End of an era

Paul Herridge
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Coast Guard's last employee in St. Lawrence retires

Wilson Hickman's retirement last month signalled not just the end of an era for the man, but also for the Canadian Coast Guard.

The 55-year-old was the government agency's last remaining employee stationed in St. Lawrence. An electronic technician for 35 years, his position with the coast guard will not be refilled.

St. Lawrence - Wilson Hickman's retirement last month signalled not just the end of an era for the man, but also for the Canadian Coast Guard.

The 55-year-old was the government agency's last remaining employee stationed in St. Lawrence. An electronic technician for 35 years, his position with the coast guard will not be refilled.

Instead, the organization's equipment on the Burin Peninsula will now be maintained through Placentia.

Originally from Grand Bank, Wilson spent the first two years of his career in Trepassey before making the move to St. Lawrence.

His job required him to take care of the maintenance of the electronic equipment for the coast guard's radio station in the community, as well as remote VHF sites in Fortune and Bay L'Argent.

Technicians in St. Lawrence were also responsible for maintaining equipment for the Department of Fisheries and Oceans detachment in Marystown, and for the coast guard's own vessel in Burin.

The history of the coast guard in St. Lawrence dates back to the 1960s.

Wilson explained the agency's radio station had originally been located in the former Fishery Products International building in Burin, but was moved to St. Lawrence when a Decca Navigator station was built there.

The last radio operator in the community was moved to Placentia a decade ago.

At one point, the coast guard employed four techs in St. Lawrence, then three, until eventually there were just two - himself and Frank Lambe, a resident of Little St. Lawrence, who retired last October.

Wilson acknowledged it has been an interesting career.

"Well, the first year I went to school it was all tubes. So all the latest equipment with microprocessors and computers we had to learn as we went."

He twice received Suggestion Awards for modifying equipment to make it more efficient.

"At no point was there any time that you weren't learning something new."

Although the technicians never operated the equipment they maintained, their work was nevertheless just as essential. He recalled a couple of interesting interactions between radio operators in St. Lawrence and vessels from his time on the job.

"We weren't, of course, talking on the radio but we made sure that the equipment was working. In fact, one of the operators is still living in Burin by the name of Pat Roach.

"Pat got a distress from a boat saying they were abandoning ship and they were taking to the life raft. He sent off the report, which was in international waters, so he received a telex from the coast guard in New York asking if what he heard was correct and, in his opinion. was it legitimate.

"He said, 'Yes,' and they said, 'We have not heard a report of that incident from any coast guard station on the east coast.'"

With the affirmation, a fixed-wing aircraft and a patrol boat were dispatched.

"They found five men in a life raft down off Cuba."

On another occasion, he remembered a vessel called the 'Saskatchewan Pioneer.'

The ship maintained continuous communications with the St. Lawrence station across the Atlantic Ocean and up through the Mediterranean Sea.

Contact was dropped when the ship went around Sicily to go to port in Italy.

When the vessel rounded the island contact resumed and was maintained all the way back across the ocean again.

"When they changed the registry of that boat they sent the ship's call letters - the plaque they had over the radio - to St. Lawrence.

"The operators did their job, but we also had to make sure that the equipment was working so they could do their jobs."

Although the equipment is much more reliable these days, Hickman said it's unfortunate the coast guard has decided not to station any employees on the Burin Peninsula.

"It's a nice long distance from Placentia to St. Lawrence on a snowy, winter day.

"For me, I spent 35 years at it and I think I did a reasonable job for the coast guard and the government. So I've got no regrets. It would have been nice to see them maintain a technician on the peninsula, because as much work as possible is always good."

As for his retirement plans, Hickman indicated he has work to do around the house, which he built himself. He also has a cottage in Grand Beach, and he's an amateur radio operator.

"So, I'm not stuck."

Organizations: Canadian Coast Guard, Grand Bank, Department of Fisheries and Oceans Fishery Products International

Geographic location: Placentia, Burin, Trepassey Marystown New York Cuba Atlantic Ocean Mediterranean Sea Sicily Italy Grand Beach

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