Dangerous Rescues Are Part of Job for Coast Guard

Zoltan Istvan
National Geographic Channel
January 21, 2004
Sailor Mitch Powell, en route from San Diego, went into diabetic shock
18 miles (29 kilometers) off the coast of Oregon an hour before
sundown on July 20, 2003. Stranded aboard his crippled 30-foot (nine
meter) yacht Sway, his last words to the Chetco River Station
Coast Guard in Harbor, Oregon, were: "I can't feel my legs. I'm going
into shock."

The rescue effort, antagonized by 15-foot (4.5-meter) seas, chilling winds at 35 knots, and the fading rays of daylight, was going to be one of the most challenging that year.

The Chetco River Station, where the average age of the nearly 50 guardsmen is just 25 years old, is a breeding ground for tough work and hair-raising rescues. Established in 1961, Chetco is just one of dozens of Coast Guard stations along the Pacific Northwest—an area extending from northern California to the tip of Alaska. Every year some of the most radical rescue operations in the world take place along the Oregon, Washington, and Alaskan coastlines.

"There's no question about it. We have some of the most difficult weather and rough seas anywhere on the planet," said 44-year-old Master Chief Boatswain James Bankson, the 25-year Coast Guard veteran in charge of the Chetco River Station. "Add freezing water, fog, and darkness to a rescue, like the Sway, and it becomes a very dangerous situation for everyone involved."

Wild Rescue

As night fell, the circumstances of the vessel Sway and its captain worsened. Rising seas and darkness took their toll. Unable to board the Sway due to violence of the waves and the yacht's broken mast swinging about wildly, Chetco's primary vessel, a 47-foot (14-meter), million-dollar, aluminum motorboat known as number 47237, was forced to motor at a 22-yard (20-meter) radius around the flailing yacht. Medical attention to Powell would have to wait until a safer approach was determined.

Boat 47237 was soon joined by an identical boat from Oregon's Rogue River Detachment Coast Guard unit, 35 miles (56 kilometers) away from Sway's coordinates. A 23-foot (7-meter) utility boat and a Coast Guard HH-65A Dolphin helicopter, used primarily to illuminate the chaotic scene with its powerful overhead spotlight, also joined the rescue. Divers were never allowed to swim to the Sway because they might be lost in the darkness or crack their skulls on the hull of the rocking sailboat.

In the end, the utility boat, captained by Bankson, was able to pull up along Sway for an instant and allow Coast Guard serviceman Tom Wunder and medic Chris Dodson to jump aboard without getting into the water or being hit by the swinging mast.

"It was my first rescue that involved a helicopter," said Crystal Castle, a 20-year-old 3rd Class Boatswain Mate from the Chetco River Station. "A helicopter really makes a rescue that is much more dynamic and intense—especially in the dark when the noise of the helicopter, ocean, and boat engines are roaring, and the spotlights are flashing everywhere."

Treacherous Waters, Many Rescues

A rescue of this magnitude is not uncommon along this stretch of coast. The Chetco River Station alone accomplished 225 search and rescue missions in 2003, saving 27 lives, said Bankson.

Many of the most dangerous rescues involved commercial fishermen, whose wooden or rusty boats are not always up to par. Commercial fishing for crab, salmon, and tuna along the Pacific Northwest thrives and fishermen number in the thousands.

"I've been involved in a couple incidents where the Coast Guard helped save boats and crew," said John Fraser, a commercial fisherman based in Harbor, Oregon, and captain of the 41-foot (12.5-meter) wooden boat Njord. "The weather can be tough in this area and change at a moment's notice. It's nice to have the Coast Guard standing by a radio 24 hours a day, listening for any distress calls."

The Pacific Northwest Coast Guard, like all other Coast Guard groups in America, is a branch of the armed services; during peacetime the Coast Guard operates as part of the Department of Homeland Security, and during wartime it falls under direction of the Navy. Coast Guards were used in the war efforts in Iraq, and all recruits, whether in wartime or not, are trained to use firearms.

With about 40,000 personnel, the Coast Guard has recently taken on a greater role in national security after September 11, 2001. The United States government is utilizing the guardsmen to more closely patrol and protect its coastlines from possible terrorist attacks and intrusions.

Drugs, Illegal Immigrants, and National Defense

"Mostly what we do is rescues," said Lieutenant Commander Thomas Durand, of the group Airstation Surface Operation in North Bend, Oregon. "But our other duties depend on a wide range of factors and can involve keeping foreign fishermen out of our waters to searching boats for terrorists' weapons."

The Coast Guard also deals with drug runners. Last year they seized 136,865 pounds (62,081 kilograms) of cocaine—with an estimated street value of more than four billion dollars (U.S.).

They are also charged with responding to hazardous chemical spills, educating people in boating safety, and intercepting illegal immigrants at sea.

At the Chetco River Station, Bankson recommended six Coast Guard achievement medals be awarded to his staff for their efforts in saving Mitch Powell. Just after one o'clock in the morning, Sway was towed into Brookings Harbor, Oregon, where Powell was taken to a hospital and eventually made a full recovery.

"Sometimes this job can be scary and life threatening. But that's the nature of the job and we have to do it," said Castle. "It's a great feeling to rescue people and know you really helped someone."

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