Cut off from the modern world

Michael Johansen
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The small open boat could first be seen bobbing in the waves about a kilometre ahead of the MV Northern Ranger not long out of Makkovik — the boat seemed to slowly cut from left to right across the Ranger’s bow. Suddenly a bright red star soared into the sky to indicate that all was far from well. The boat was adrift, propelled not by its own outboard motor, but by the wind that blew off the sea from the northeast and pushed it towards the rocky shore.

The Ranger carried on, not slowing or turning as the smaller boat passed far off the starboard side, closer and closer to the rocks. Passengers on the Ranger’s forecastle peered through binoculars at the stricken craft and saw two men frantically waving their arms, as if they feared that their flare had burned and died unnoticed by anyone on the coastal boat.

The flare was probably their only one. Their boat was too small for a built-in radio and while there’s a chance they had a satellite phone with them, those expensive devices are not always as reliable as they should be. They probably didn’t have cellphones in the boat, since cells are useless anywhere on the coast of Labrador north of the Strait of Belle Isle, where the necessary signals barely reach across from the island of Newfoundland. So, if the men in the open boat were worried that no one on the Ranger had spotted their emergency flare, they were left with only one way to signal their distress: by waving their arms.

Their fears were happily ungrounded. The watch on the Northern Ranger had seen the flare and although the Ranger’s course and speed remained the same, help was nevertheless on the way. A Canadian Coast Guard ship, the Ann Harvey, was not far out to sea past a wide field of ice and icebergs. She was heading south, but she came back through the ice to rescue the drifting boat.

But even before the coast guard came into view, the men knew their pleas for help had been seen. After they waved, the Ranger’s horn answered them long and loud as if to shout, “Hang on, help’s coming!”

This was no game for the men in the drifting boat. True, they were almost within sight of Makkovik, but they were far enough away that if the Northern Ranger hadn’t happened along when she did, they might not have been spotted or missed before dark.

Also, while the wind was manageably brisk, rather than perilously heavy, it was nevertheless threatening to drive the boat onto a shore so unwelcoming that landing could easily end in a crash and a spill into ice-cold water.

Obviously, to lose power on the ocean is hazardous for anyone anywhere, but it’s just a little more dangerous for somebody off the coast of Labrador.

These two suffered bad luck when they got into trouble in the first place, but they enjoyed extraordinary good luck afterwards. How fortunate for them that the Northern Ranger passed when she did and how lucky that the Ann Harvey was as close as she was.

If the mishap had occurred a day earlier or later, there would have been no coastal boat steaming out of the bay, no coast guard ship speeding to the rescue and no way for the boaters to call for help. Their story might have had an altogether different ending.

The question, after this, is why human safety is still left up to chance. This is not the first time that people in distress off the coast of Labrador were unable to help themselves with a simple act most others in the modern world take for granted. Almost everyone else in Canada (indeed, on Earth) lives within range of a cellular telephone signal, but that’s a privilege still denied anyone north of Red Bay and that’s not likely to change any year soon.

The people of coastal Labrador are forced to content themselves with things as they are — no matter how essential cellphones are to the rest of the world, or how they can so easily save local lives — no luck required.

Michael Johansen is a writer

living in Labrador.

Organizations: MV Northern Ranger, Canadian Coast Guard

Geographic location: Labrador, Makkovik, Island of Newfoundland Canada Red Bay

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