A painting of Joseph Bettis by Gabriele Beyer.

A painting of Joseph Bettis by Gabriele Beyer.

When disaster strikes in the remote waters of Canada | Guest Column

by Gabriele Beyer

Special to the Sounder

The leaves glowed golden along the Alaskan shore.

We’d spent the summer cruising on our 62-foot trawler Orina and were headed home to Washington. Since his retirement as dean of Fairhaven College, Joseph Bettis’ life centered around his boat and the yearly trips up the Inside Passage.

When I joined Joseph as a partner six years ago I knew little about boats. I often wondered what I would do if Joseph ever had a medical emergency and I would be left alone on Orina. This thought motivated me to absorb boat and navigational knowledge like a sponge.

It was a calm and beautiful morning in a remote anchorage in the Great Bear Rainforest in Canada. We were blessed with the company of newly made friends from the German S/V Breakpoint. We started the day early, going ashore to bathe in the nearby wilderness hot springs. Relaxed from the bath and full of awe for the beauty of the land, we returned to our boats just as the sun came up over the mountains. Joseph was going to take a nap and I took off rowing. Orina seemed like a small dot on the horizon when suddenly her boat horn echoed frantically in the fjord. Had the dreaded day come?

I lowered the outboard and raced back to find Joseph in the pilot house, paralyzed and unable to speak. Adrenaline put me into action. Like clockwork I called the coast guard, secured Joseph on the couch to prevent him from further falls, asked the German friends for their SAT phone to call the rescue coordination center, packed insurance cards, emergency contact information, cell phone, toothbrush and clothing; I wrote down all personal and medical information and retrieved Joseph’s passport from the safe. Only forty minutes from my VHS radio call for help a Coast Guard inflatable arrived. I hugged Joseph and next thing I remember was watching the orange rescue boat disappear on the horizon. Till that moment I had worked like a robot but now I was overcome by emotion. Thank God for our German friends who stood by me, altering their plans. Our two boats embarked together on the three-day journey to Prince Rupert with me at the helm of Orina, grateful for the knowledge I’d absorbed.

I had hoped to reunite with Joseph in Prince Rupert. When I arrived, I learned that the inflatable had taken him to a Canadian Coast Guard vessel where he was pulled onto a helicopter and flown to the Prince Rupert hospital. Two days later Airlift Northwest transported him to St Joseph hospital in Bellingham. To my dismay, I had just missed him by a day.

Orina and I managed the 650-mile journey to Bellingham in only eight days accompanied by friends on her sister ship Ursa Major. I finally reunited with Joseph in the intensive rehab unit of the hospital.

Today, Joseph has recovered speech and some movement. The future is unsure, but the memory of this unexpected incident will endure.