Service Always
Les Palmer – Cross of Valour Recipient
Canadian Coast Guard

by Lynn Salmon 2015

Les Palmer

Les Palmer in the CCGC Point Henry (Photo courtesy of L. Salmon )

The Canadian Coast Guard ( CCG ) celebrated their fiftieth anniversary in 2012 and over the years there have been a number of people who have provided outstanding service, positively impacting the lives of countless Canadians.

One such individual is Les Palmer, now retired, who concluded his thirty–two year career as First Officer on the CCG Cutter Point Henry stationed at Prince Rupert, BC. Les worked on the Point Henry from her earliest days as deckhand, rescue specialist and lastly as her first mate.

When Les first worked for coast guard, joining in 1982, it was a casual, on-call arrangement. He had been approached by his father-in-law, Captain Ed Harris, the Prince Rupert District Manager and captain of CCG Ship Estevan, to crew as relief on the catamaran Cloo-Stung. For Les, "that is where life in the coast guard started for me." The Cloo-Stung worked as a navaid tender, supply boat for the lights and conducted search and rescue work including salvage assistance.

Prior to joining the coast guard, Les worked for Husky Towing, a family-run business started by his father. Ben Palmer started out from North Vancouver as a young man looking for work and ended up at Englewood Logging for a short time. He then ventured into gill-netting, beach combing and finally arrived in Prince Rupert in 1961. He started a successful A-frame logging business as well as Husky Towing. At that time the only other operator in the area was Rivtow. He employed a small crew that eventually included his sons. In the early 1980s Husky Towing had a fleet of seven tugs, the largest at 60 feet was the Lady Jodi. Sadly, Ben passed early in 2015 after a tough battle with pancreatic cancer and coincidentally, the day of his service, Lady Jodi sank at anchor in Kelsey Bay.

At the start of his career, Les worked for both Husky Towing and coast guard, able to take a two week shift on the coast guard boat and then spend his –off time– working for Husky.

In the earlier days of coast guard response, once safety of life at sea was secured, the coast guard crew would then work to save the vessel. Les found his skills transferable with his experiences at Husky Towing - able to assess and repair many boats at sea using materials found aboard to patch holes or sprung planking, or pumping out water and then towing vessels to port for further work. In later years policies were developed to discourage such activities to reduce damage to Search and Rescue resources as well as keeping the risks taken by Search and Rescue crews focused strictly on saving lives.

In 1983, CCG Cutter Point Henry was posted to Prince Rupert and Les began as deckhand for this vessel. The dedicated Search and Rescue ( SAR ) cutter was better able to respond to potential Search and Rescue incidents and leave the Cloo-Stung to continue with non-Search and Rescue duties.

In 1996 Les was hired full time into the coast guard after serving the organization for thirteen years.

Point Henry

The CCGC Point Henry (Photo courtesy of Dan Salmon )

The Point Henry was a good Search and Rescue platform. At 71 feet and 56 tons she was powered with twin 1740hp diesel Caterpillar engines. She was built in 1980 by Breton Industrial and Marine Ltd. in Port Hawkesbury NS with an aluminum hull - a specialty of that builder - and capable of 21 knots. Point Henry was retired from service along with sister cutter the Point Race out of Campbell River in 2011 (As of 2015 they were owned by O'Brien and Fuerst Logging Company and serving as crew boats). The replacement lifeboat, 47 foot Cape Dauphin with a smaller four person crew, took over the giant patrol area from the Henry. The area of responsibility for the Prince Rupert-stationed lifeboats is enormous - from the Alaskan border south to the bottom end of Grenville Channel and all the islands and waterways in between including Hecate Strait - anywhere that help is needed.

Les described the atmosphere on the Henry as 'structured but informal'. Decisions were ultimately the captain's responsibility but everyone had input. Long years working with the same crew meant each knew the others limitations and a high level of efficiency was the result. Les speaks highly of his fellow crew members over the years and stressed that team work was imperative to success: "Work as a team," he reflected, "You have to work together."

In the years before improved technology on vessels – including commercial access to GPS and other navigational instruments - Point Henry responded to 150 calls on average a year. The five man crew meant that the 733 Zodiac fast response craft ( FRC ) capable of over 40 knots could go ahead of the cutter with two crew and arrive quickly on scene to make the initial assessment. It could be hours before more substantial Search and Rescue resources could be on-scene with a stricken vessel; the value of the FRC crew could not be underestimated. Numerous incidents over the years are reflected in the Point Henry's log book; sinking vessels, on-board fires, searches for persons lost overboard, vessels disoriented in poor visibility, countless medical evacuations from cruise ships.

Every call different, every call answered.

One outstanding rescue involved the Larissa – a 45 foot Canadian shrimp boat that capsized in Grenville Channel with two crew aboard during a ferocious storm on January 27th 2004. The two men managed to scramble onto the rolling hull, grab and activate the EPIRB ( emergency position indicating radio beacon ) and tumble into their inflatable liferaft. The waves in the channel were upwards of 15 feet in height and flipped the raft over. One man dove into the water to right it and became tangled in the lines trailing from it. In desperation, he dropped his pants to free himself, got back into the flimsy craft and somehow, it was pushed ashore. Thus began a seven hour ordeal for the two as they huddled in minus degree temperatures, poorly clad and without adequate shelter as they had pulled the raft on shore and sought some slight refuge in it.

The EPIRB signal was picked up by the non-geostationary international satellite system Cospas–Sarsat dedicated to EPIRB activation detection. The alert was passed to the Joint Rescue Coordination Centre in Esquimalt BC and they tasked the Point Henry. The Henry departed Prince Rupert in a snowy blizzard facing ferocious winds. Visibility and sea conditions were at their worst. During their difficult transit, a passing freighter called to report they had seen what might have been a flashlight blinking from shore on the Pitt Island side of the narrow channel. It took three hours of slogging through deteriorating weather for the Henry to reach the men’s location. And that was only the beginning of the rescue epic that earned Les Palmer the Cross of Valour, only the 20th Canadian to receive such an honour for bravery. His efforts: landing the FRC at the only boat-accessible beach a half mile from the suffering crewmen, crawling through waist-deep snow and dealing with extreme freezing temperatures to give aid and affect rescue under such trying conditions truly deserves national recognition. The City of Prince Rupert also gave commendations to the crew of Point Henry for their combined exemplary display of selflessness and determination.

But the incident that stands out for Les - when asked what was for him the most memorable rescue – took place much closer to home. On December 4th, 1993 a Grumman Goose with Waglisla Air crashed mere minutes after take off from the seaplane dock in Seal Cove into a mountain-side.

The coast guard’s Sikorsky S61N twin engine heavy lift coast guard helicopter (with the fleet until 2011) had just completed Search and Rescue exercises with the Point Henry and was returning to Seal Cove when the pilot spotted the wreckage and saw two persons unmoving outside the aircraft on a very steep slope. He called Les and reported what he'd seen adding that he felt this was likely now just a recovery mission.

Palmer made the decision to attend immediately. The Search and Rescue team from 442 Squadron based out of Comox - flying CH113 Labrador helicopters and CC115 Buffalo aircraft - would be hours away from arriving and in such cold, clear conditions, anyone who survived the crash would not survive exposure to the frigid temperatures. Les, along with a crew member from the cutter and a paramedic, were transported by the S61N to the crash site. Unable to land near it, they hiked through dense forest and craggy ravines to reach the aircraft. They found it nose-in to the cliff at a 45 degree angle, it's tail high in the air supported by broken trees. Incredibly, people were still alive inside the aircraft, one a pregnant woman. All had serious to life-threatening injuries and all required immediate evacuation.

The conditions were horrific: injured people, a crash site in difficult terrain, there were many challenges to overcome. Fortunately, with Les’ logging background (he holds his falling licence to this day), trees were safely felled to clear a pick-up area for the coast guard helicopter so that the injured passengers did not have to be transported any great distance. They were hoisted using the Stokes litter, just as they had practised earlier that day, never suspecting they would be putting that training to such immediate use. The survivors were transported to hospital one at a time and while the S61N was in transit, the on-scene crew worked to free the next person for evacuation.

Coordinating the drop of the Stokes litter became more and more challenging as darkness fell - hand signals became impossible, communications were difficult but all survivors of the crash were eventually lifted out and saved. No sooner had they finished this rescue than they were called out again later that evening to respond to a mayday; they were out until the wee hours of the morning.

Such is the life of a coast guard lifeboat crew.

Les Palmer

Les Palmer (Photo courtesy of Les Palmer )

Les Palmer has made a difference in the lives of many but that incident stands out for him, "At the end of that night, I was extremely exhausted but I made the right call about the crash or none of them would have made it out alive. To see the people (at the crash site) working together - phenomenal."

With the start of the Fleet modernization program and the introduction of the newer 47 foot lifeboats, Les decided it was time to turn his attention to new ventures. The new lifeboats required additional tickets that would have meant a considerable investment of time to obtain. Staying within Fleet without the additional tickets meant he would be placed on one of the larger vessels and he had done enough time away from home. The rotation of a month on and a month off was not appealing at this stage of his career, "It's for the younger generation, you have all the technology now to keep in better touch but it's still time away. I couldn't see myself doing that now."

The rescue specialist is still a very big part of who he is – "it’s something that doesn't leave you, It’s a part of you" he states.

But there are no regrets from Les; this is not a man who has time on his hands or worries what will fill his day on the morrow. He is the owner of Four Seasons contracting, responsible for a number of roadwork contracts, as well as having a hand in other business ventures.

And then there's his full-time role as a grandparent – an occupation that he says he and his wife Lori absolutely love. Their two grown boys live in town and having the family near by "couldn't make us happier".

Mentoring over the years has been a very positive channel for Les – many of the young people he has encountered through school tours, hockey coaching and public speaking have entered the coast guard college program in Sydney Nova Scotia, graduating at the top of their class as fully fledged officers in navigation or engineering and embarking on a fulfilling, exciting, rewarding career - he is happy to think he has pointed the younger generation in that direction.

"You couldn’t ask for a better career," he proudly remarks in summary of his coast guard experience.

Author’s Note: I had the pleasure of joining Les Palmer and the Point Henry crew on a SAR exercise with the US Coast Guard in 2004 and witnessed first-hand their camaraderie, professionalism and commitment to program delivery. Many thanks to Les for the opportunity to talk with him about his career and remind us all of the ongoing dedication of the men and women of the Canadian Coast Guard.

To quote from this article please cite:

Salmon, Lynn (2015) Service Always Les Palmer – Cross of Valour Recipient Canadian Coast Guard. 2015.

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