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Coming to the rescue

Sondi Ryersee has a gun in her hands. As the commanding officer with the Canadian Coast Guard, Ryersee took the 9mm handgun from the man she just rescued.
Sondi Ryersee, a commanding officer with the Canadian Coast Guard, pulls into a dock on Lake Superior. (Jeff Labine,

Sondi Ryersee has a gun in her hands. 
As the commanding officer with the Canadian Coast Guard, Ryersee took the 9mm handgun from the man she just rescued. It's the middle of the night, the boat the man was on is sinking into Lake Erie and the crew has started treating his wife's injuries. 
She asks him if the gun is loaded. The man, shivering underneath a thick blanket, assures her that the gun is safe. There's a full clip of ammo and a bullet in the chamber. The gun is ready to fire. 
Now she can't help but wonder why this American man, in his mid-40s, had to bring a gun on her boat. What began as a simple rescue mission is no longer so simple. The OPP have to get involved now, which means more paperwork if nothing else. 
"Part of me wanted to say 'throw it overboard and get rid of the thing,'" Ryersee said, thinking back on that drama-filled night that took place one year ago. "But then I thought 'oh my God, what if it washes up on a beach and here I was instructing him to throw it overboard.'" 
Instead, she gave the magazine clip to one of her crew members and kept the gun with her. This way she could be confident that the gun was indeed safe. 
Ryersee made contact with the freighter's captain and got the 750-foot boat to slow down. That in itself was a significant accomplishment. 
"Time is money to a freighter," she said. "They got to keep a schedule, and you've got to sail while the weather is good. They hate to stop." 

Four people needed to be picked up, but there was no way to lower them down to Ryersee's boat besides the huge crane. She remembers how nervous that made her. 
The Canadian Coast Guard officer couldn't get too close to the huge freighter without destroying her own boat, and the wind and waves made it difficult to stay on course with the ship. 
To make matters worse, the huge steel platform the four people were on was swinging. 

"I thought 'I can't have my deckhands out on the bow with this thing swinging because they have no escape,'" she said. "There's no place for them to go and no place for me to go to get us out of danger. It could easy decapitate the crew." 
If anyone fell back in the water it would be bad, but not as dangerous as a swinging steel platform. 
Ryersee, a 43-year-old mother of three, said most captains probably don't have experience with firearms. Thankfully she does. 
Her husband has a soy bean and wheat farm in Pelee Island, Ont., near Lake Erie, and she often hunts with her five dogs. 
If you ask, she will tell you with confidence that she has a pretty good shot. 
Ryersee joined the Thunder Bay coast guard crew in April as the commanding officer and quickly became friends with engineer Phil Hayes and search and rescue seamen Willy Trognitz and Terry Nuttall.
Their schedule has them living together for 10 days at a time. 
They all live in a two-storey house off Lake Superior near a few grain elevators and a railway yard. Everyone has their own rooms, there are two bathrooms upstairs and a deck to sit, relax and watch the waves. 
Although Ryersee has the top job, she's the youngest of the four and the newest in the area. She said she really relies on the local knowledge of her crew. 
"They know stuff that I won't get until I have five or six years here," she said. "Some places have local names that aren't on the charts. A new CO wouldn't know where Turtle Head is." 
Each person has their routine of activities. 
Trognitz, 59, has worked as a coastguard for 22 years, but opted out of the medical portion of the job after 12 years. He and Nuttall take turns on the maintenance of the cutter and smaller zodiac ship. But most of the time it's following the orders of the commanding officer. 
Trognitz's life hasn't been exclusive to the coastguard.  He's also had a minor league hockey career. He played with the Cincinnati Stingers from 1977 to 1978 and was drafted by the California Golden Seals. He was the enforcer, a story well told by his enlarged knuckles, which show what years of physical punishment can do. 
"When I played hockey, I beat up people for a living. Now I rescue people," he said. "I was considered the enforcer and it is a tough way to play the game. I've had my nose broken seven times, my jaw broken and all my knuckles on my right hand broken and on my left hand. Lots of aches and pains." 
He was also an instrumental player in the rescue of the cruise ship Grampa Woo. 
Trognitz was on board the former coast guard ship, the Westfort, when he and the rest of the crew responded to a distress call on Lake Superior, near Beaver Bay on Oct. 31,1996. 
The call came in during hurricane-like weather conditions. 
Twenty-foot waves crashed across the deck of the Westfort. The below freezing October weather quickly formed ice and the crew soon faced the possibility of capsizing. 

For Trognitz, the night provided legitimate fright on Halloween. He admits that he was scared for his life. 
"That was the most intense rescue that I've been on," he said. "I honestly thought that would be my last day. We all did.  We were almost rolling over and we were on our side many times. The boat was literally on its side." 
The Westfort was so top-heavy that it started to roll on its side nearly 90 degrees. But despite the dangers, Trognitz and the rest of the crew pushed forward. 
That rescue earned Trognitz and the two other crew members the Governor General's Medal of Bravery, which now hangs near the front door of the house. 
Although Ryersee was not involved in the Grampa Woo rescue, she said she knew all too well the importance of relying on the crew. 
"When that boat leaves, you have to trust all those people around you to give you correct information, to be there when you need to respond and they have to trust you with their lives to have the competency to know what needs to be done," she said. 
She added that the crew becomes more like a family because they spend so much time together. They get to know each other's habits and when it's a good time to practice avoidance.  But by the end of the day they always have each other's backs. 
"There are some days when you wake up and you are just not in the mood to play nice," she said. "As a CO, my job is to use everybody so our outcome is the best. Just because I'm top of the food chain doesn't mean I can do this without a team. I always count on the crew. You can't do it without them." 

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