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Two-metre waves capsize 9 teen rowers on Hamilton Harbour

Police boats battled high winds and waves on Hamilton Harbour on April 28, 2011 after the storms capsized several boats of rowing teams from local high schools that were on the water. As many as 100 people were on the water when the winds rose quickly early this morning. Some of the rowers made it to shore on their own, while others were plucked from the water by rescuers. Some students were taken to local hospitals for treatment of hypothermia. Police were finally able to do a complete roll call and confirm that all of the boaters were safe and accounted for.

Peter Power/Peter Power/The Globe and Mail

In the middle of a darkening bay and a growing storm, Andrew Sliasas watched helplessly as his young athletes' fragile craft sank into the frigid water - and he was thrust in the opposite direction.

Close to 100 rowers were on Hamilton Harbour early Thursday morning when a storm struck. Amid two-metre waves, hail and gusts of wind, nine teenage boys capsized and were in the middle of the bay for close to 20 minutes as coaches and fellow rowers struggled to rescue them in the squall.

The same high winds tore across a swath of the province from the Niagara Peninsula to Ottawa through the day at speeds of 90 to 100 kilometres an hour, felling trees, knocking out power and leaving one man dead.

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In Hamilton, it took two police marine units - eight officers, three boats and all their high-tech search-and-rescue equipment - to finally fish out the boys.

All were Grade 9 and 10 students at Hamilton's Westdale Secondary School, some with only a month's rowing experience. They were taken to hospital to be checked for hypothermia and released later in the day, shaken but uninjured.

Mr. Sliasas, the boys' coach who has been rowing for seven years, says all was calm at dawn. All the teams, including those from several other schools, agreed to head out. Westdale was one of the first in the water, around 5:30 a.m.

"At 6:45, you could tell the weather was doing weird things. The sky kind of went a golden colour," he said. It was just a warm wind at first. But it picked up fast. "It went from calmness to craziness in less than five minutes."

Students from other schools made it to shore as the weather turned sour. But the Westdale boys, who'd been farthest away near the north end of the bay, were smack in the middle when things got ugly.

The waves suddenly spun Mr. Sliasas's 16-foot aluminum craft around and started pushing it north, away from his charges in their rowing shell, which filled with water, sank and tipped.

Coaches tried to reach them with life jackets, which rowers don't wear as it slows them down.

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Four other schools -- St. Mary, Ancaster, Hillside Strathallan College and Bishop Tonnos -- had teams on the water but weren't as far out and managed to get them in sooner.

"We were on our way back and got out of the water when all heck broke loose," said Chris Kwiecien, director of operations for Hillside Strathallan.

"We weren't on the water at the time and we certainly weren't going to go back out."

Students at Westdale huddled in groups in the high school's halls to worriedly consult Thursday afternoon, but said they'd been told not to talk about the incident.

(The rowers themselves received the same instructions. "I'm sorry," said one boy reached shortly after he was released from hospital. "I'm not supposed to be talking about this.")

Westdale lost two boats, worth a total of $60,000, and have the first race of the season - a Mother's Day Regatta in St. Catharines - coming up in two weeks. But Mr. Sliasas said they still plan to compete.

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"It's been weird, it's been scary… [But]I haven't heard anyone say they're scared of rowing, they don't want to do it any more."

The bay was still whipped into whitecaps hours later, when gusts had dropped to about 60 kilometres an hour.

McMaster University rower and kinesiology student Emily Baturin had capsized in this bay before, but never in that kind of weather.

"If there are whitecaps like this, you don't go out."

Going over all the "what-ifs," Mr. Sliasas wondered if things would have gone differently if he'd had someone else in the coach boat with him - "it might've been easier to steer."

But he still would have taken advantage of that glassy dawn and headed out into the bay.

"There was no reason at all not to go out."

The high winds were caused by a low-pressure centre sweeping across the province and into Quebec in the north.

"It's rare, but it does happen every few years or so," said Ronald Lee, an Environment Canada meteorologist at the Ontario Storm Prediction Centre. He said the wind speeds were equal in strength to a small tornado.

Near the Niagara town of Grimsby, a 70-year-old man was hit and killed on his property by a shed door that was lifted up by the gusts.

With a report from Adrian Morrow

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