Dangerous Rescues Are Part of Job for Coast Guard

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.

Continued on Next Page >>




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