Keeping boaters and swimmers safe is the top priority for officers with Toronto police’s Marine Unit

Const. Stacy Kellough and Sgt. Richard Arsenault on one of the Toronto police Marine Unit's Rigid-Hulled Inflatable Boats on Lake Ontario near Ashbridges Bay. Photo by Amarachi Amadike.

By AMARACHI AMADIKE

When people think of a life with Toronto’s police force, they probably envision riding around the city in squad cars and on bicycles –or galloping on horses – making arrests to maintain peace on the streets, and regularly going through the harrowing experience of writing police reports.

But as their Rigid-Hulled Inflatable Boat idled on calm waters between Woodbine Beach and Balmy Beach, Const. Stacy Kellough and Sgt. Richard Arsenault painted a picture of their unique daily adventures in the overlooked Marine Unit that patrols Lake Ontario day and night.

“When you get here, it’s a whole other world,” said Kellough.

Const. Stacy Kellough of the Toronto police Marine Unit on Lake Ontario. Photo by Amarachi Amadike.

With many officers opting to join the Marine Unit due to a love of the outdoors, yearning for days of floating in the lake, glancing at the city’s skyline as boaters ride safely by, individuals who join this small team become just as acquainted with traumatic days on rough waters, hoping to simply make it safely back to dry land.

“The most fun I’ve had in my 27 years (on the police force) has been in the Marine Unit,” said Arsenault. “But the scariest moments of my life have been in the Marine Unit. Because when waves are coming over the side of (our boat) and filling the insides with water, who’s coming for us?”

Sgt. Richard Arsenault of the Toronto police Marine Unit on patrol on Lake Ontario. Photo by Amarachi Amadike.

Working in collaboration with the Canadian Coast Guard, the United States Coast Guard, as well as various other partners along Lake Ontario, the Marine Unit officers serve as a support unit for “all of Toronto police” during water related emergencies.

“People aren’t familiar with a lot of the rescues the Marine Unit is doing,” said Kellough. “Every single weekend in the summer, we’re getting a ton of vessels in distress.”

Receiving between 200 to 300 – sometimes 400 – calls every month, these officers have no shortage of work.

“As a support unit, if there’s a missing child along this beach, we’re playing a huge role because we don’t know if the child is in the water or land or in the bushes. We respond to all those calls – any type of call,” said Arsenault

With just 38 officers available, the unit has to safeguard 460 square miles of waterfront which includes the Rouge River, Don River, Humber River, Grenadier Pond, as well as various creeks and reservoirs, and 13 miles out into Lake Ontario.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, the Marine Unit became busier as boats began launching at a more frequent pace. Although officers cover emergencies in Toronto all year round, they are also tasked with providing assistance in Peel and Durham regions in the off-season.

“The boating activity increased but our manpower stayed the same,” said Kellough, a 16-year police veteran.

However, Kellough and Arsenault remain optimistic about the unit’s ability to efficiently perform its duties.

This is mainly due to the state-of-the-art technology they are equipped with, including an infrared camera that assists in finding missing persons by detecting body heat in the unit’s vast coverage area.

“We also have three Rigid-Hulled Inflatable Boats (RHIB),” said Kellough. “They’re our fast boats, equipped with two Mercury 300 horsepower engines – sometimes 350.”

Kellough told Beach Metro Community News on a “float along” last week that although the RHIB is seasonal, the unit is also equipped with the 30-foot long Hike Metal Launch MU04 which is used for long-range search and rescue operations all season round.

Additionally, the marine unit boasts a 15-ton, 44-foot long aluminum Hike Metal Launch MU01 which is used as a command vessel for major events and incidents.

Other vessels include the M06 Air Rider Hovercraft; MU21 Zodiac Hurricane RHIB; SRV01 Stanley Predator; MU12 Husky Airboat used in the winter season; MU09 Sea-Doo Personal Watercraft; and the MU03 Tyler Nelson Launch.

Although the unit is equipped with highly reliable technology that makes for successful search and rescue calls, Kellough said that they are actively making an added effort to educate the community about dangers of the lake in order to prevent fatal incidents.

“We get a lot of drownings that are unexpected,” said Kellough. “People sometimes jump in in the summer and get pulled in by the current. But mainly, the water is always cold. I do ice plunges all the time. I’ve jumped off a paddle board at Woodbine Beach and it was the same (temperature as the ice plunges).”

This is because, according to Kellough, the colder, bottom layer of water in the lake that is 800 feet at its deepest point rises and “turns up to the surface” making for a shivery swimming experience even on warmer days. Many swimmers have experienced hyperthermia as a result of the cold water.

“A lot of times people jump in thinking the water will be warm and it shocks them,” said Kellough. “They panic and go down within a minute.”

With a life jacket on, stranded swimmers can survive up to an hour in cold water although the hyperthermia will restrict their ability to move.

Kellough is urging beach-goers to “know the waters” that they are getting into in order to prevent emergency situations.

“A lot of people don’t realize that this lake is an inland ocean,” said Kellough. “If you’re going to be going on a boat you have to have a working communications device, a life jacket. Check the weather and have more than is required. You need flares, even if your boat doesn’t say that you need flares.”

With the recent tragic drowning of a 14-year old near Ashbridges Bay Park on April 14, the Marine Unit is desperate to create more awareness about lake safety measures.

“It hits home for us,” said Kellough. “Especially when you’re dealing with a child. We don’t like to see that at all. And (incidents like that) is why we’re doing this. I’m really passionate and care about getting this (information) out there. I’ve talked to so many people and a lot of them are not aware of the dangers of this lake.”

Both officers said they were frustrated about the lack of awareness among many members of the public on the matter of safety when it applies to swimming in or boating on Lake Ontario.

Although they are able to issue tickets and fines to individuals who, for instance, are boating without life jackets, this measure is “not enough sometimes”, according to Arsenault.

“If we give a fine and they ride away, someone can still fall and there’s a legality issue with something like that,” he said.

Rather than fines, officers choose to, instead, educate those caught disregarding safety standards before escorting them somewhere they can acquire a life jacket.

“If they learn and take something away from (what we say) then that’s a good day for everybody,” said Kellough. “But, some people just don’t care. That’s where it’s frustrating when we can’t make them care.”

Still, Kellough and Arsenault continue to perform their duties without discouragement, spreading their message to boaters and swimmers one shift at a time in a quest to mitigate tragedies on Lake Ontario.

Const. Stacy Kellough and Sgt. Richard Arsenault on one of the Toronto police Marine Unit’s boats patrol on Lake Ontario. Photo by Amarachi Amadike.

Together with their 36 other colleagues, the Marine Unit officers have built a family-like bond that sometimes resembles the dressing room of a sports team, relying on one another through the highs that come with each rescue, as well as the dark lows that accompany a traumatic day on the lake.

“It’s your team getting you through. It’s about who you work with,” said Kellough. “We work hard together.”

Please visit the City of Toronto’s official website for more information on how to stay safe on Toronto’s waterways.


Was this article informative? Become a Beach Metro Community News Supporter today! For 50 years, we have worked hard to be the eyes and ears in your community, inform you of upcoming events, and let you know what and who is making a difference. We cover the big stories as well as the little things that often matter the most. CLICK HERE to support your Beach Metro Community News!