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Praise for Dangerous Waters

Book a Real Page Turner

Once in a while, a small-press publisher produces a bone-chilling, hair-raising, spine-tingling, nerve-racking, breath-taking thriller that grabs the reader and won't let go.

Keith Keller's Dangerous Waters: Wrecks and Rescues off the BC Coast is one of those rarities.

The book is loaded with photographs, artistic renderings and site-location maps that allow the reader to relate to the survivors who are awaiting rescues that may never happen.

Keller, who lives on the West Coast, is a sea kayaker and has fished for cod off the East Coast.

When he started his research project, he had an appreciation and respect for the sea and the people who challenge it.

But he possessed no specialized knowledge about boats, oceanography or how search-and-rescue efforts are co-ordinated.

He was intrigued. From his work, he compiled 21 suspenseful accounts of marine disasters and close calls.

In an unusual style that works well, Keller has skillfully acted as a gatekeeper. He did 77 interviews, letting survivors and rescuers tell their own stories in their own words.

As each heart-throbbing event unfolds, the reader feels like they know the protagonists personally.

It's like sitting around a table, drinking coffee, laughing and crying while listening to their narratives.

One person speaks, then another and another. Back and forth, they take turns in the conversation.

As the story progresses, the author steps in to arrange the next segment into context.

In one account, Jurgen Schulte, a serious racing competitor, was at the wheel of his 36-foot sloop on June 5, 1993.

He was in the lead with a good prospect to win his class in the Royal Marine Sailing Association's annual, single-handed, two-day race.

Yet he generously sacrificed his positon and withdrew from the race to save two strangers from drowning.

"It was good to help," he told the author. "I think everybody on the water should keep a lookout all the time.

"That will be a lesson to me: if there's something unusual in the water, don't even hesitate.

"Go check it out. Even if you're in a race. Even if you have to be somewhere at a certain time."

Schute had saved a businessman, who was vice-president of the Vancouver Canucks, and a visiting nephew, who had never been on salt water before - and probably never wants to be in it again.

"It was a hard way to become famous," offered Glenn Baron of Alberta about the widespread media coverage.

Most of the stories transpire in dirty weather, often at night. Occasionally, the BC Coast Guard vessels can't execute a rescue as swiftly as the Americans.

So the US Coast Guard will volunteer services. When someone's life is in danger, the Americans and Canadians know no boundaries.

Sharing each other's waters depends on which unit can make the fastest, most appropriate response to an emergency.

In one case, the US team was reluctant to fly a Sikorsky north because of the snow and horrible conditions. It was dark and the focal point was an unfamiliar area to them.

They came anyway. The had learned a man was known to be a hostage to treacherous, sea-pounded rocks. Unless rescued, he couldn't survive long.

After plucking Reid Dobell from the sea, the helicopter crashed. Although one fisherman's body was never recovered, Reid lived to tell about his scare.

"These stories repeatedly tell us that when the worst happens, people who can help, do help," writes Keller.

"They at least try. The search and rescue specialists respond because that's what they do - which in no way diminishes the risks they take on others' behalf."

Those who by chance are in a position to help are called "vessels of opportunity."

They also respond, often at significant personal danger, he says, noting one chapter still brings a lump to Keller's throat.

Ken Datwiler, alone and knowing his boat would soon founder, tells the seine boat captain Bruce Rafuse to carry on and at least save himself from the hurricane conditions they're both fighting.

Rafuse told Keller in an interview that despite the obvious danger, abandoning Datwiler that ferocious night was not an option.

"I've owed my life to others and when you see something like that, it's not an option."

Fishermen are an interesting crowd, added Rafuse.

"Compared to most of society, I guess you could say they're at the rougher end of it - independent spirits."

Yet he'd be hard pressed to believe that any fisherman - regardless of how rough and tough - would ever let a person drown.

Like many fishermen who have been stricken with fright and lost a friend at sea, Datwiler quit the commercial fishing industry. So did Rafuse.

Keller spent a year and a half gathering these heroic stories from a bunch of fantastic, selfless people.

Then came time to approach a publisher.

He noted that at the top of a freelance writer's list of essential qualities should be the ability to deal well with rejection.

He can't. He made his pitch.

"(It) was a pathetic attempt to bribe the founder and president of Harbour Publishing with all the free coffee and beer he could drink in exchange for hearing my idea."

The publisher reminded Keller that he receives a thousand book pitches a year and didn't have the capacity to consume all that liquid.

The writer was instructed to condense his idea to one page and mail it. Keller did.

The publisher, like the writer, knew a good story when he saw one. So will the reader.

-Jane Gaffin, The Yukon News


If ever there was a thorny spike mariners had good reason to fear it was Ripple Rock in Seymour Narrows near Campbell River. Ripple Rock's twin peaks lurk just beneath the surface of the narrows where tides sometimes screamed through at fifteen knots. It was a deadly combination. Ripple Rock took 114 lives and claimed 125 vessels in just 75 years. In 1958, after years of planning and tunneling, the largest non-atomic explosion ever blasted the navigational hazard to the heavens. Although man re-shaped this particular hazard with the aid of explosives, as Keith Keller's Dangerous Waters illustrates, the fury of a west coast storm or hurricane cannot be tamed, and can send seasoned mariners scurrying for their lives.

Keller is a former newspaper reporter who also spent four summers cod fishing on the east coast. He has an ear for a good story and in Dangerous Waters he allows people to tell tales of rescue and disaster in their own words. Years after the fact these accounts read as though they occurred yesterday, (stories are verified and expanded by overlapping accounts from others involved). Fishermen, kayakers, tugboat operators, sailors - all learn to respect a constantly changing dynamic of wind and water.

Brent Melan, for example, was on a night run across Georgia Strait with his dad's fishing vessel Lennie Jane in April 1990 when a storm drifted further south than he bargained for or weather forecasters predicted. Wind and sea erupted, and a huge wave flipped the vessel onto its side. Melan had enough time to send out a Mayday call and scramble onto the overturned hull. He dove into the frigid water in an attempt to retrieve a life raft from the boat's deck, but couldn't get deep enough, and realising he might become tangled in lines, held onto the hull for dear life. "I prayed - called on some dead people to help me. I didn't want to die, and I knew I was close. I looked around for a piece of line to tie myself to the boat so at least they would have a body to bury." It was tugboat Captain Dyke Noel and his crew who, after spending the night searching, at daybreak spotted the overturned Lennie Jane with a hypothermic but grateful Brent Melan. He credits singing "You Are My Sunshine" - his girlfriend's favourite song - with keeping him focused on living.

Fisherman Randy Morrison watched his skipper go down with his boat after they were caught in Hecate Strait on the notorious North Coast. Randy drifted in a survival suit for more than 24 hours, and with eyes swollen shut from the sea-water imagined ghost boats coming to his rescue. In his semi-conscious state he could see men leaning over to help him. Luckily the Canadian Coast Guard eventually fished him from the stormy seas.

Common threads run through these 21 accounts, including descriptions of adrenaline rushes that are somehow sustained for hours, often to stay afloat or keep warm. Many described being enveloped by a remarkable calmness that helped prevent panic and aided them in making the right decisions. Clarity when needed most.

The skill of the Canadian Coast Guard is well documented in these stories, including the action of lightkeepers frequently credited with initiating rescues and communicating vital information. Coast Guard brass and federal politicians who've approved "de-staffing" and automation of the lighthouses should be encouraged to read these accounts and be reminded of these efforts.

On the 20th anniversary of his rescue from a rock pinnacle (after a February storm demolished the boat he and three others were on), Reid Dobell left a message on the answering machine of the Bamfield, Coast Guard station to remind the folks there he hadn't forgotten what they did for him. The Coast Guard had been alerted to his predicament by the lightkeeper at Cape Beale, just above the graveyard of the Pacific.

-Mark Forsythe, BC Bookworld