RCMP Const. Michael Potvin was wearing soft body armour, a firearm, handcuffs, a baton and a duty belt when his boat capsized on the murky, swift-moving Stewart River Tuesday evening.
That gear weighs more than 20 pounds, RCMP Sgt. Don Rogers said during a media briefing on Wednesday.
On duty RCMP officers are “required to wear the general duty belt at all times, and that includes when you’re operating a watercraft,” he said.
Potvin wasn’t wearing a life-jacket.
Rogers would not identify the other officer in the boat and would not say if he was wearing a life-jacket.
The two Mayo police had taken their 22-foot aluminum RCMP boat out of winter storage that day.
They were working on it to prepare it for the year, said Rogers.
After travelling some distance upriver, the 150-horsepower Suzuki outboard engine “began having problems,” he said.
The pair turned around and headed back to the dock.
“As to what happened when they neared the dock, I’m not exactly sure,” said Rogers.
“It appears they were trying to work on the boat when it suddenly capsized.”
The RCMP does not service its boats on a yearly basis.
“If the boat isn’t used, why would you spend your money having it go in for a tune-up?” said Rogers in a followup interview.
“The engines are serviced as need be.”
When they’re put away in the fall, officers check to make sure they’re in proper working order, he said.
“And in the spring, when you activate a boat, you should ensure you have the proper gas and oil.
“It doesn’t require a mechanic; it just requires an operator to check those things.
“It’s no different than popping your hood in your driveway, and checking to make sure your fluids in your engine are all good – anyone can do that.”
The officer who was driving the boat was properly qualified and received training, through the RCMP, in basic water transport, said Rogers.
“As part of that curriculum they go over safety procedures and emergency rescues.”
Officers who take the three-day boat-operator course get some emergency and basic safety training, including the basics of rescue and being in the water, said Rogers.
But Potvin didn’t take the boat-operator course.
“As a passenger, he was not required to be trained in basic water transport,” said Rogers.
The RCMP does not offer all its officers water-rescue training.
Officers are required to achieve a certain level of swimming, but don’t need to take water-rescue courses when they go through training.
Like the RCMP, the Yukon’s conservation officers use boats on the job.
And all the territory’s conservation officers are trained in water rescue, in an intensive three-day course that is recognized in 33 countries worldwide.
The Department of Environment declined to answer further questions about its boat maintenance schedule and its staff training.
“On a different date and a different time we would provide you with the details on the training, maintenance and rigour that we apply to the conservation officers who patrol the rivers and lakes,” said its spokesman Dennis Senger.
“But we are declining an interview at this time out of respect for the family, friends and RCMP members who are going through a difficult time in the search for Const. Potvin.”
When the two officers’ boat capsized at around 7:48 p.m. on Tuesday, they were dumped into the cold, brown and roiling Stewart River, which is lined by rocks, willows and brush so heavy that it sometimes foiled searchers’ efforts to bushwhack through it, forcing them to backtrack to the village’s dike.
Potvin attempted to swim toward shore.
The officer operating the boat clung to the upside-down hull.
Witnesses grabbed a boat on the shore and, using sticks they scrounged from the shore, paddled out and rescued the officer clutching the overturned boat.
But when they turned to look for Potvin, he was nowhere in sight. He’d vanished at the oxbow right in front of the village’s gazebo and grocery store, a stretch of river known for its eddies and odd currents.
“He was last seen anywhere from 20 to 50 feet from shore,” said Rogers.
The boat was equipped with personal flotation devices, he said.
“And it is not known at this time why (Potvin) was not wearing his PFD.
“RCMP policy is that you will wear a personal flotation device at all times when in a boat and around the dock,” he said.
“However, the law does not require you to wear a PFD as long as there is the appropriate number in the boat.”
Human Resources’ Skill Development Canada’s labour program department has been notified.
And health and safety officers are investigating the incident.
They will also be investigating the RCMP’s servicing schedule for its boats, said Rogers.
Potvin hails from Osgoode, Ontario, and had been with the force a year when the incident happened.
His first posting was in Watson Lake.
Potvin lives in Mayo with his wife, who is pregnant with their first child. Potvin is well-liked, said Rogers.
The search is still a rescue operation, he said.
A four-person RCMP dive crew has flown up from Prince George, BC, to help in the search. They are equipped to deal with the cold water and only one diver enters the water at a time. They are having a hard time searching because visibility in the silt-heavy Stewart is limited at best.
There are five RCMP search boats on the river and sonar equipment has been brought to the area.
The RCMP major crimes unit is also on the scene along with members from Mayo, Pelly and Dawson.
There’s a local helicopter in the air, as well as the RCMP’s twin otter. And a police dog from M division is working the area.
Conservation officers and civilians are also helping with the search, said Rogers.
The boat is resting upside down on a sandbar in the middle of the Stewart River about 300 metres past the docking area.
“We remain optimistic and hopeful that Const. Potvin will be found downstream safe,” said Rogers.
“However, we are realistic and realize, as more time goes by, the likelihood of his survival lessens.”
With files from Samantha Anderson.
Contact Genesee Keevil at