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Heroism shines through in the worst conditions

It's hard to imagine trying to conduct a rescue under much worse conditions. Hurricane-force winds, gusting to 100 knots. Temperatures a nail-popping minus 20 F. Snow falling in heavy, swirling curtains. Seas running to 12 feet. Freezing spray. A January darkness nearly impenetrable, even with powerful searchlights.

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Summoned into this maelstrom by an EPIRB signal from a stricken fishing boat, a 75-foot Canadian Coast Guard cutter steams down Grenville Channel in northern British Columbia, icing up as she threads her way through the storm, navigating by radar, plotter and compass.

"Zero visibility," recalls Les Palmer, the first officer aboard the Point Henry that night. "It was a blinding snowstorm. It wasn't a good scene." Ice even built up on the inside of the pilothouse windows.

Palmer understood as well as anyone the dangers faced by victim and rescuer alike. He is an experienced rescue specialist and outdoorsman who knows the water and the woods. He cut his teeth working for his father, who ran a small marine towing company; they felled trees, towed log booms, fished commercially. "I grew up in the bush," he says.

As the Point Henry worked her way south from Prince Rupert toward the site of the distress call, the rescue crew passed a northbound freighter, which reported seeing a small flickering light on a rocky beach on Pitt Island. That sighting may well have saved the fishermen's lives.

"Them fellows wouldn't have made it to daylight," Palmer says.

When the Point Henry got to the spot where the light had been reported, the ship moved to within about 300 feet of the beach. The Coast Guardsmen trained powerful spotlights on the shore but couldn't penetrate the snow and darkness. The crew also shot off rocket flares to illuminate the beach, but again all they saw was snow.

Huddled in a torn, partially inflated life raft held down by logs, one of the fishermen spotted the flares. And in a break between snow squalls the rescuers caught a glimpse of the tiny flash of a strobe held by a desperate man on an icy, surf-blasted shore.

Spotting the light was a stroke of good fortune. Reaching the fishermen before they froze to death would be something else. The surf on the beach where the victims were hunkered down was running 8 to 12 feet, and the wind was right on the shore. Attempting to land men there was tantamount to suicide.

Through local knowledge, Palmer knew that in a small pass about a half-mile to the south the cutter would find enough of a lee to be able to launch an inflatable. Palmer, who was 43 at the time and in good shape, volunteered to be dropped along a section of coastline where the surf was smaller. He was dressed in a Mustang suit, fleece long johns, insulated gloves and boots, and two balaclavas.

The hour-long half-mile trek to the fishermen across the frozen otherworldly shore was full of pitfalls. The beach was iced up with freezing, blowing spray, which coated Palmer, making it difficult for him to see. Palmer decided to try to make his way through the bush, about 50 feet off the beach, to avoid the worst of the ice and wind.

Back in there, however, the snow was 3 feet deep, and the tops of trees began breaking off and falling to the ground. Palmer retreated to the edge of the tree line and was forced at times to crawl on his belly. When he worked his way to his feet, the wind more than once literally blew him over.

Exhausted, sweating profusely and with his heart pounding, he crawled behind a sweeper log to rest for a moment. "I closed my eyes, and my freaking eyes froze shut," he recalls. "The old panic button went off. I said, 'What are you doing here?' "

Eventually, Palmer reached the two fishermen, whose boat, Larissa, had earlier that day iced up and been knocked on her beam ends by a powerful katabatic burst. Their story of making it to shore and surviving until Palmer reached them could easily fill a column.

And Palmer's story doesn't end here, either. Under extreme conditions he was able to retrieve a waterproof medical bag fastened to a lighted life ring and tossed into the storm from the cutter. Talk about luck. Without the survival suit and heat packs inside, the hypothermic, semiconscious fishing captain probably would have perished.

The rescue took place almost seven years ago (I heard of it only recently), but the heroism that Palmer and his shipmates demonstrated and the resolve the fishermen showed make the story timeless. For his bravery that night Palmer was awarded Canada's prestigious Cross of Valour, one of only 20 given since the honor was created in 1972.

He's modest about the recognition. "It's not just me," says Palmer, who is 50 and still serving on the Point Henry. "It's the whole crew."

The captain of the fishing boat gave his daughter "Palmer" as a middle name; I got the sense that the gesture meant as much to the rescuer as anything.

"It's a good feeling," Palmer says, "knowing that that fellow continues on and started a family."

"I kept at the tiller all night and by morning I was subhuman, just a wet lump of humanity longing for nothing but warmth and oblivion."

- Charles Violet

This article originally appeared in the January 2011 issue.