The boat offered for sale by a logging company looked more like an end than a beginning.
Used to transport loggers to work, Melissa Curtis describes how their cork boots had tattooed the boat: it looked like salvage from bow to stern. But Curtis’s partner, Pasha Barlak, saw past the damage and broken portholes to a seaworthy 24-foot Fiberglas hull manufactured by Surfer Marine. It took three years to rebuild and equip the vessel and get themselves ready to become the C-Tow Marine Assistance Comox operators.
Curtis said “it felt so natural” to shift her education in bookkeeping to operating a marine environment business. She went on to earn a series of qualifying licences: restricted operator certificate for VHF radio (ROC-M); marine basic first aid, small vessel operator proficiency (SVOP); and marine emergency duties (MED).
When Curtis tells me that she is the only female C-Tow captain in Canada, I ask her how that’s going. She smiles broadly and describes the positive reaction from male boaters when she arrives on scene to a call for help. “When they ask, ‘Where’s the captain?’ and I tell them that I am, they’re surprised and happy.” For any woman interested in marine training, Curtis’s prompt advice is to “just jump in there.”
“C-Tow is like BCAA on the water,” explains Curtis.
Operators are private contractors who cover a specific area of water on a 24/7 basis, while maintaining “good working relationships with other C-Tow operators.”
During the pandemic, Curtis acknowledged an increase in calls, often from new boaters unfamiliar with either their vessels or local waters. Keys to an “efficient” C-Tow response is:
1) Have a VHF radio, and
2) Know the latitude and longitude.
“When someone calls to say they’re three miles out of Point Holmes, well, that’s a big area,” says Curtis.
Members of C-Tow pay a yearly fee, while for non-members “the clock starts ticking” on charges when Curtis leaves the dock.
First the family shaped the boat; now the boat shapes the family life. Barlak’s 18-year-old son, Owen Barlak, is now the youngest qualified C-Tow captain in Canada. For the family of three, work starts any time a boater calls for help, which depending on the location, may involve a long slow tow and late hours. Curtis says they’ve learned to have “flexibility with plans,” that began with an unlikely boat.
For more information see C-Tow Marine Assistance: https://c-tow.ca
Barb Thomson is a boating enthusiast who writes regular columns for the Comox Valley Record.