We had only just begun our research in the Bering Strait and into the Chukchi Sea Wednesday when word came up from the Chief Scientist that one of the researchers was suffering severe lower back pain.  After consultations it was decided that we should divert from our research program and transit immediately towards Point Barrow to discharge the patient ashore to obtain medical attention.  Though not an emergency it was important for the patient to get more advanced medical attention as soon as practicable.  Arriving off Point Barrow Thursday morning the initial plan was to stand off and carry out a boat transfer, however sea conditions precluded a beach launch and recovery necessary off Barrow and could have exacerbated the patient’s ailment.  We stood off about 6 miles from shore to wait the weather.

Just by happenstance two USCG Jayhawk helicopters were in Barrow on training.  Though the patient onboard RV Mirai was not suffering life-threatening injury, North Slope Borough Rescue requested one of the helicopters to assist in a medevac from the ship. (For a number of years now USCG District 17 has conducted annual Operation Arctic Shield redeployment and pre-positioning of a number of search and rescue assets, however this year budget restrictions precluded the actual operational deployment of assets to Point Barrow for the duration of the navigational season). The flight crew took up the request and in typical professional manner USCG Rescue 60003 launched from Rogers Memorial Airfield in Point Barrow and headed towards RV Mirai just offshore.  Once overhead the crew contacted RV Mirai, discussed the situation with the Ice Navigator onboard acting as communications link, decided on hoisting from the after deck and then lowered a rescue swimmer when the ship was ready.  In short order the patient was secured in a stretcher and he and his personal effects were hoisted into the helicopter above.  He would soon be under professional medical care and with his wife who had flown in from Seattle the same morning to be with her husband.

In our case we were fortunate that a USCG training mission was going on when we required assistance.  Obviously that is not normally the case.  Those familiar with operating in the Arctic know well how remote the region is, how little infrastructure exists to provide support or assistance to vessels in these waters.  There are no professional search and rescue assets permanently positioned in the North American Arctic.  Though the USCG has attempted to pre-position some assets north of Kodiak as part of Operation Arctic Shield annually, budget restrictions have limited the effort.  The only time that RCAF air assets have been pre-positioned in the Canadian Arctic has been during short annual two week DND led exercise Op Nanook in the central and eastern Canadian Arctic.  Within the Canadian archipelago if you aren’t within range of one of the five CCG icebreakers assigned in the summer, you are just as alone.  CCG helicopters carried by the icebreakers are not equipped for SAR nor are the crews trained for SAR. The small communities that exist at best are limited to small boat resources manned by volunteers, but not much else.  If ship repair is required, no facilities exist between Dutch Harbor and Nuuk Greenland.

Polar traffic is undeniably increasing.  Perhaps not exponentially as some media would want to make us believe (there are no other ships within a day’s steam of RV Mirai), but traffic numbers are increasing incrementally.  There are after all at least 7 government ships from different nations conducting research in the Arctic Ocean at present.  The most frightening is the increase in the number of “adventurers” or “pleasure boaters” attempting “the voyage of a lifetime”.  These are the non-professionals that generally have far less self-rescue capability than commercial vessels.  In conceiving of and implementing Operation Arctic Shield, the United States Coast Guard is making whatever steps it can to be prepared for emergencies at sea in the growing summer navigational season.  Across the border however, the RCAF, responsible for air search and rescue assets has not yet put in place even temporary seasonal pre-positioning of helicopters as their American counterparts have except to support government training exercises. 

In 2010 the Arctic Council announced a new groundbreaking agreement on Arctic Search and Rescue with much fanfare. The agreement carved the Arctic into regions of responsibility for monitoring, alerting and response to search and rescue incidents and assigned these to Canada, United States, Russia, Norway, Iceland and Denmark (Greenlandic).  However since the agreement little has been achieved in efforts to improve infrastructure or capability.  In October I will be moderating a panel to discuss the state of Arctic Search and Rescue at the Arctic Shipping Forum North America in St. John’s, Newfoundland.  Interestingly representatives of the many of the Arctic coastal states agencies responsible for SAR have been reluctant to commit to participate.

We were fortunate Thursday.  We were in the right place at the right time.  Many others may not be so fortunate when sailing in Arctic waters.  It’s not a motorway with auto club service thirty minutes away.