Yukon North Of Ordinary

News archive for November 1, 2012

Officer tells of fatal boating excursion

When Const. Michael Potvin went out on the Mayo RCMP’s riverboat the day he drowned, it was only supposed to be on the water for an hour.

By Ashley Joannou on November 1, 2012 at 3:43 pm

photo

Photo by Whitehorse Star

Const. Michael Potvin

When Const. Michael Potvin went out on the Mayo RCMP’s riverboat the day he drowned, it was only supposed to be on the water for an hour.

He had to be home to his wife for dinner.

To help his new commanding officer, the 26-year-old came in on his day off on July 13, 2010 to help test the old boat on the water for the first time that summer.

He would die while trying to swim to shore after the vessel capsized in the Stewart River.

Cpl. Brent Chapman was at the controls when the boat flipped that evening.

On Wednesday, the 25-year veteran of the force told a Whitehorse inquest into Potvin’s death about his last hours with the young officer and his impression of the 25-year-old boat they were using.

Chapman arrived as the new commanding officer for the Mayo detachment on June 7, 2010.

An RCMP-trained and certified boat operator, Chapman told the jury he thought the Mayo boat appeared “dirty,” “relatively old” and had a “shortage of equipment.”

The motor looked relatively new, he said.

Chapman said he tried to find more information on the history of the boat.

Like earlier witnesses, Chapman testified to having troubles finding information.

 “There wasn’t a file for this particular boat, and it took me a while to find the limited documentation I did find,” he said.

Chapman said none of the electrical systems independent of the motor worked. These included the navigation lights, the bilge pump used to pump water out of the hull and various gauges, including the fuel gauge.

It also lacked a functioning radio, so officers had to bring individual radios onboard.

When it came to the boat’s wiring, Chapman said, the electrical system had clearly been patched and modified several times.

“It’s not what I suspected would be suitable for a marine environment,” he told the inquest.

Chapman said he called officials in Whitehorse to request a new radio and inform them about the wiring.

He was told it would be months before anything could be done, he said.

A week before the deadly capsizing, Chapman gave Potvin a list of items to purchase, some to repair the boat, others to improve the safety equipment.

Potvin was able to buy some of the equipment including flares and a new pin for the 150-horsepower primary motor.

Potvin was not able to find a new bilge pump for the boat, Chapman said.

The corporal testified he was aware that the boat had experienced motor troubles in the past.

The day before taking to the water with Potvin, Chapman had a conversation with a senior RCMP official, Insp. Andreas Seidemann Sr.

The inspector told him about the near tragedy on the boat in October 2009 when his son, a constable with the RCMP, and another officer were forced to bail water frantically on Mayo Lake when the motor stopped working multiple times.

The inspector told him “this boat almost killed two guys,” Chapman said.

He said he believed the October problem with the boat was because of high waves.

“My conclusion was that we would have to be wary in conditions of high wave activity,” he said.

Because of those concerns, he decided to test the boat on the calmer Stewart River, stay close to Mayo and only stay out for a short period of time.

“The plan was to use the Stewart River and stay relatively close to resources if needed,” he said. 

***

By 6:05 p.m., with a Rubbermaid tote full of safety gear and both wearing RCMP personal floatation devices (PFDs), the men were in the boat on the water.

Chapman said he gave the younger officer a safety briefing before coming aboard, which included reminding him to wear his PFD.

In the beginning, the large motor ran well, Chapman said, allowing him to achieve plane well (when the boat becomes more parallel to the water) and run smoothly at different speeds.

About one kilometre upstream, the motor stopped running.

The boat drifted until it ran up against the riverbank.

The officers raised the large motor and used the smaller auxiliary motor to get back to the beach near where they’d originally pushed off.

Chapman said his first thought was that the larger motor had run out of fuel. That surprised him because the officers had checked the boat’s fuel tanks before leaving.

Chapman decided to walk home to get some fuel cans and fill them up at a local gas station.

“As I’m walking up the hill, I see Mike take off his PFD and drape it on the bow of the boat,” he said.

Potvin was not wearing a PFD when he drowned, the inquest has heard.

The boat was back on the river by 7:10 p.m.

“Because the motor had stopped, I wanted to go out for a short time to make sure the fuel was the issue,” Chapman said.

“We were going to do a quick run and then we would be done.”

Again, the motor began working as expected, but eventually it went dead again. The men would get it started, but it would stop again.

This happened three or four times, Chapman said.

“Whenever the boat stopped, the wake would come and splash into the motor well,” he said. “The motor well had holes in it, so there would be wake on the deck of the boat.”

The last time the pair was able to get the large motor going, it ran for a longer period of time before cutting out, Chapman said.

This meant the front of the boat was able to get much further out of the water and create an even larger splash when the motor stopped. The back filled with even more water.

That’s when Chapman switched to the auxiliary motor, which required him to sit at the back of the boat to operate.

Weight from the water in the back of the boat had pushed the front end so high it obstructed his view, Chapman said.

Potvin stood at the front of the boat to give directions back to the boat dock.

At some point, the younger officer asked if he should start bailing.

With water already over the stern, Chapman told the jury, “Mike was accomplishing more with his weight in the bow.”

Then the boat started to rock. It rocked once to the starboard side before coming back to level.

It rocked again, but this time flipped right over.

Potvin jumped off the front of the boat while Chapman slid off the back.

Chapman testified he ended up in the water next to the boat.

When he next saw Potvin, the constable was more than halfway to shore. Land was about 7.5 metres (25 feet) away.

Chapman said it appeared Potvin was standing up it the water.

“He yelled. I believe he said my name. I assume that meant he was OK,” he said.

Moments later, rescuers were able to get to Chapman and pull him out of the water.

Next came the confusion.

Chapman said he assumed Potvin had made it to shore and had gone to get help.

He was left to wonder, “Why is there so much confusion over what happened to Mike? Why wasn’t he on the shore?” Chapman said.

Chapman was on the search boat whose occupants discovered Potvin’s body 17 days later 58 kilometres downstream from where the boat capsized.

***

The most emotional testimony of the day came when Potvin’s father, Mark, questioned Chapman, the last person to spend time with his son.

Mark Potvin was given standing to represent the family at the inquest and can pose questions to anyone called to give evidence.

He asked Chapman why he chose to take the boat out on the water even after learning about its difficulties the year before.

The officer responded that police had a responsibility to test the boat to make sure it was functioning.

Mark Potvin also asked why the boat was going back to the boat launch and not to the nearest shore.

Chapman told Potvin’s father he believed the boat would not capsize even while swamped.

Mark Potvin noted that witnesses have testified to hearing the two officers talk to each other in the water.

Chapman said he doesn’t remember having any conversation.

“Why didn’t you tell Michael to stay with the boat?”

“He was more than halfway to shore; I’m not going to call him back,” Chapman said.

Mark Potvin noted that Chapman was the trained senior officer on the boat with his son. Michael Potvin had been with the RCMP for less than a year.

“Did you maintain care of Michael Potvin on that day?” the father asked.

“No,” Chapman whispered.

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