Rescue at Sea!

When bad weather and sinking boats put saltwater anglers in life-threatening situations, these Coast Guard helicopter crews swing into action. (January 2007)

Crews of HH-65-A Dolphin helicopters train for a variety of types of rescues at sea. Crews include specialists whose job it is to go into the water, even in heavy storms at night, and swim through the seas to secure victims to the rescue cable.
Photo courtesy of the U.S. Coast Guard.

Lt. Commander Tim Denby readily admits that life had been pretty easy as a member of the crew of a U.S. Coast Guard rescue helicopter -- before the fall of 2000.

Denby had been posted in Hawaii, and he said that search-and-rescue operations (SARs) had been "few and far between."

Then, he was transferred to the Coast Guard air station in Charleston, South Carolina.

And on Sept. 19, 2000, his life changed forever.

That night, around 10:30, the crew of his HH-65-A Dolphin helicopter was called to search for two fishermen who at that point had been missing for close to 36 hours, unaccounted for after a day's fishing off North Carolina's Cape Fear and its treacherous Frying Pan Shoals south of Wilmington -- made even more treacherous by the fact that remnants of Tropical Storm Dennis were pushing through the area.

After a 110-mile flight from his home base, Denby, who was a lieutenant at the time and was flying co-pilot on a four-man crew, was involved in an air-and-sea rescue that earned the entire crew commendation medals for heroism.

Eleven days later, another Coast Guard helicopter crew was called on to rescue the survivors of another offshore boating accident, this time hauling to safety three fishermen whose boat had been hit and sunk at night by a passing freighter. The members of that crew, led by Lt. Lance Belben, the pilot, and rescue swimmer Petty Officer Jason Mathers, received one of the Coast Guard's highest award, the Air Medal. The second rescue took place scant miles from the site of the first one.

"I'd been in Hawaii before I moved, and SAR flights out of Hawaii were few and far between," Denby said. "But there are a lot of them out of Savannah and Charleston. There is a lot more fishing -- a lot more commercial guys going out in bad weather.

"Since then, I've been on multiple SAR flights, but that was the first one of my career when I could really say that we had saved someone's life. It was pretty exciting. It was a pretty good SAR."

Michael Peeler of Randleman, North Carolina, felt pretty excited when he and his fishing buddy, Carl Kennedy of Asheboro, North Carolina, saw a blue light coming over the horizon toward the spot where they were clinging to the hull of Peeler's 19-foot fishing boat. In fact, they had been clinging to it for 36 hours, ever since it inexplicably began to fill with water while they were headed out toward Frying Pan Tower the previous morning to fish for king mackerel.

"It was about midnight, and it wasn't really cold, but we were sun-burned, and we had pulled our shirts up over our heads to keep the warmth in our bodies," said Peeler, who had bought his boat brand-new only a few weeks before. "We looked out and saw a blue light, and I thought it might be a tower or something, but we knew there was no tower around, and then we could see it moving.

"We had three flares on the boat, and we were down to our last flare, and we shot it. I didn't think they saw us, because it looked like they were going the other way, but they turned and started toward us. It was really great. When they sent that guy down out of the helicopter, he looked like Spiderman swinging along. We were thrilled to see 'em."

Denby, who is district avionics research manager for the Coast Guard in Miami, was just as thrilled when his crew noticed the bright, red flare coursing through the night sky.

"We were looking near Frying Pan Shoals, and seas were more than 10 feet, really bad. We had flown through some pretty heavy thunderstorms on the way up there, and we were in our search pattern and had just started the third leg when we saw a red flare that was shot from pretty much directly under the helicopter," he said. "We were using night-vision goggles (NVGs) and an infrared search light on the copter that works only with NVGs. We've got a pilot (Lt. Commander Greg Omernik), a flight mechanic (Chief Petty Officer Brian Sullivan), a rescue swimmer (Petty Officer George Marinkov) who's at the right door, the sliding door, tethered in a gunner's belt, and I'm in the right-front seat.

"There were so many whitecaps, and with only a little bit of that white hull out of the water, we hadn't seen 'em. They were down to their last flare -- and they shot it at just the right time."

Denby's copter marked the approximate position of the flare, swung into position, and eased toward the spot, finally seeing Peeler and Kennedy on a section of the capsized hull that Denby estimated at 3-by-5 feet -- the only part still above water.

In very rough seas, when rescue victims have already been in the water for some time, one of the crew has to assist them. That means one of the crew, called the "swimmer" has one of the most physically demanding jobs anywhere: He is lowered into the ocean from the helicopter and must swim through the water to the victims, and secure them to a basket so they can be brought aboard the helicopter.

"We got our rescue swimmer ready, we did a slow hover and put him down -- we slung him up near the boat, and he swam over to 'em," Denby said. "He assessed the situation and called us on a handheld radio he carried, then we sent a basket down, and we brought the guys up one by one, then got the rescue swimmer up and headed back.

"They were all swollen up from being in the water for so long; they'd been overlooked by other searchers, but they were hard to see with that little white hull and all those whitecaps."

Denby's crew carried Peeler and Kennedy to nearby Brunswick County Airport in Southport, North Carolina, where they turned them over to EMS personnel on the site, then finally headed back to Charleston for some well-earned rest.

The official Coast Guard report said that the rescue took place in 15-foot seas and 35-knot winds.

Peeler and Kennedy had started their day on the west side of Frying Pan Shoals, about 35 miles off the mouth of the Cape Fear River near Southport. Their boat started taking on water just before noon -- Peeler said there was a defect that allowed water to enter the boat betw

een two sections of the hull -- and by the time they were picked up, one night and an entire day later, they had floated nearly 20 miles, being picked up 11 miles off Fort Macon and 14 miles from Wrightsville Beach on the east side of the shoals.

"We could tell we were drifting, because the color of the water was changing," Peeler said. "It was like we'd drift in on the tide a little while, then when it changed, we'd drift back out."

The boat floated in four days later. Another fishing boat spotted the hull, and Sea Tow righted it and towed it to shore. Peeler said he spent $4,800 to get the boat back, then unsuccessfully spent thousands more trying to get the boat's manufacturer and the dealer where he bought it to pay for the damages.

"My trip in the ocean wasn't nearly as bad as the trip back," Peeler said. "Those Coast Guard guys who saved us, I really appreciated them, from the bottom of my heart. At least we had the boat, and it floated and we could stay on top of it.

"It crossed my mind that we might not make it, but I'd told Carl that there would be somebody coming along. There were some freighters, but they were far enough away that they couldn't see us.

"What happened to us was a long story. I've still got the boat. It had a place in the bow where it wasn't put together very well. I couldn't figure out what was wrong with it. When we fished in fresh water, it was fine, but when we took it in the ocean, it took in a lot of water. The (bilge) pump burned up, and we had it replaced, then we went out that day, and it did the same thing. We noticed the hull start kind of digging into (the waves), and then we looked under the floor and the whole boat was filling with water. It was a matter of seconds before it got unstable and flipped over."

Besides the crew of the Coast Guard copter, Peeler said that a woman who worked at the Oak Island Inn, where they were staying, was most responsible for their being rescued. "You know, we talked about it while we were out on the boat. We hadn't told anybody exactly where we were going; nobody really knew where we were fishing. Some of my buddies knew I liked to fish at Frying Pan Tower. But the lady at the hotel, she was the one that alerted everybody that there might be a problem (when they didn't return that day). She was able to find out who we were, and she contacted my wife, and that got the search started."

Eleven days later, on Sept. 30, a second search was started by an EPIRB beacon, a device that puts out a homing signal when activated.

The EPIRB had been carried to sea aboard a 31-foot fishing boat, the Still Crazy I out of Murrell's Inlet, South Carolina, carrying passengers Edward Clark, Roger Gardner and Manual Rodriguez. They told Coast Guard officials later that they had been fishing about 40 miles from Cape Fear when their boat had been struck by another vessel, a passing freighter, and had almost immediately sunk.

Fortunately, they had been able to inflate a life raft, climb aboard, and activate the EPIRB. The signal was almost immediately detected by the Coast Guard, which dispatched another HH-65 Dolphin helicopter from Charleston.

Belben, piloting the copter, said the rescue call came around midnight, and after another 110-mile ride through torrential weather, they located the EPIRB beacon and found a raft with Clark, Gardner and Rodriguez aboard at approximately 2:20 a.m. The problem was, seas were even worse than they'd been during Denby's rescue the week before -- and Belben's copter was running short on fuel.

"It was pretty ugly; it was the worst night I'd ever been out in," said Belben, now a lieutenant commander stationed in Miami. "These guys picked a bad night to get in trouble. Seas were kicking up pretty good, 15- to 20-foot waves. Actually, the wind wasn't a problem; but when you went down close to the water, all you could see were waves. We're 25 to 35 feet off the water, and you've got 20-foot waves; we had to have one guy keep a lookout for rogue waves just to make sure.

"We made our approach the first time, and we put on our night-vision goggles, and one of the guys on the raft set off a hand-held flare. Well, everything went white; we lost our visual keys and everything. We had to go around again, and when we got into a stable hover, we really didn't have the gasoline we needed to stay and pick 'em up.

"I'm the aircraft commander, and I had to make the decision to leave them and go get more fuel; that was very difficult to do -- probably the hardest decision I've ever had to make, because we've got three people in the water and it's a 45-minute round trip to get fuel.

Another Coast Guard copter, an HC-130, was on the scene as part of the search, and it remained in the area until Belben's copter returned.

"We called a merchant vessel to assist us, but seas were too heavy. We went back to Myrtle Beach and got some more fuel, and when we got back, the raft had actually rocked up against the side of the merchant ship and capsized. Those guys' luck was running out."

However, Belben's copter got back just in time, and in a jiffy, Mathers was in the water.

"He goes down in a rescue harness, and we put him down about 50 to 75 feet from the raft, then move in. You won't want to put a lot of rotor wash on them right away, because that will drown 'em. You drop down away from them, then move in. And I was concerned that if Jason got off the hook, we'd have trouble getting him back on, so we put him in the water, and he stayed attached to the cable, because he's part of my crew -- the last guy I want to leave behind.

"So he swam to them, and we put down a basket, and we got them in the basket and got them in. When Jason came back on board, he was absolutely drained. And when we were pulling the guys up, it was a weird mood. You would imagine a scene where everybody is high-fiving everybody else, but it wasn't. It was very solemn and reflective."

All three survivors were in the copter by 4:30 a.m., and Belben headed straight to Columbia, South Carolina, where the three fishermen were delivered to the University of South Carolina's hospital.

Years later, Belben said that rescue was a perfect example of how things are supposed to work when a boat gets in trouble.

"It's silly to go offshore without an EPIRB, a radio and flares," he said. "I've never gone fishing without them, and I harp on that all the time when I talk to guys. A 406 EPIRB gives off the GPS (Global Positioning Sensor) coordinates when it's activated. It uses latitude and longitude, and it's very accurate.

"The other thing is, people need to register their EPIRB. If they do, it's very valuable, because the signal gives us a lot of information. Before we go out, we know whether we're going to a sailing ship, a fishing boat or an 800-foot container ship. It gives us the boat's name, the contact numbers for the owner, and when it goes off, the Coast Guard will immediately call the person it's registered to and make su

re the boat's out there, so we can find out whether there are two people on board or 10 -- or if it's in a garage and a kid has set it off. You wouldn't believe how many times that happens."

Belben said that any fisherman who spends any amount of time in the ocean should carry an EPIRB, a radio, flares, life jackets and warm clothing.

"If you have an EPIRB, a radio and flares, with the exception of hypothermia getting you, you will get pulled up by the Coast Guard," he said. "The EPIRB gets us to you, and the flares will help us pinpoint you once we get there. But you can't imagine how many guys go out in inclement weather without any way to keep warm. Guys will do stupid, stupid things -- trying to defy the odds."

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