replacement for good training,’’ he said.