Beachers pushing for search and rescue

Residents of the Beach are steering the effort to launch an all-volunteer marine search and rescue unit for Toronto.

“There’s no shortage of work for us,” says Patrick Curtis, chairman of Toronto Search and Rescue (T-SAR), which got its official start last July.

Patrick Curtis
Patrick Curtis

T-SAR will also run a land-based, multilingual program to teach water safety to schools and community groups.

That campaign kicked off this June, when T-SAR director and commanding officer Derek Cartier gave a water safety talk and life-jacket demo at Balmy Beach Public School. Several other schools have asked for presentations this fall.

Cartier said too many people, adults and children alike, underestimate the potential danger of drowning in Lake Ontario, which has strong undertows in places and water cold enough to induce hypothermia in less than an hour.

As a father, Cartier remembers well the day last summer when he heard of two brothers, 17 and 22, who drowned just off a beach just east of the R.C. Harris Water Treatment Plant.

“That really hit home for me as we were starting this organization up,” he said. “Two people died in my own backyard.”

Derek Cartier
Derek Cartier

With a board of directors that includes a retired officer of the Toronto Police marine unit, a paramedic, an awarded SAR team captain, a former member of the Australian navy and a former member of the Dutch coast guard, Curtis says T-SAR is setting a high standard for its volunteers at the outset.

Crews will be uniformed, he said, and trained to meet the standards of the Canadian Coast Guard Auxiliary.

“Canada is a nation built on volunteers,” he said. “And with all the budget cuts and difficulties facing municipalities right now, there is a need for the community to step in.”

Neighbouring Hamilton, Grimsby, Oakville, Pickering and Oshawa all have volunteer marine SAR units. While Toronto is well served by the Toronto Police Marine Unit and by Toronto Fire, Curtis said when there is clearly a need for an auxiliary.

With the police marine unit responding to an average 16 calls a day and enforcing licensing and other laws among the 75,000 boaters who sail through the Toronto harbour every year, Curtis said that as well as handling distress calls, T-SAR could take on lower-priority calls, like engine breakdowns or stranded paddlers, before they become serious problems.

The group would also offer courtesy boat checks, making sure boaters go out with the right gear – from whistles to bailers, paddles to life jackets and a charged battery.

“We’re not doing law enforcement,” he said. “We’re just there to educate people before they get into the boat.”

Speaking to members of local sailing and motor boat clubs, Curtis said it’s surprising how often people are called on to tow other boaters in distress – often without any training.

Before T-SAR is on the water, the  group aims to secure charitable status and begin fundraising for its first patrol boat.

Cartier said the ideal boat would be a purpose-built Hike – a 30-foot aluminum boat with twin diesel engines and a folding gate for pulling people on board.

New, they cost upwards of $525,000, but second-hand Hikes are about $100,000, and $75,000 a year to maintain.

Curtis said the group already has corporate and private donations, as well as letters of support from schools and city councillors. Talks with the Ontario government, the Department of Fisheries and Oceans and Transport Canada have all been well-received, he said.

Inspired by his dad, a commanding RCAF officer who flew search and rescue missions in an Otter floatplane, Curtis looks forward to volunteering to serve the Beach and other communities throughout Toronto.

“We would all like to wake up at age 65 or 70 – except for those who are already there – and say we’ve actually done something for our community,” he said.

To learn more about T-SAR, visit or contact by emailing or phoning 416-862-SAFE.

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