Comox Coast Guard Radio– Over One Hundred Years of History

by Lynn Salmon 2012

"Mayday!" A single call over the radio – this simple word sets in motion a very well organized team of professionals to get help to a mariner in peril. Everyone on the water knows that "Mayday" is the spoken distress signal to alert others to immediate danger and potential loss of life, but what people may not know is how that call is handled to make the on–water assistance a reality.

Comox MCTS Station

Comox Coast Guard Radio in 2012. (Photo from MacFarlane Collection)

Since 1908 there has been a radio presence at Cape Lazo British Columbia perched high on the cliffs overlooking the Strait of Georgia. Today it is recognized as Comox Coast Guard Radio but over one hundred years ago vessels hailed ’Cape Lazo‘. The original call sign was SKD until it was changed to VAC in 1913.

The staff who worked in the radio stations in the early days were employees of the Canada Department of Marine and Fisheries unlike their eastern counterparts who worked as employees of the Marconi Company. The original station had transmitting range of 150 miles and broadcast both safety and weather information. Today there are five remote transmit and receive sites linked via a combination of land lines and microwave towers that serve the Comox Coast Guard Radio area of operation.

The radio station remained at Cape Lazo until 1962. The operation was moved to the Civil Air Terminal where it broadcast until a new facility was built on the original Cape Lazo site in 1993. Initially coast guard radio and vessel traffic management services were separate operations but in 1996 the two services integrated and became Marine Communications and Traffic Services (MCTS).

Cape Lazo Radio Tower

The radio tower at Cape Lazo showing both microwave and VHF antennas looking towards Powell River at sunrise.(Photo from Lynn Salmon Collection)

Currently there are five MCTS centres on the British Columbia coast located at Prince Rupert, Tofino, Comox, Victoria and Vancouver. They provide radio coverage along 25,725 kilometers (15,985 miles) of coastline and regulating nearly a half million individual vessel movements per year. It is a complex job requiring the ability to listen, critically assess incidents and situations and communicate clearly under stressful conditions. In order to become an MCTS Officer a candidate must complete a six month training course at the Canadian Coast Guard College in Sydney Nova Scotia. A potential candidate is given an introduction to the duties and the skills expected of them including radio theory and practices, simulated distress situations and regulating marine traffic. After graduation the trainee is placed with an on–job–instructor to spend another three to four months learning the practical application of their skills that are particular to the station and the region to which they have been posted.

Each station, while performing the same basic duties, has unique equipment and regulating practices. In Tofino and Victoria, for instance, they monitor radar feeds for traffic movement. In Vancouver they routinely assist with anchorages for pilotage. In Prince Rupert they deal with a high number of inbound foreign vessels and in Comox there are a great many log tows and cruise ships that all require different types of traffic advisories.

Comox Coast Guard radio is a 24 hour operation: personnel are on watch every hour of every day throughout the year. Every MCTS Officer is trained to work each of the three radio positions: one is dedicated to marine safety by maintaining a continuous listening watch on VHF radio Channel 16. One is dedicated to marine traffic management by monitoring large computer-rendered charts that display real-time and dead-reckoned ship transits, and one covers marine weather broadcasts while also providing back-up for both safety (the priority) and marine traffic.

Lynn Salmon

The Author, Lynn Salmon, works the safety position. The equipment (from left to right): MDS logging screen, radio console – every square represents a guarded frequency for the five remote sites, stand–alone radio with limited coverage and Direction Finding tuning radio in yellow. (Photo from Lynn Salmon Collection)

On the safety position the primary duty is to maintain a constant listening watch on VHF Channel 16. Calls from a mariner can vary in urgency – a disabled vessel adrift that is in no immediate danger, or a dis–masted sail boat that has an injured crew member on board, water ingress (vessel in danger of sinking) with no engine or anchor to arrest it’s charge to the shore! Calls come to the centre primarily on VHF radio but can also reach the MCTS Officer by cellular telephone *16 calls and via the DSC - digital selective calling unit on marine radios.

The call "Mayday" obviously takes priority over any other type of call. Panicked voices on the radio, reports of vessels on fire, or vessels sinking, or persons abandoning ship – all these situations unfold rapidly (sometimes in mere minutes) and there is no time to waste - information must be gathered and passed on. Instructions must be given to the vessels involved or others in the vicinity. And it must be all be done coolly, accurately and efficiently.

When a distress call is received by an MCTS Officer the basic information is the first collected: the position of the vessel, number of people in danger, the nature of the distress and a brief description of the vessel (type and hull colour for example)). If time allows information about the on–scene weather is collected, the type of life saving devices immediately at hand (life jackets, immersion suits, dinghy) and if available, a cell number in case the battery power of the vessel is lost. A broadcast for assistance is made from the information collected and Joint Rescue Coordination Centre (JRCC) in Victoria is advised of the incident. JRCC are combined coast guard (marine emergencies) and National Defence RCAF liaison personnel who task resources to assist – whether it’s the auxiliary units manned by volunteers, the Cormorant helicopters and Buffalo fixed wing aircraft from 442 Squadron (CFB Comox) or the full time dedicated motor lifeboats stationed along the coast. They are usually the first responders on scene although there are occasions when vessels of opportunity can arrive sooner to render help.

Regardless of who arrives on–scene with a stricken vessel, communications are constantly maintained – MCTS Officers continue to monitor and relay information between the tasked resources (the aircraft, vessels etc.), and other boaters who are offering to assist while transmitting all this information to the Joint Rescue Coordination Centre. Instructions are then passed back through the Marine Communications and Traffic Services (MCTS) to on water resources and the party in distress. It can be a very stressful responsibility at times but very rewarding to those involved as well. A team of people – each with their own unique expertise – make that one word: "Mayday" their number one concern to successfully conclude an incident.

Mike Bonnor

Mike Bonnor at the marine traffic position. Lower four screens display area charts, top screens left to right are: DSC monitor (digital selective calling), tide chart for Seymour Narrows, MDS logging screen and passive radar drop from Bowen Island (Photo from Lynn Salmon Collection)

The marine traffic position is responsible for the inside waters from the bottom end of Texada Island north through Discovery Passage, Johnstone Strait and into Queen Charlotte Strait to Cape Caution which mirrors the area of responsibility for coast guard radio.

Vessels transiting these waters communicate with traffic services to receive traffic advisories and waterway safety. Vessels are required to call in at designated ‘Calling–in–Points’ (CIPs) and provide Estimated Time of Arrivals (ETAs) to the next CIP. With this information the duty MCTS Officers determine what traffic the vessel will encounter and pass this relevant information to the vessel operator.

Just north of the station is a very treacherous area for ship navigation in Discovery Passage known as Seymour Narrows (which includes the remains of Ripple Rock). The masters of vessels of all sizes are very keen to know what traffic will be transiting this narrow and fast–flowing body of water and at what time. ‘Narrows traffic’ becomes especially important in the summer when large cruise ships frequently transit these waters and have to manoeuvre through fleets of fishing vessels (often with fishing gear in the water) and tugboats with long, large and unwieldy tows.

Narrows Traffic

An example of 'narrows traffic' - the number of vessel tags showing white (northbound) and yellow (southbound) demonstrate the volume that can accumulate around slack water for transit (Photo from Penny Hayworth Collection)

The advent of AIS (Automatic Identification System) systems has added a layer of complexity to traffic regulation; monitoring targets of both participating and non-participating traffic requires constant vigilance. AIS is a radio frequency propagated tracking system used on ships and by MCTS for identifying and locating vessels by exchanging data with other nearby ships and AIS base stations. Readers can see real-time AIS via the internet at Marine Traffic AIS.

The weather position has multiple functions. They provide backup for the primary safety position but the majority of the work is updating weather products sent from Environment Canada and recorded for transmission on the Continuous Marine Broadcast (CMB) and incorporates lighthouse observed weather taken at regular four hour collection times. Comox is unique as the station observes and records a ‘local’ weather report to be added to the lighthouse data collection.

Penny Hayworth

Penny Hayworth collects the 0540Z lighthouse weather reports. Note the lights on the console: the top light is ‘busy’ with the lighthouse circuit; the lower lights indicate a call alert on VHF Channel 16 being carried out at the same time! (Photo from Lynn Salmon Collection)

Additionally, hourly automated reports (land-based stations) and ocean buoy reports (from buoys tethered out in the Pacific Ocean) are automatically recorded onto the Continuous Marine Broadcast using a text to voice computer system. To automate the system three thousand individual words and numbers were recorded by an MCTS Officer in Vancouver and it is her voice that the mariners hear during their transit of BC waters for the automated and buoy reports assembled by the computer and broadcast on the radio. Other recordings made by on-watch MCTS Officers for the Continuous Marine Broadcast include tsunami alerts, ship weather observations and safety information such as military exercise warnings and any notifications concerning on-going urgency and mayday assistance requests.

Comox is the third busiest marine traffic centre across Canada handling an average of 900 marine incidents and emergencies per year (behind only Victoria and Halifax). In total, the five west coast centres handle 60% of all marine incidents and traffic movements in Canada.

Presently there are 22 MCTS centres in operation across Canada. The Government of Canada announced in May 2012 that this number will be reduced by closing 10 centres across the country including the one at Comox by 2015. The five centres that once worked to ensure safety to mariners on the British Columbia coast will be consolidated into two ‘super centres’ to be located at Prince Rupert and Victoria. This project will be an enormous undertaking considering the distances and number of sites involved.

Comox Coast Guard Radio may soon be silenced but mariners will remember the work done on their behalf by the dedicated staff at SKD/VAC for over a century.

Comox Radio Station entry sign

Comox Radio Station entry sign (Photo courtesy of MacFarlane Collection.)



To quote from this article please cite:

Salmon, Lynn (2012) Comox Coast Guard Radio – Over One Hundred Years of History. Nauticapedia.ca 2012. http://nauticapedia.ca/Articles/MCTS.php Updated August 8th,2012

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